My, Tor, this is the first time I have ever had cause to find umbrage with you.
So I haven’t put up a book review for a while because I’ve been trying to finish Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear. It’s supposed to be her 19th century steampunk novel set on the Pacific coast. A girl called Karen Memery gives us a look into the life of a brothel in the fictional Seattle Underground, where “airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront.” And there’s a murder mystery. With a title like Karen Memory you’d think there would be a lot of soul searching, dark deeds in the past, personae dramatis, that sort of thing. Okay, sold.
Keep in mind this is an author who’s won multiple Hugo awards and is actually very prolific. She came highly recommended by a friend, as well. Fun Fact: Elizabeth Bear also blocked my Twitter account like a year ago. I include this in the interest of full disclosure, because frankly it was a contentious discussion, and though I was shocked by the block, I bear her no ill will. I went into this expecting to add to my roster an engaging author in the vein of Cherie Priest, or Gail Carriger, with a female sensibility and an engaging voice. What follows is as objective a review of her book as I am capable. I wanted to see what she could do, and the amazing cover didn’t hurt either.
Basically what it showed me is the Hugo awards are full of shit. And the other reviews are kind of suspicious too, saying things like “endearing” and “focused” when the book is kind of the opposite. This one in particular is filled with one-sided editorial statements like “steampunk can be top heavy.” What the hell does that mean? The Goodreads reviews are a little more honest.
Now, MAYBE steampunk isn’t Bear’s strong suit. I will allow that. But that doesn’t excuse the terrible writing you slam face-first into from the first chapter. Here’s an example:
“But the thing is, nobody in Rapid City sells the kind of dresses we parlor girls need, so it’s make our own patterned after fashion dolls from Paris and London and New York or it’s pay a ladies’ tailor two-thirds your wage for something you don’t like as well.”
First of all, this is like three sentences worth of exposition as one run-on sentence. Secondly, Bear disguises the bad writing as a poorly educated girl writing in her journal, except every few pages we’re treated to Karen being extraordinarily erudite and explaining where she got the fancy vocabulary. In the middle of a street fight. And then there’s the constant substitutions of “of” for “have.” Would of. Should of. It’s maddening. Thirdly, I DON’T CARE. This has nothing to do with the story, except later on when it’s revealed the fucking sewing machine is a fucking robot. Which is never mentioned in this fabulous first section of exposition in any way that makes sense!
The fun times don’t stop. As the book winds on we’re treated to a long, drawn-out plot development involving every girl who lives in the house, most of whom have no bearing on the story. You essentially spend the first third of the book hanging out in a whorehouse. And as a healthy male, I do look for women who wear their corsets on the outside. That whole aesthetic is hot, hot, hot, especially when it’s done so women can own their own sexuality. So I don’t say “whorehouse” as a derogatory, there are books where prostitutes have a lot of pride, ownership of who they are and agency. This is not one of those books. Most of these girls are just cannon fodder, more or less totally helpless. The one who is actually interesting in the beginning, Effie, makes no other appearance later on.
From the start, Karen has no agency. She’s constantly missing out on things and wishing she had done things. She watches on as her home is raided by the antagonist, Peter Bantle (who is a Democrat, which is the party of evil in the 19th century. Btw later on Peter Bantle uses a mind control machine to make party lines a moot point. Why the hell did you mention it then?!) Karen sort of passive-aggressively seduces the new girl, who serves as a bad McGuffin to moving the story forward. And finally, somewhere in the middle of the book there’s a body, and she leaves it to the visiting Federal Marshall to sort it out. There’s some weak history about how she can’t be near horses because of her pa, but its almost like an excuse as to why she isn’t doing anything. It’s like watching a movie from the point of view of the third stormtrooper to the left. When she actually goes to make some decisions, she becomes suddenly superhuman, shrugging off bullets, whips, and fire. It’s just terrible stuff.
The Marshall, Bass Reeves, is actually all right, but every other minority character is a caricature of racist stereotypes. The Indian is a vegetarian genius who understands machines at a glance. The other Indian, the American Indian, is a vicious but stoic warrior. The trans-sexual has no special talent other than being a passable man in disguise. There is literally a down-south black momma cooking for everybody without complaint, in what is supposed to be the Pacific Northwest. The Asian is a double-whammy of offense: a ninja and a former whore. I mean, I’ve always known the Hugo and scifi in general has long been the playground of old white men and you’re not going to get a viewpoint that isn’t tainted with the bitter taste of misogyny and racism. But to see it from a female author caused me physical pain. YEA, the characters are here, but they’re almost better off not being there. YEA, Karen is a lesbian. And she works in a lot of man-hate that I don’t begrudge her for, but it’s nothing that I respect her for.
Long story short: this is the first time I’ve ever had buyer’s remorse from a book with that attractive a blurb.
And possibly the worst travesty is the ending of the book. At one point the gang sneak in and Scooby-Doo the joint. What plot there is wraps up pretty nicely. Then mysteriously there’s a Captain Nemo, his octopus submarine, and airships involved. Also cholera. Oh, and the aforementioned robot power suit sewing machine. I feel like Bear was asked to write something she didn’t want to, then was told it wasn’t steampunk enough so tacked on all this extra shit.
So while I bore Elizabeth Bear no ill will, I kind of do now. This book has a lot of good ideas in it, but they’re all sort of wasted and lost in a soup of prejudice and bad plot. Her Seattle Underground is laboriously detailed, but bears no purpose in the story. There’s a Mad Scientist tax but nothing remotely Mad or Sciencey goes on that matters. And for all that Elizabeth Bear goes on to mention that Karen could make a great novelist, like she’s totally unaware of how terrible the book actually is. It’s like trying to eat a sandwich that looks amazing but is rotten inside. Tor, I am disappoint.