Book Review

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Genre | Historical Steampunk Fiction
Page #s | 346
Publishing Date | February 2015

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”

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.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.


Karen Memory is an action-packed adventure in a steampunk historical setting that balances “historical accuracy” with modern values with astonishing deftness. With a diverse cast of characters working in a brothel, the book is supportive of sex work while centering its plot on taking down those responsible for sexual exploitation. Additionally, our heroes are queer women, black and Native American men, and a supporting cast of transgender and multi-racial folks. It is an utter delight!

Karen is our protagonist, a spirited young woman who pushes her way through life with confidence and level-headed acceptance. She is constantly interacting with new people in a way that acknowledges the stereotypes her white world has about them but assumes that their way of doing things is different and valid. It feels effortless, and is an excellent model of how to be historically accurate without being racist. She’s also an absolute delight to “listen” to. Her fabulous Western drawl full of colorful analogies comes through strong in the writing, and even more perfectly via audiobook.

Priya is Karen’s love interest, a woman who has escaped a dangerous and exploitative brothel and wants to help her sister do the same. She’s far from a helpless damsel, though. Priya is the brains of the duo, fluent in multiple languages and quick to pick up most skills. Her relationship with Karen is sweet, supportive, and a little bit dashing.

I’ve read this book twice now, and both times when it started, I was hesitant to continue. It sets itself up as a old-fashioned story about “prostitutes with hearts of gold.” But as the story unveils itself, it’s far richer and more meaningful than any trope. I highly recommend!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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