Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, recommended by Stefanie of So Many Books, was my favorite of the books I read while convalescing after knee surgery.
I also read Gena/Finn by Moskowitz and Helgeson, which was like reading a series of Tumblr posts, Pretty Wicked by Kelly Charron, which has an evil narrator who is so straightforward that I don’t have much to say about her story, The Beautiful Possible by Amy Gottlieb, which is very Jewish and also about marital infidelity, War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull, which has some great modern descriptions of fairies and fairyland, and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina, which didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but made me donate to a fund for African elephants. I don’t think I’ll get around to writing any more about these books, although I’m certainly willing to talk about them if you’re interested.
Even though I am not a particular fan of steampunk, I enjoyed the fast pace and the amusing alternate future of Karen Memory. Karen is a girl making her own way in the world since her father, a rancher, died, and she earns her living having sex with men–although during the events of the story she tells, she falls in love with another girl. Karen works at a house she calls “Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle,” where the girls like and support each other and their Madame.
Karen’s voice is charming and oddly innocent. She says
“Girls in my profession know a little too much about men. The ones who want to know a woman as a person are fewer than you’d hope, and most of those don’t even realize it about themselves. They don’t care who a woman is, or what she’s scared of, or who she wants to become. They think they want a woman, but what they really want is a flattering looking glass wearing lipstick and telling them what they want to hear. Easy enough for me; it’s my job, ain’t it?”
I especially like Karen’s matter-of-fact description of one of her co-workers: “the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But 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 steampunk elements add a whimsical touch to the story:
“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.”
In fact, the girls have several unusual machines in the house, including a “surgery machine—it hissed and clanked like a steam engine” and a sewing machine that Karen ends up having to use as a weapon. Another of their machines is a “kitchen gadget” that “scrubbed and sliced and stirred and scraped, its octopus arms going every which way.”
The villain of the story, Bantle, has a machine that makes people work his will, and he is using it to get himself into a position of power in the town. Madame Damnable and her girls, along with their bouncer Crispin, a black lawman from out of town, Marshall Reeves, and his partner, an Indian named Tomoatooah, oppose Bantle’s machinations (ha, see what I did there?).
Eventually they find Bantle is involved in a scheme so nefarious it goes beyond their little town, and they also foil that bigger plot–and a bigger, sea-going machine:
“They was tentacles, arms like an octopus, only jointed metal and big as tree trunks, and instead of suckers they had big, jagged barbs or teeth like God’s own bread knife.”
The culmination of the story is Karen’s narration of her own heroic run through the town inside a special sewing machine to which some of the other women in the house have made alterations (yeah, turns out it’s impossible to describe this book without the puns):
“their tinkering had turned it into the next best thing to a one-woman ironclad. The gyroscopes meant all I had to do was keep the feet rising and falling….Bullets commenced to rattle and spark off the stones around me, and one or two ricocheted off my galvanized trash bin lids.”
There’s an epilogue, in which we find out how everyone on Karen’s side lives happily ever after. Karen gets the girl. Virtue prevails. It’s great fun.
At this point, I have decided I am done convalescing—I started walking more, still using at least one crutch, and found that the more I walk, the more I can walk. So I am trying to walk a little further every day. I even made it into part of an enormous grocery store and hauled out a 15-pound turkey (with some help!) in preparation for Eleanor and Walker coming home for Thanksgiving dinner this week.