Greetings! I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory and over twenty other science fiction and fantasy novels. I’ve played around in the 1800s before, but this is my first real Steampunk novel. It’s also belongs to the category of Weird Westerns, if you’re the sort of person who likes to sort things into tidy library shelves.
To celebrate, we’re raffling off a gorgeous pair of custom hand-knitted corset-style steampunk mitts made especially for the winner by Jodi Meadows, the author of The Orphan Queen and the Newsoul trilogy. To enter, head on over to Rafflecopter and sign up; if you’re the winner, I’ll be contacting you for information on color and material preferences, as well as your mailing address. Because they’ll be custom made, we can accommodate any wool or other allergies! (Because they’re custom made, please allow a month or two for delivery.)
And now, on to the book!
Karen Memory is a rollicking steampunk adventure (if I do say so myself) about a young woman with a sense of humor and a penchant for falling into accidental adventure. She doesn’t mean to: it’s just that she can’t help lending a hand to a person in need, or running toward the sound of trouble. And oh, what adventures she has.
Karen is a parlor girl, a soiled dove, a nymph du prairie in the parlance of the times: a prostitute in a high-class bordello, or parlor house. She lives in a Wild West gold rush town, the thriving metropolis of Rapid City, but she dreams of bigger and better things. When a tortured runaway falls under her care, and a murdered woman is dumped on her doorstep, she and her frail sisters decide that no matter what personal, physical, and political threats they must endure at the hands of powerful men, they’re not going to take it lying down!
Miss Francina and me bought three kinds of bread–which I stuffed into a net bag–and two kinds of cake. She took charge of those. We also split a small apple pie as a snack. Most of the other fruit was only good as preserves by now, though you could buy some ready-canned in glass jars as pie filling, but the end of the apple harvest was still coming in, and the pie tasted like paradise with ginger sugar sprinkled on top. So I guess I got my pie anyway, and you know it turned out I did need it after all. We got ten pounds of onions, half white and half yellow, and arranged with a butcher to deliver fifty pounds of fresh beef and venison, and similar provisioning from a fishmonger. The potatoes would be delivered too. The greengrocer had some of those Chinese oranges with the real soft skins, and I filled up a bag with ’em, and another bag with Brussels sprouts. They’re just fancy cabbage, but the johns will pay extra for ’em, and I like cabbage well enough.
The eggs and the milk came to the house on delivery, so we didn’t have to worry about those.
By the time I’d sent Miss Francina back to our hired cart for the third time to drop off packages, I was feeling quite pleased with myself. Miss Francina is nothing but good qualities, but none of those good qualities is the patience to cook well or do the kind of picking over potatoes for green spots it takes to handle the marketing. I’m good at it–it’s no fussier in detail than grooming horses–and I was feeling pretty smug about my good work and Connie’s trust as I shouldered a net bag of onions with one hand and picked over mushrooms in a bin with the other. I think I was even humming to myself–some fashionable tune that Pollywog, who was opera-struck, had been playing on the parlor baby grand while the Professor wasn’t looking.
I’d never take so little care now. But the hand on my wrist caught me by complete surprise. Of course, I flatter myself that my enemies–and now I know I got enemies, which weren’t a word I would of used in those days–wouldn’t do anything so careless now neither. They’ll have learned a little respect.
But as I said I wasn’t expecting nobody to grab me just then. I guess I was young yet and not too smart. I just stared at that hand on my wrist in shock. It was big, scarred across the back, curls of coarse tawny hair sprouting between the knuckles. Exactly the sort of hand you might expect to grab you unexpectedly, except for the woman’s dainty gold ring on one pinky.
I followed the broad bones of the wrist up to the elbow and the rolled-up calico sleeve. Home-sewn, it looked like. Somebody cared enough about this fellow to hem his clothes with care.
As for me, I didn’t care much for him at all. He was squeezing my arm something fearful.
My eyes snapped up to his face. He wasn’t as tall as his hand predicted, but he was even broader. He had bad teeth and good skin, dark blond hair greased into ringlets, a red silk kerchief inside his collar tied in a fancy knot. I didn’t know for sure he worked for Peter Bantle, but let’s say I could guess.
“You’re one of that Damnable woman’s tarts,” he said. He had a pleasant light voice. I thought Pollywog would of called it a tenor. He sounded more surprised than mean. “Well, you’d better come along with old Bill now.”
Nobody nearby seemed to notice he was grabbing me. Or if they noticed they didn’t care, even though I wasn’t tarted up just then. I was wearing my plain blue muslin country dress and a carriage coat for marketing, and no paint. Amazing what people can fail to see when it’s a man doing it to a woman, even a respectable-looking woman.
I hit him across the kisser with ten pounds of onions and he let go of my arm.
The net bag held, to my surprise. A couple of his teeth were less sturdy, as I surmised from the way he staggered back, clutching at his mouth, and then worked his jaw, doubled over, spat red–my stomach lurched–and grimaced. Around us, people withdrew in a circle–some watching, some walking hastily away. Behind me, the greengrocer pulled the boxes of mushrooms out of harm’s way.
Bill blinked tears from his eyes, then fastened his gaze on me. “Bitch,” he snarled–why they never think of anything cleverer, I’ll never know. When he lifted his hand up again, this time there was a fighting knife glittering in it.
But by then, I had the umbrella in my right hand, the wrist still red and burning from knocking his clenched hand loose. A knife’s sharper, but an umbrella has reach, and mine has a pretty good steel ferrule to the tip. He was a lunge-and-slash fighter, and he had the weight and reach on me, but Bruce Memery taught me to brawl when he taught me to shoot–and to ride–and when Bill stepped to his right to dodge my umbrella’s swat and swiped at me again, I surprised him by not jumping back, but instead spanking him across the hand with the onions again. It worked–his hand went up–and I jabbed him in the breadbasket with the umbrella. I might of gigged him like a frog except the ferrule struck on one of his canvas braces and so it just made him oof like a mule when you deflate her for saddling. More’s the pity.
He went skidding backward, buying me a couple of seconds, but the Spanish notch on the back of the Bowie snagged in the net and the onion bag ripped. Onions bounced everywhere.
I heard myself panting, watching the onions roll. A quick glance left and right didn’t show me anything else I could use to foul the knife, and the umbrella wouldn’t stand up to more than one or two cuts. There was no sign of Miss Francina, and even if she heard the cries going up and came at a run, she’d hit the press of people going the other way. It would take her too long to get to me. With the knife out, the crowd was pulling back further, and still nobody stepped in to help me. I could try to jump the greengrocer’s stand, but a bustle and petticoats weren’t designed for acrobatics.
Bill looked at the torn bag in my hand and smiled, showing the teeth I’d busted. A little spit-thinned blood dripped down his chin. At least he shaved; I think I would of puked for sure if it were trickling through stubble.
I wasn’t stronger, and quicker only helped me so far. I supposed I just couldn’t get lucky enough for Bill to trip on the onions and break his fool neck. If I was going to live through this–or get out of it without getting dragged to Peter Bantle’s house and from there, God knows what might happen–I’d have to be smarter.
As Bill stepped up–careful of his footing between the rolling skunk eggs, damn him to sixteen different hells (one for each piece)–I looked him in the eyes and pinned a smile to my face like I planned to appliqué it there. “So–” I panted. Each couple of words came out between a gasp. “I’m betting Peter Bantle don’t know one of his toughs goes about waving knives at women in the Bayview.”
Somebody in the crowd heard me. I knowed by the gasp I heard that wasn’t my own. I was just afraid that Bill might be too het up to realize he was doing something stupid–or too het up to stop doing it, even if he noticed.
I never had to find out.
Somebody pushed out of the crowd and stepped between us. It weren’t Miss Francina, neither.
I got a confused impression of a man’s big shoulders: black hair in ringlets on a black coat, black hat, tan deerskin range gloves, black boots chased with silver thread. Whoever he was, he was built on the scale suggested by Bill’s hands. I couldn’t see over his shoulder.
But even from the back, I recognized the gesture he made as he lifted his left hand to his lapel and ran his thumb under it, flaunting a star that must be on his breast. He flipped the wing of his duster back, and I saw his right hand cross his body and hover over the holster tied down to his left thigh with a rawhide string. There was another holster on his right thigh, but the butts of his guns faced the wrong way–forward. My Da would of blanched to see that cross-body draw, but some people said it was faster.
“U.S. Deputy Marshal,” he said. A big voice to go with a big man, and I’d put him in Texas or Arkansas. “If I were you, mister, I’d put that knife away.”
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year.When coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, this led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, and the writing of speculative fiction. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of 27 novels (The most recent is Karen Memory, a frontier steampunk adventure from Tor) and over a hundred short stories. Her dog lives in Massachusetts; her partner, writer Scott Lynch, lives in Wisconsin. She spends a lot of time on planes.