In 2015, Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory introduced a singular voice in the steampunk genre: the title character, former prostitute-turned-independent woman Karen Memery (“spelt with an ‘e’). In an alternate Seattle-like town called Rapid City in the late 19th century, Karen is a “seamstress” (a polite word for the world’s oldest profession) at the fanciest joint in town until her involvement in a murder mystery leads to an adventure that earned her her freedom. Though there is anachronistic technology enough to please any gears-and-goggles fetishist, it’s not the steam-powered gadgets, nor colorful world of the Victorian Pacific Northwest that make the novel stand out in a crowded genre—it’s the voice of Karen herself. Stone Mad, a new novella from Tor.com Publishing, gives us a glimpse of what this remarkable girl has been up to since her last adventure ended.
Calamity Jane would have counted Karen Memery among her best cohorts. Her downhome style of speaking and her gift for spinning a good yarn serve this story well as she tells of her encounter with clever lady Spiritualists and a jaded widow stage magician that nearly cost her her marriage to Priya, a fellow former prostitute from the Hotel Mon Cherie who now runs a machine shop out of their shared home. In Stone Mad, the two women have, in fact, just bought that house, with dreams of settling down. Before they spend their first night there, they decide to celebrate with dinner and a magic show at the Rain City Riverside Hotel, but the unexpected arrival of two striking young women, self-proclaimed Spiritualist “sisters” named Hypatia and Hilaria, throws a wrench in their plans for a peaceful night out.
Mrs. Horner, the lady magician, a widow who is merely showcasing her late husband’s great work, knows one of these ladies, and, when the ghosts come knocking (literally,) she suspects them for charlatans out for a free dinner. However, in their attempt to recreate a poltergeist haunting and pull off the grift, Hypatia and Hilaria accidentally stirred up a real live tommy-knocker—a magical being traditionally blamed for mine collapses. Rapid City is a mining town, but this old spirit found himself trapped in the basement of the hotel, far away from his natural habitat, and responds to the girls’ knocking in a rather intense and terrifying way, collapsing the building, and trapping a our combative characters inside. The five of them, along with their friend Constable Watterson, must head underground to confront the tommy-knocker and put an end to his dangerous shenanigans.
Though the central mystery is a good one, the characters are again the selling point. When Priya dares to refer to Karen as her “wife” during an argument about whether or not they should intervene between the younger ladies and Mrs. Horner, Karen takes extreme umbrage, but not for the reason you’d expect. Karen and Priya are very proud of their unorthodox relationship; she’s not mad because Priya outed them in a public setting, but because Karen views the term “wife” as unequal. It’s interesting to watch their relationship dynamics change and their communication styles clash, even as the danger ramps up and the walls start crumbling around them.
This novella is hilarious and charming and adventuresome, but it’s also introspective about the roles of women in society and in marriage, and of the complications of defining new roles within a same-sex marriage. Karen is still her ornery self, unique in her language. Hopefully, Stone Mad isn’t the last we’ll see of this extremely likable heroine.