“Karen Memory” takes readers on a wild ride in the Wild West

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What if I told you there was a book that featured tons of queer characters from diverse backgrounds, action, romance, and a world reminiscent of the Wild Wild West (yes, I’m talking about the Will Smith masterpiece)? If you’re thinking, “Jenna, that sounds pretty cool, but Wild Wild West is a garbage movie,” I would say, “You’re totally right! But just bear with me here!” (Very mild spoilers below.)

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is a fun, satisfying, page-turner of a novel. Set in the fictional town of Rapid City (Seattle-ish) at the end of the 19th-century, the story centers around Karen, an orphan turned sex worker. Karen is saving up her earnings so she can someday buy a horse ranch like her dad once owned. Karen’s brothel is full of all sorts of lovely characters that you’ll enjoy getting to know, from her fellow seamstresses (wink, nudge—that’s what they call prostitutes), to the quiet and kind ex-slave security guard, to the formidable madame of the house.

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The story is set in motion when a couple of ladies turn up at the brothel seeking refuge, and the dead body of another seamstress is found just one night later. Karen is immediately besotted with one of of the runaway women, Priya, and takes it upon herself to rescue Priya’s younger sister from local pimp/all around bad guy, Peter Bantle. While scheming to free the girl, Karen gets caught up in a tangled web of politics, human trafficking, and murder, all while trying to deal with her growing feelings for Priya.

Bear does a great job weaving the presence of fantastical steampunk inventions (A machine that performs surgery! An electricity-wielding glove!) with down-to-earth characters and the dramatic circumstances in which they find themselves. The pace is quite good until the very end, when the scale of the story grows a little too rapidly for my taste. As a narrator, Karen’s voice is memorable and trustworthy—you’ll celebrate her triumphs and worry for her well-being.

Bear’s world, with its diversity in ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the cast of characters is simply a pleasure to explore. It’s also worth noting that Karen and her band of fellow sex workers are never fetishized or shamed for the work that they do. None of their encounters with Johns are described in any detail; the seamstresses are merely presented as women looking to get by in a harsh and unforgiving setting.

If you enjoy queer ladies, diverse characters, steampunk, westerns, or all of the above (and why wouldn’t you?), I highly recommend checking out Karen Memory.

Karen Memory is available now through Tor Books (and they have an excerpt available!) or Amazon.

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