Russell Letson reviews Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is one of those writers I will follow through genre neighborhoods that I would normally avoid – her 2011 alt-historical novella ad aeternum got me to read and enjoy a vampire story (which usually leave my blood lukewarm). So when I saw ‘‘steampunk’’ among the marketing labels listed on my review copy of Karen Memory, it was the author’s name on the spine that encouraged me to go along for another ride through another category I usually find rather overworked. And the narrator’s voice in the opening line pretty much sealed the deal: ‘‘You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.’’ Direct address and nonstandard grammar – shades of Huck Finn, if (as we discover directly) Huck were a 16-year-old orphan girl working as a (ahem) seamstress in a brothel in Rapid City (which is not quite Seattle) during an alternate Rutherford B. Hayes administration (that is, c. 1878). When she tells us that her name is actually spelled Memery-with-an-e, I thought I heard the promise of some interesting thematics in the offing, along with the immediate sense that Karen has some interesting literary predecessors in addition to Huckleberry Finn – maybe a dash of True Grit and a nod in passing to Sarah Canary. (And quite a bit later, a considerable homage to M. Jules Verne.)

The steampunk world of Karen Memory is also a frontier world, all muddy streets and plank sidewalks and hard-handed working folk – lumberjacks and sailors and aspiring prospectors off to the gold fields up north. It’s the kind of world in which Huck would be right at home, though Huck never got around to visiting any place like Madame Damnable’s establishment, at least in Mr. Mark Twain’s accounts of his adventures. The Hôtel Mon Cherie is a pocket environment, a world of women – with the exception of the ex-slave doorman Crispin, who is gay, and Miss Francina, who’s ‘‘got a pecker under her dress.’’ But, Karen assures us, ‘‘that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.’’ (The piano-playing Professor is conventionally male but not a resident, and Signor, the deaf white tomcat, gets the not-a-human pass.)

In fact, most of the cast (the good guys at least) are from the ranks of the marginalized, outsiders of one kind or another: not only the rest of Madame’s ‘‘seamstresses’’ but the black (also ex-slave) US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, his Comanche ‘‘posseman’’ and friend Tomoatooah, the formidable Chinese liberator of stolen women Merry Lee, and the sex-trafficked Indian (East variety) sisters Priya and Aashina. I suppose the villains are outsiders as well, in the sense of being nasty, sadistic, and psychopathic even in roughneck Rapid City, but they remain, however tenuously, part of a man’s-world power structure and well within its cultural if not its legal margins.

Madame Damnable’s establishment is a refuge for orphans and ex-slaves and transvestites and spoiled tomcats. It’s neither a utopia nor a democracy but a functional, hard-nosed-but-benevolent matriarchy, getting along in a flawed and fallen world. Karen and her colleagues face a series of escalating and interestingly interconnected problems, starting when the Hôtel gives sanctuary to a trafficked and practically enslaved young woman (Priya) and her injured rescuer (Merry Lee), who are being pursued by the sadistic rival brothel-owner Peter Bantle and his gang of thugs. Soon Bass Reeves and Tomoatooah show up, having pursued a serial killer of prostitutes to Rapid City. Proof that the murderer is in town arrives in the shape of a flogged corpse dumped behind Madame’s establishment – a combination calling-card and threat. Eventually there is much worse and far-reaching evildoing that threatens more than Madame’s establishment or the city’s unprotected streetwalkers.

Steampunk, like most branches of the fantastic, is strongly determined by its furniture (to use George R.R. Martin’s useful term) – steam and Edison-era electricity for power, leather and brass, goggles and helmets and frock-coats and corsets, levers and gear-trains and pistons, oh my. And airships. Gotta have airships. But some of the most interesting elements of Karen’s story are not generated by that furniture, though it hangs about in the background of many scenes, like the new sewing machine ‘‘that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.’’ Instead, important events are driven by socio-politico-economic and emotional forces common to our history and hers – politics (sexual and garden-variety), labor exploitation, bigotry, psychopathology, friendship, loyalty, duty, and love, particularly Karen’s love-at-first-sight for Priya.

I notice that much of the book’s non-melodramatic foreground deals with domestic matters à la 1878: sewing, cooking, shopping for groceries or boots. There’s an especially appealing visit to the local covered market, where Karen notices

oranges from China and alligator pears from Mexico…. Scallops as big as your hand, that you could cut and eat like a fillet steak. Oysters by the gross and by the dozen, plain briny honest fare for whores and tradesmen alike…. Saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns. Sea salt in great soft, sticky flakes…. Anything you have ever eaten or wanted to eat, basically, and a slew of other things besides….

But ample supplies of cruelty, greed, ambition, and plain meanness are also available in Rapid City, and they eventually call that heavy steampunk machinery to center stage, where it clanks and chuffs and sparks its way through the big set-piece action sequences. Along the way there is plenty of no-tech derring-do as Karen and her ‘‘sisters’’ and allies display their grit, spunk, smarts, nerve, guts, and other monosyllabic virtues on the way to untangling and defeating the interlocking villainies that threaten their delicate stability.

Karen Memory is a delight, a tour-de-force of historical reimagining and character creation, and a ripping yarn full of surprises, and despite Karen’s opening line, I can’t imagine anyone not liking what she has to tell us.

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