Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear's novel Karen Memory has all the hallmarks of a great YA novel: the plot is unabashedly romantic and imaginative, and the author is clearly determined to deliver plenty of value for your entertainment dollar. In fact, I suspect the only reason this wasn't packaged as a teen book is because the sixteen-year-old heroine is A) gay and B) a prostitute... and seeing as I am routinely sent teen-focused novels about heterosexual assassins, murderers, and/or psychopaths, I'm more than a little creeped out by this insight into the moral judgement of American publishers.

Karen Memory is a blend of real and imagined history, people, and places, set in a Wild West-meets-steampunk version of late 19th century Seattle. Bear's titular heroine is one of the girls working at Madame Damnable's Sewing Circle, one of Seattle's classier bordellos*. Clever and resourceful, Karen is practical-minded enough to accept that working at Madame Damnable's house is the fastest and safest way for a girl in her situation to earn money. Unfortunately, her careful plans for the future go straight out the window when the owner of a rival “Sewing Circle” starts waving around a mind-control device, two mysteriously injured girls turn up at the brothel and request sanctuary, and the body of a mutilated streetwalker is dumped into one of Madame's dustbins.

This book has loads of nerd appeal: fans of Joss Whedon's Firefly will like the sci-fi/Western vibe, Kat Richardson readers will love the twisted take on Old Seattle, and anyone who appreciates a rollicking adventure will totally dig the rest. Plus, the book's romantic storyline is a delightful surprise: Karen rapidly and happily falls in love with Priya, a brilliant girl from India. Wordcandy has received plenty of books featuring gay characters over the years, but unless the protagonist's sexual orientation is the primary focus of the novel, gay characters are usually limited to supporting roles. We rarely see LGBT main characters whose sexual orientation is presented as a non-issue, and I'm happy Ms. Bear is doing something to fill that void.

*There is absolutely no explicit sex in this novel, by the way. If you're looking for prurient thrills, you're out of luck.
Posted by: Julianka


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