Wow, what a wonderful novel! This heady mash-up of steampunk and Wild West tropes leaves the reader with a huge grin on the face, rooting for the girls of Madame Damnable’s establishment as they fight a dastardly plot by the Russians to take control of Alaska during the Gold Rush.
Karen Memory is a masterclass in voice and place: while it takes a while to familiarise oneself with the particular patois of the main character, her sassy worldliness and unconquerable spirit in the face of adversity will soon win over even the most hard-hearted of readers.
Throw in a deaf cat called Signor, various thrilling set pieces involving chases through a labyrinthine, China Mievillesque frontier town on horseback (actually, Indian ponies, who generally take a dim view of unskilled human riders), a dark and brooding sheriff who is a Master of Disguise, not to mention a robot-like Singer sewing machine and a submarine with an octopus-like battering ram, and you have all the ingredients of a truly fantastic yarn.
Of course, this is a love story as well, with Karen’s slow-catching flame for Priya providing much of the warmth and tenderness of the book. Elizabeth Bear has a lot to say about gender and identity politics in her Wild West milieu, but she never becomes strident or didactic. A fantastic contribution to the wondrous diversity of the SF genre!