Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

karen-memoryKaren Memory
by Elizabeth Bear
Series: Unknown
Genre: Fantasy (steampunk)
Published by Tor Books, 2015
Library book
352 pages
Grade: B+
Synopsis: Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, 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 one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and 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.

…[T]he Marshal came in and I saw Bea and Priya both assemble their sweet, stupid faces in a hurry. What was funny was I saw him noticing them doing it and I saw the sharp little twist of his frown when he did. He got control of it again right quick, and I was left with the strange thought that everybody in that room just then was wearing a mask for the purpose of not upsetting one another.


…I flipped open the morning paper to check the Mad Science Report. No experiments were scheduled, and no duels had been announced–at least among the Licensed Scientists–but you never knowed when a giant automaton was going to run rogue unscheduled. Mostly the city makes the inventors keep to the edge of town. Mostly.


  • This book is so much fun.
  • A big reason I like this book so much is because Karen Memery is such a great character. Her “voice” is delightful.
  • I like the steampunk setting of this book. The machines like the sewing machine are amazing!
  • Some of the steampunk machines are very scary. Often in the steampunk books I’ve read in the past the machines are neutral or just fun, but I think it’s natural that some would be used for “good” and some for “bad.”
  • The setting–a west coast city named Rapid City in the 1890s, similar to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. The way the city is being built right on top of the old city with the streets raised is really interesting. It seems very claustrophobic for the people in the underground part of the city.
  • I grew up on West Coast and have many relatives who live on ranches–riding horses and herding cattle–so I recognize Karen Memery in many of my relatives.
  • It’s kind of nice to have a book which isn’t part of a series, but, of course, I’d love to read some more about Karen Memery and her world!
  • Karen is very matter-of-fact about working in a bordello. She did what she had to do when her father died leaving her an orphan. She isn’t very complimentary about most men, but when she meets men and women who are loyal, trustworthy and honest she’s instinctively drawn to them. The euphemism “seamstress” for the work these women do is very funny.
  • I like the friendships between the women and the respect the women have for Madame Damnable.
  • I like the stand these women take. It’s not an easy step to take a stand against the powerful men of Rapid City.


  • Some of the characters are stereotypes–Madame Damnable, for example. But I still enjoyed the book a lot.

Author info

  • Elizabeth Bear is the author of many short stories as well as a number of other speculative fiction books. She has won a number of awards including Hugo and the John W. Campbell Awards.

And a few thoughts . . .

  • I loved this book and want to read some more books by Ms. Bear.

Have you read this book? How did you like it?

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