Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, lives in Rapid City in the late 19th century - when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a "soiled dove", a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable's high-quality bordello.
Through Karen's eyes, we get to know the other girls in the house - a resourceful group - and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone's mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap - a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
©2015 Elizabeth Bear (P)2015 Recorded Books
Karen Memory can be classified as sci-fi fantasy, steampunk, western, mystery, or historical fiction. It is all of those. It is especially the tale of an extremely capable young woman who can be tender, nurturing and kick ass as the situation demands. Karen is one of the most memorable (figure the pun) heroines you will ever meet. She does not need a man to save her. The really great part of the story is the men do not need to be saved either. Both male and female characters are well developed and balanced. If a character is weak it is the personality of the character, not the gender that makes them so.
Karen Memory is a prostitute at Hôtel Mon Cherie, one of the better bordellos in what is to become Seattle. She works for Madame Damnable. Karen describes Madame as, “She’s got to be fifty-nine, and she’s still got a balcony you could do Shakespeare from.” The descriptions of people are wonderful. They are three dimensional with actions fitting with their characters. The range of characters is broad also. Besides Karen’s coworkers there are villains, inventors, and a broad range of nationalities as well as ethnicities.
Karen tells narrates her own story. Her voice is clear. Her backstory slips in where she feels it is relevant to what is happening. It does help explain her motivations and how she comes to working as a prostitute. The steampunk aspect of the story is very subtle. It is woven into the story and not distracting at all. Karen’s sexuality is seamlessly written into the story. Her attraction to women is not explained or commented on. It just is as it should be only a part of who she is.
The narration by Jennifer Grace is perfect. Karen’s voice is strong as she recounts the events that take place in the story. She admits her mistakes, admits her fears, and allows her anger to show. She felt very real to me, like someone I would want to call friend. The other voices are equally well done by Ms. Grace. The women’s voices are identifiable by pitch, accent or tone as are the men’s voices. It really is a great job narrating.
I enjoyed Karen Memory and was sad to see the book end. I know it will be one that I will revisit again and again.
Story (Plot) 5
Production Quality 5
Attention Holding 5
I originally received Karen Memory from Audiobook Jukebox in exchange for a fair review but liked it so much I purchased Kindle and Audible versions.
Good story and a great performance, but use of slurs and kind of a racially/trans condescending tone took some of the shine off it for me. I get that it's a period piece and everything, but it was still disappointing.
That said, the in depth historical details and the believable atmosphere were really cool, and the diverse cast was great.
Karen Memory had really interesting characters and an intriguing enough take on an alternate 19th century US frontier, but the story starts to drag around the middle and ultimately falls short of being completely satisfying.
The narrator is good as the voice of Karen, but sometimes has strange takes on where to put the emphasis in a sentence.
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