Charles's Reviews > Karen Memory

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
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Dec 04, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: steampunk, stat_2, reviewed, favorites

Stuff I Read - Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear Review

Some books I like more the more I think about them. This one, at its surface brash fun and unrepentantly entertaining, I thoroughly enjoyed but thought at first for all its fun that it was a little shallow, a little wanting in depth. And then I thought about it. And then I started to see that this is not just about fun, that it's not just entertaining. There is definitely something subversive here, but it's subtle, it's something that I didn't really notice at first until I was done and looking back. And then it hit me rather squarely, when rereading the afterword, when thinking about the research that went into this book. It's that the book is historical.

That may seem like a strange thing to say of a book that has a squid submersible and airships and steam-powered sewing machine mech suits. But I think that's part of the brilliance of this book, that it is historic, that it doesn't fit with what most people think of when they think of the Old West, of history in general. And yet what about this book isn't historical? it includes historical figures, or at least character based on historical figures. That they aren't what people "remember" of the past is unimportant. These are the people who have been largely erased from history. These are the people that don't let people look comfortably back at the past like it was either some glorified past or a backwards place where nothing is like today. What's great about this book is that it acknowledges just how long people have been fighting the same fight. For rights. For a voice. For freedom from violence.

And it does it in an affirming, wonderful way that is incredibly fun to read. The story is fast and frantic and has a great voice with Karen, who narrates and who makes the story come to life. The world that she lives in is populated by a diverse cast, which is another great touch because it challenges the idea that there can be too much diversity. I know I've seen reviews of books complaining that there is "too diverse" a cast, as if they decision to include some many great character is just to get points, just to be PC. And oh my god I hate that way of thinking. Diversity is great, is affirming, and is historically accurate. The Old West was not some straight-white-man paradise where it was all them and no one else ever did anything. That's the vision that's sold with most Western stories and films, but it's just wrong. It does not reflect the actual history of the time. It's a fantasy, and that this book uses fantasy elements to tell a more authentic story is just great. Just amazing and I want more.

There is really almost too much good to say about this book. The story itself, and the villains, might be a little straightforward, but I think the real villain that the book is taking aim at is the idea of history, the white misogynist view of the past. And it does such a great job of showing the past as much like the present. Of showing how long underrepresented people have been there, have been struggling for so long. For those now who have never thought of their problems as historic, who have never felt like they had a rich history to pull from, this book might give some hint of the sorts of people that history has been full of but who were left out of the textbooks.

And in the end its the history as well as the fun that make this book a win for me. It succeeds at feeling authentic and real and important while still being all about explosions and brushes with death and all sorts of fighting and struggle. It's a beer and popcorn kind of book, one that I would recommend everyone pick up and try. Regardless of who you are, you'll probably find someone in this story to root for, and to enjoy. With all that, how could I give it lower than a 9.25/10?
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Reading Progress

December 4, 2014 – Shelved
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
January 24, 2015 – Started Reading
January 24, 2015 – Shelved as: steampunk
January 24, 2015 – Shelved as: stat_2
January 24, 2015 –
page 40
11.56% "A good start. An interesting, diverse cast and a mystery are set. Now to see where it leads..."
January 24, 2015 –
page 75
21.68% "Still slowly building, but the character work and voice are great!"
January 25, 2015 –
page 130
37.57% "Now it's picking up. Can't wait to find out what happens next."
January 25, 2015 –
page 259
74.86% "Well this has gotten exciting...I don't want to stop..."
January 31, 2015 –
page 300
86.71% "Getting close to the end and need to know what happens next! Back to reading!"
January 31, 2015 –
page 352
100% "Well that was a lot of fun. Rollicking good times."
January 31, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 16, 2015 – Shelved as: reviewed
February 20, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites

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