Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear
Synopsis: The ladies of a wild west brothel have to save their town from an evil mayor.
Book Review: This is a solidly mediocre book that feels like the literary equivalent of going to eat at Olive Garden. The food will be acceptable and you won’t leave hungry, but this certainly isn’t where people go to follow their passion.
The story starts out strong. Bear obviously had a really cool idea and decided to try it out. The first several chapters are engaging and interesting. The women of the brothel form a tight-knit community that feels very much like a family, and the protagonist has a unique and enjoyable voice. I like the sort of high-agency protagonist that Karen Memory starts with.
But it feels like Bear wasn’t sure where to go with this idea, and decided to just keep typing until she reached her word count goal. Some of the worst writing advice I’ve ever seen widely repeated is “if you’re stuck, just write ‘A man enters with a gun’ and go from there.” This feels like that sort of book, and it results in a story with a very slapped-together feel. There are a ridiculous number of elements that are sort of dropped in and don’t really DO anything.
*There’s a mind-control machine that’s used to insert some random chaos when things get boring, it’s then destroyed, and it looks to have no impact on anything in specific.
*There’s a ridiculous cholera plot that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. It’s told to our heroines for no reason before they are to be killed in a “Before I Kill You Mr Bond” way, but of course they escape easily right after.
*Whenever Bear doesn’t want to bother with the specifics of how a certain bit of action resolves her heroine is conveniently knocked unconscious, or chloroformed, or faints, and we skip right to the next scene without explanation.
*A romance subplot is dropped in, has no real effect on anything, or any emotional impact, and is neatly resolved with “yup, I love you too! ^^”
On top of all this, there’s no reason for this to have been steampunk, nor does it add anything to the story. It feels tacked-on. Almost everything feels tacked on, to be honest.
Perhaps this is an artifact of the fact that after the initial brothel set up, the story really shifts to be the story of the Marshal who rides into town on the heels of a serial killer. But Bear doesn’t realize this and sticks doggedly with Karen, and it brings down the whole novel? I don’t know.
In the end, I like my fiction to be “thinky.” This doesn’t just mean that characters think a lot in it (although it does mean that), or that I like for it to make me think (altho it does mean that as well)… it also means I expect the author to spend a good deal of time really thinking through the world, and the plot, and all the characters. This feels like it was dashed off without pausing for breath or any real care as to how it holds together. Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: Eh. The book isn’t bad, but doesn’t have much to recommend it. There’s a bit of chatting that can be done, trying to suss out what went wrong, or talking about the enjoyable parts. More than that, the group can speculate as to why the novel got as much attention as it did when it came out, but that ends up feeling kinda icky pretty quickly. People can enjoy things for any reason they want, and I don’t like to judge. But in terms of leaving the group with lots of interesting things to talk about, or a memorable experience – Not Recommended.
Personal Note: I almost threw the book across the room when the first dead hooker showed up. I am absolutely sick to fucking death of that trope. It’s lazy and it degrades an entire category of human into a cheap plot device. I once knew a sex worker, and it would be painful to watch things with her and see how often this bullshit showed up. Try sitting next to a friend while watching a comedy that jokes about how funny violence against your friend’s group is, because they’re dirty subhumans. I thought I’d be safe from it in a story with an ensemble of brothel workers, but NOPE! Our protagonists are the good kind of prostitutes–the high-class ones with a nice building and a strict-but-fair madam–and the street-walkers are still disposable bodies used to show how evil the villain is.
I’m sorry. I know I sound like a crazy person. But I was really looking forward to seeing this group finally portrayed as real humans in a fun book, and I got hit with that again. Ugh.