Karen Memory

Let's just get this out right away: Elizabeth Bear's novel Karen Memory is a flawless jewel of a book. This has all of the qualities of something I wish I'd written: inventive, thoughtful, fun, with elegant prose and a plot that winds around itself into a perfect, self-contained knot.

It starts with the voice. First-person Karen Memery herself is a rich and fully realized person with her own distinctive cadences and color. Frankly the voice alone is so enjoyable to sink into that it almost doesn't matter what else happens in the story at all. Spending time with Karen listening in on her thoughts is that good, you guys. She feels like someone you've almost met before. Someone you might even run into today waiting tables at a truck stop in Montana.

This is a big deal to me, because a lot of books lose me at the prose level. I'm sensitive to choice of words, I suppose. And sometimes when a book doesn't have music to it, when the language doesn't flow right, it grates on me so much that I have trouble enjoying any other element of the book, even if the plotting and pacing are perfectly executed. This one, though: this is all music, and nary a sour note or an off beat.

But there's more to love here, too. Karen Memory takes place in a fictionalized Gold Rush-era a lot like Seattle. But this isn't the Old West we're used to; this is both more and less real than that. On the less-real front, we have that whole steampunk angle; this is a world that includes surgical machinery and a Mad Science Tax on your Inventor's License.

But for all that, this novel incorporates a lot of the realities of life in the west that tend to get glamoured out of the picture: the way Seattle was built up an extra level to deal with the sewage problems that came with high tide; the disproportionate number of "seamstresses" in Gold Rush towns, a euphemism everyone knew perfectly well meant prostitutes; virulent racism and its consequences, including the threat of lynchings and the law looking the other way instead of protecting people of color; sex trafficking; the true fact of a diverse and cosmopolitan city. 

That all makes Karen Memory sound relentlessly grim, but for all that underpinning of profound realism, this book is at its core fun to read. It moves slowly at first (but not too slow), letting you get your bearings in the world. Indeed, it starts out seemingly as a small-scale drama about a brothel vs. the law, or maybe vs. the religious folk. But the scope and the pace ramp up gradually and inexorably until by the end you've found yourself on a rollicking adventure full of explosions and fist fights, local and international politics, romance, and Saving the Day.

So good. So good. You should buy it. I fully expect this one to take home a bucket of awards next year, and if it doesn't, I... I might be a little angry. I'm already warming up my nominating finger, I tell you what.


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