My review of Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Review of Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. Karen Memory is a steampunk novel about a lesbian sexworker who helps solve a murder and kicks ass.

My review of Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Short review: I adored Karen Memory! It is a plot driven book with wild and wonderful characters. It has all the adventure elements, that I want tin a good steampunk story. It is also a story that explores power dynamics and lets Karen not just live but thrive.

My review of Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

My review from 2015 of Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Series: Karen Memory
Genre: Steampunk, weird west, murder mystery

Opening sentence:

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.”

Short review: I adored this book!


This is a book about a sexworker, a prostitute, and no she is not killed and the book never belittles her or shames her for what she does for a living. It’s amazing! The book acknowledge that the sex-work are many things and that is has some horrible sides. The part that Karen is in is not horrible, the girls are there by choice and earns very good money doing what they are doing. But society is not ok with what they do – they are not respected by society at large, but the people they interact with in the context of the book generally treat them like humans. Now this makes it sound like this a dry documentary about sex workers in the victorian area. It’s not and it is far from dry. It is definitely a plot driven book with lots of action. It got a mecka sewing machine at some point and it is so bad ass.


This is also a book that is very much all about the characters. Oh and what characters! So many amazing women and some truly great male characters as well. All of the cast is as diverse as a metropolitan would be – especially one in the middle of gold digging territory. The cast is not only ethnically diverse it is also has a wide representation of sexualites and backgrounds.

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Another thing that made me happy is the fact that Bear gives Karen enough agency in the rest of the book that she can be rescued without being damseled. The rescue does not diminish her. Sometimes you can’t do anything to get yourself out of a bad situation and by always needing everyone to rescue them self we are somehow belittling the real life people who could not get them self out of the similar situation. We need to have both as real narrative options – but the trope has so much power at this point that we need books like this to reclaim it. 


I really liked the romance and love story within the book. I as a reader had a hard time trusting the love interest at first – I find my reaction really interesting. Why didn’t I trust that the love interest’s feelings were real. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling.

Speaking of relationships… The relationships between the women were awesome. They did not all like each other but some of them were really great friends. They all took care of each other and even when the power dynamics came into play there were genuine care between everyone. Because of the number of female characters in the book there were room for such diversity of relationships and room for them not to be perfect – nobody has to represent all of their group. I did however notice that outside the bordello almost all interactions were with male characters which I found rather interesting. I wonder what the women of bordello women – because that is something that was completely hidden from us.

After just half a chapter I was already squeeing over the book. I know I am overselling it right now, but really I was in love. I had a hard time putting the book down so that I could go to sleep and stole pages in between classes. I highly recommend that you go read Karen Memory if you have not already.

The stats: Karen Memory

Published: 2015 by Tor Books
Length: 346 pages
Read: March 14 to 17, 2015

Author: Female, white, USA
The protagonists: Karen Memory, female, queer, prostitute
Setting: Seattle underground

A note in 2023 on Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear has been involved in a number of controversies including a me-to case and RaceFail, so please look her up before you decide if you want to read her.

This review was originally posted: May 9, 2015. Updated and edited July 1, 2023





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