I’ve been wanting to get this review done the last couple of days, and I think I can squeeze it in now. Which is good, because the weather is miserable out, my work day has been sucktastic, and I need to focus on good things, wonderful things. Non-deplorable things. And this, my friends, is sooooooo fucking good.
I’d listened to the first of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Skies series, Range of Ghosts. It was one of those books that I didn’t take a shine to at first, but which grew on me. It’s high fantasy with a very unusual setting and some really intriguing world building, but it’s a bit… heavy. Hard to explain what I mean, it wasn’t heavy depressing, but felt like a weighty work. Maybe it was all the world building, or that it was more political intrigue (but that can’t be it since I loved Game of Thrones, which has tons of that). Still, I loved it by the end and wanted more.
But I also wanted a break. And I’d heard such marvelous things about Karen Memory, that I decided to slide into that for a bit and see what happened.
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead). First, let me say this book was amazeballs. I moved from the stately, slowly paced political intrigue of Range of Ghosts into a rip-roaring adventure story where the pace often felt relentless, but let up at just the right moments to give you a chance to breath. The book felt like an homage to old dime-novel westerns, but mashed up with modern steampunk sensibilities. Indeed, there were a few chapters early on where I completely forgot it was steampunk, until the sudden inclusion of a detail straight out of weird science fiction stories. In fact, the narrator herself often refers to dime novels, and characters such as Annie Oakley, as she tells her story (her name, in case the title wasn’t clear, is Karen Memery, like Memory but with an e).
As I’ve noted in the past, audiobook enjoyment is often tempered by the voice actor who reads the story. In this case, Jennifer Grace did the narration, and she was incredible. She gave Karen just enough twang to make her sound like a western hick, but not enough to make her hokey or annoying. She did a good job providing recognizable voices for each of the other characters as well, with almost no slip ups. and she gave the story the right sense of momentum when it needed it, longing when it was required, pain and anguish when those moments happened. She was absolutely brilliant, and I’d probably end up listening to audiobooks based on knowing she was the reader.
The world building is lovely. It’s what I’d call a light touch, with details sprinkled in only when they are truly needed, and yet combining to build up a whole image of this “other earth,” with its gamblers and whores, sheriffs and Indians (both native Americans, and natives of India), steam-powered mechanical creatures and submarines. Don’t get me wrong, there might have been extensive world building done in the background, and I can imagine pages and pages of details written about this world. But Ms. Bear does a masterful job of only showing the reader what is needed to complete the picture, which in many ways let’s our imaginations fill in the blanks and makes the world seem even more real.
A nice love story straddles the core of the tale, and doesn’t feel at all tacked on or rushed, but an integral necessity to some of the “why’s” that happen. I found it intriguing how the author managed to bracket tales of women who “sew” (make their money on their backs as prostitutes) with a sweet love story, and make both really work well. I think that’s as much to do with the characters and how each approaches their choices differently and with different personalities, building a vibrant community around the center that makes it all sing.
On the Reynolds-wrap scale, which ranges from 1 (I’d like to bury this in my outhouse and crap on it for the rest of my life) to 10 (I’m crying because it’s over and nothing this good should ever be allowed to end!), I’m going with the full 10. I laughed, I cried, I ate lots of ice cream… well, okay, I did laugh out loud a number of times, and felt a tickle of suspense about some of the wild predicaments Karen got herself into (like any good adventure tale should… problem, react… another problem, react… another worse problem… shit, even worse problem!). But it was a wonderful bit of writing that only makes me long for more, and I can’t wait until the next installment.
10 out of 10!!! Read this book, seriously!