Steampunk in Seattle. Except Rapid City, the setting of Elizabeth Bear’s book, Karen Memory, isn’t just Seattle. It’s a steampunk combination of Portland, Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco. Don’t go looking for landmarks. They are not there. Karen Memery (with an’e’ not an ‘o’), the point-of-view character and heroine, is a seamstress. Not the kind that will fix the holes in your socks but more of the “Pants mended while you wait” sort. She works at the Hotel Mon Cherie run by Madame Damnable, which makes her more of an escort than a street walker. The euphemisms for her job get fun (upstairs doing alterations…) On a slow night a local Chinese lady that works to get women out of the exploitive dockside brothels gets dragged into Madame Damnable’s parlour after she has been shot. Mary Lee had been wounded while rescuing a continental Indian sex slave named Priya. Peter Bantle, Priya’s pimp, shows up with some muscle to try to get Priya back and gets run out the front door at the point of a shotgun. The next day Karen is sent to the market to purchase food for the brothel and is accosted by one of Bantle’s goons. The goon is driven away by Bass Reeves, a black US Marshal, and his Cherokee deputy, Tomoatooah who have come to Rapid City chasing a serial killer.
Elizabeth Bear has done a very good job of researching the 1878 society she portrays. Women cannot vote, cross-dressing is illegal, and nobody thinks either of these are out of place. The characters talk about the California and Alaskan Gold Rushes and how great it was that Rutherford B. Hayes won the last election. Once I got used to the faux-western accent she used to write the story I really appreciated this. I especially liked her portrayal of Bass Reeves, a real figure from the Old West who may have been the basis for the Lone Ranger. You can’t have the Lone Ranger without Tonto so she has included Tomoatooah to make the set complete. Except Tomoatooah speaks proper English and isn’t a punching bag.
Karen Memery is well portrayed as a high class prostitute. Karen tends to see men as potential customers and judges them on whether they are sober and their hygiene. She quickly develops a girl crush on Priya which becomes her primary motivation through the rest of the book. That being said, if you are looking for hot lesbian sex, or any sex really, you will not find it here. It doesn’t happen on page. The steamiest scene between the characters is a make out session and even that is “fade to black”. If it were a movie it would only be PG-13 because of the subject matter. And this works very well.
I wish she had done more research on the mechanical items in the book. The book is set in 1878. Pump action shotguns were not on the market until 1898. It’s steampunk so we can let that one go. But bullets do not ricochet off of trash can lids. And the sewing machine, The sewing machine just gets silly. What the heck were they supposed to sew on that thing that they made so big you could climb inside it? I realize that big, over-engineered machinery is part of the genre but, wow. I actually Googled industrial sewing machines to see if there was ever one that big so I could wrap my mind around the idea of it. Fun plot device but very silly. Especially what Priya and Lizzie make out of the thing.
Now we come to Priya. Priya and her sister have come to Rapid City with the understanding they would be domestic help and they could send money back to their parents. I’d never heard of any large continental Indian presence in the old West but that isn’t really an issue. Nor is the fact they were brought to the United States under false circumstances as that is how human trafficking works even today. However, as a reader, by the end of the book, I was certain Priya’s parents had incurred a huge debt by sending her to the Delhi Institute of Linguistics, Mechanical Engineering, and Ninjitsu. Priya is a Mary Sue.
I enjoyed the story but thought it could have been done better with better thought to the actual reason behind the machinery and better characterization of the main character’s love interest. By the end of the book I was laughing at the absurdities more than following the story. I’ll read Elizabeth Bear again but not this book.