Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory Review Round-Up
Note: This is part of a series of Review Round-Ups investigating potential Hugo/Nebula Best Novel contenders for 2016. I use the information I gather to help my Hugo and Nebula predictions. See my Review Round-Up Strategy for 2015 post for more info.
Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory was one of the first SFF novels of 2015 to gain traction with critics and fans. A steampunk Western set in a fictionalized 19th century Seattle, the book tells the story of a group of prostitutes that have to fight back against a power-mad mind-ray wielding villain. Featuring a large cast of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities, our rag-tag group of heroes pulls together to lead Seattle to a brighter, more democratic future.
Karen Memory is an interesting combination of genres. The SF/alternative history elements are fairly light; there is some advanced technology, but the driving force behind the book is Karen’s narrative voice. Told in the first person, this is a vivid account of her struggle against the evil Peter Bantle and her development as a person. She falls in love with another woman, learns that she has strength she did not expect, and generally matures into a more powerful person. You’re going to like or dislike Karen Memory largely based on how you feel about Karen and her narrative voice.
Bear has never been nominated for a Nebula before. She is a four-time winner of the Hugo award (as well as the winner of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer). She has two wins for short fiction (“Shoggoths in Bloom” in 2009 and “Tideline” in 2008), and two more shared wins for SF Squeecast podcast (2013 and 2012). Interestingly, Bear has won every time she’s been nominated—that has to be the best win percentage of all time (4 for 4). What you don’t see in that history are any nominations for Best Novel, and Bear has written a ton of them. In 2012, Bear placed 15th in the nominations for Range of Ghosts 56 votes. To get into the mix, she’ll have to at least triple that for 2016 (and, given the rise in Hugo voters, probably even more than that). Does Bear have enough fans? Will Karen Memory be her leap into this category?
On the sales/metrics front, Karen Memory shows some weakness. As of 7/30/15, she has 57 Amazon rankings and 1,117 Goodreads ratings, with scores of 4.4 on Amazon and 3.82 on Goodreads. For a book published in early February, those are on the low side. In contrast, Uprooted by Naomi Novik has 395 Amazon ratings and 9,5000 Goodreads ratings. Karen Memory never made the Publisher’s Weekly Top 25 list. Karen Memory still has plenty of time to sell, but these numbers indicate that the book hasn’t broken out of the SFF core, and I also worry about that relatively low 3.82 Goodreads rating (Uprooted is 4.24 and Sevenes 4.03 for contrast).
What does all of this mean? I think Karen Memory has an outside shot but isn’t a frontrunner for the Hugo. Since Bear has never received a Nebula nomination, I don’t think Karen Memory has much of a chance there. Steampunk is not a sub-genre that has ever done well in the Hugos or Nebulas; looking back over the lists, only Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson strike me as a steampunk works with Hugo Best Novel noms. Throw in the Western motif, and you have a chance to turn off fans who don’t like Westerns or steampunk books.
2015 is also shaping up to be a very competitive Hugo and Nebula year. Many recent winners and nominees are publishing new novels this year: Leckie, Scalzi, Walton, Bacigalupi, and Robinson for recent winners, and then multiple nominees like Stephenson, Jemisin, and Stross. We also have breakout books like Uprooted, and I’m not yet factoring in things like possible Hugo campaigns for what is sure to be the most hotly contested Hugos ever. To receive a nomination in 2015 is going to take huge support; I don’t know if Bear has that. While popular with a segment of progressive SFF fans, does she have enough reach to break out of that bubble? Time will tell.
On to some reviews and info about the book:
This was fairly lightly reviewed in the mainstream. Reviews were generally positive, but no stars for either Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus; I think that indicates that both outlets saw the audience as limited for this book.
Broadly and positively reviewed by the more mainstream SFF blogs, Karen Memory was praised for its vibrant world and Karen’s unique voice. These blogs liked what the novel did with the steampunk genre, and generally regarded it as an excellent “rollicking” book. A couple called it lighter than some of the more serious SFF books of the year, and that might damage Karen Memory‘s award chances.
Now for the most important people: my fellow WordPress reviewers! That’s a fair number of reviews, but for a book that came out in February (I’m writing this in July), that’s not an overwhelming number. People were largely positive but didn’t necessarily give the book 10 out of 10 or 5 out of 5. That jibes with my sense of Karen Memory: people like it, but they don’t absolutely love it. To score a Hugo or Nebula nomination, you need some truly driven fans.
My sense is that Karen Memory did well with a certain core of the SFF fanbase but that it didn’t break out to the larger circles of SFF readers. That’s due in part to the steampunk/Western nature of the work. Lots of writers are writing those: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, the Alloy of Law and sequels by Brandon Sanderson, Boneshaker and sequels by Cherie Priest. I’ve read most of those, and they’re interesting but they don’t seem essential.
My Take: A new debut in the Review Round-Ups is my microreview of the book. I found Karen Memory perfectly readable but also fairly forgettable. Fun while it lasted, but the book had a rushed feel to it: too many characters who were only on stage for one or two scenes. Aside from Karen herself, no one received much development. I found both the villain and the love interest pretty one-dimensional. I was also expecting a book about prostitutes to be funnier and edgier, and the book was ultimately a pretty safe “heroes win” romp. That might be my fault; I was expecting Cannery Row, and I got something a lot tamer. I also wanted more about the world, including a deeper investigation of how steampunk technology might change the United States. Middle-of-the-pack for me, 6 out of 10.
So, what are Karen Memory‘s chances in 2016? Will people forget this novel when the nomination period finally rolls around, or will positive word-of-mouth drive it to new set of fans? I’ll likely have Karen Memory in the mid-teens for my Hugo and Nebula predictions.