New York: Tor, 2015; $25.99 hc; 350 pages
Right from the beginning, the narrator of Karen Memory informs us, in a voice that comes straight out of the Huckleberry Finn school of the vernacular, that her name is Karen Memery with an “e” and she is one of the girls at Madame Damnable’s Hotel Mon Cherie. It’s a far cry from the ranch of her childhood, but there are worse places and tougher lives in Rapid City, a nineteenth-century community in the vicinity of present-day Seattle, perched on the edge of the old frontier and the new lands and gold in Alaska.
Which means there are lots of interesting people around, not the least of whom are the proprietor, employees, and clients of Hotel Mon Cherie. Karen’s story begins by introducing us to these characters and to what is for them a typical day. Indeed, for the first twenty pages or so it would be easy to think that what we have here is a late nineteenth-century Western melodrama, a look into the lives of people living and working in a place where the rules are in the process of being established, where there’s room for those who like living outside the rules to get away with it, and what happens when they do. It’s only the seeming throwaway references to a steam-powered sewing machine and the chance that one of the girls might have what it takes to become a mad scientist that clue us in that Karen Memory isn’t actually set in our history; it’s part of that alternate universe known as steampunk.
That becomes most evident when violence breaks out on the stacked streets of Rapid City after which the owner of a rival bordello shows up at Madame Damnable’s door with a list of demands and a machine that can influence people’s minds. Karen then finds herself involved in a mystery and conflict that will bring more adventure than she bargained for along with a more intimate understanding of the local power structure.
At this point, Karen Memory looks to be a rather conventional steampunk novel albeit one with a fresh setting and a memorable lead character. That’s when the author throws in a new perspective, one that ties into the book’s late nineteenth-century historical setting. It arrives in the form of a character, Federal Marshal Bass Smith, and from the moment of his arrival, Karen Memory isn’t just steampunk, it’s also a western dime novel thriller and a good one at that.
The dime novels were a product of the latter half of the nineteenth century, generally adventure stories presented in a readily available and inexpensive paperback format. They recounted the exploits of everyone from Western heroes to baseball stars and were a contributing factor to popular myths and legends concerning the exploits of figures like Kit Carson and Billy the Kid. It turns out that Marshal Smith has also been the subject of the dime novels, and it’s part of the conceit of Karen Memory that in this story we are seeing the real man behind the legend of the popular press.
Marshal Smith is on the trail of a serial killer, and the evidence has led him to Rapid City, where he encounters Karen and her friends. He’s accompanied by an American Indian scout, and any resemblance to famous characters of television and the big screen are entirely intentional. Smith himself is based on a real-life figure, Bass Reeves, who may have actually been a model for the Lone Ranger. He’s also African American, and his status as an outsider with power has a powerful effect on Karen and the way she views the world around her.
The novel eventually moves from mystery and intrigue to outright adventure with just enough exploration of the characters’ past to flesh them out and make us care what happens to them. One thing that happens is that we gradually become aware of just how young Karen and many of her compatriots are. This is a frontier where an orphaned twelve-year-old, looking back with the experience of a sixteen-year-old, could consider herself lucky for winding up at Madame Damnable’s rather than somewhere else. The novel doesn’t dwell on some of the shadier aspects of life in a community such as Rapid City, but it doesn’t shy away from them, either. That makes Karen Memory more than an adventure story; it’s also a story of personal growth and the desire for something better in life. Fortunately for Karen, her adventures bring her into contact with the wider world, leading to the very opportunity she has hoped for.
That’s a major element that raises Karen Memory a step or two above the typical steampunk story. There’s also the setting, a refreshing change from the smog-shrouded streets of London and the purview of the British Empire. The cast of characters, even most of the bad guys, are presented more as individuals than as clownish stereotypes or caricatures. The working-in of elements of the dime novel western tradition serve to make the story less predictable than if it was a strictly steampunk affair, and Marshal Smith’s story works as a direct contrast to Karen’s own. When the dust settles at the end of the novel, when dirigibles have been flown, submarines sighted, and prisoners rescued with the help of a steam-powered sewing machine, some characters return to their old setting, and others move on. But everyone’s life has been changed, and the dime novels have another story to tell.
Elizabeth Bear has been a prolific writer for well over a decade; her work encompasses almost all the major styles of fantasy and science fiction. With the creation of Karen and the world she lives in, Bear has found another rich source through which to display her talents. It’s a pretty good bet that we’ll be hearing more from Karen Memery and her friends, lovers, and enemies in books to come.
Greg L. Johnson lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.