By: Elizabeth Bear
346 pages (Hardcover)
Karen Memory is a self-proclaimed “seamstress” who actually works in a brothel, in a steampunk version of America’s Pacific Northwest. When a girl is left murdered outside their door, Karen and her fellow “seamstresses” are pulled into a risky adventure just to survive.
The first thing you’ll notice in this story, aside from Karen not being an actual seamstress, is the way in which the story is narrated from Karen’s perspective. It’s not her being the narrator, of course, but that the entire novel is written with her accent and level of education, which means it’s not always grammatically correct. Now it seems spot on, at least from all the historical dramas I’ve seen on TV, but it can take a little getting used to.
This story was wonderfully inclusive when it came to race, gender, and sexuality, which I think is very appropriate these days, and more stories should be this fluid and nonchalant. Sure, given the historical context, there were obvious limitations to these people, but within their little community, all was completely accepted. I always love stories where a group of misfits, who don’t fit in the narrow limitations of what society condones, come together and form a kind of patchwork family. It seems that often times, the strongest bonds come from choice rather than blood.
There was a fair amount of action, and a few awesome steampunk gadgets, although a lot of the steampunk aspects of the story took more of a backseat to the narrative. There was a little more subtlety when it came to the steampunk, at least for a large portion of the story. I guess you could say it was a more realistic kind of steampunk. I had been hoping for a little more swashbuckling girl power, given the image on the cover. In reality the story largely revolves around certain men that like hurting women, especially those of Karen’s profession, which started wearing on me. Steampunk novels generally involve some form of oppression, but when it is very specifically focused on hurting women, it starts to get a little too heavy for me. It makes it difficult for the world-building, gadgetry, and adventure to be enough to make it fun. Somehow, it’s just a little too close to reality. Sure, I read plenty of fantasy novels with their fair share of violence and war, but a lot of that violence is directed toward unearthly things, or spread out in such a way that there is enough of a break from it. This story had some wonderful aspects to it, but its focus on this particular topic took some of the fun out of it and made it feel longer than it was.
The last 50 pages were pretty awesome though. That’s when all the steampunk gadgets come out to play and the swashbuckling kicks in. The ending is pretty great too. I just wish it had more of that throughout the story, or maybe for the last 100 pages, rather than just 50. As you know, I’ll read anything with a steampunk cover, but this one was just OK for me, because of the subject matter. Until next time…