Reviews

Short Story Review: LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE, by Seanan McGuire

 

LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE

(click on the link to read the story on Lightspeed Magazine)

 

Think about “The Day of the Triffids” blended with “The War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on a steampunk background: this is what this story made me think about, even though there is much, much more to it.  These concepts, handled by the deliciously evil writing skills of Seanan McGuire, have created the tale of an invasion that is also a commentary on human flaws, poking fun at our ingrained short-sightedness.

Told in the style of a 19th Century memoir from a lady of high breeding, it recounts the invasion and conquest of Earth by an alien race of… vegetables, and if the premise makes you smile, think again, because if the tone of the account is deceptively gracious and civilized, the reality it depicts comes across as efficiently brutal, and it chilled me to the bone.

The first wave of the invasion by what will be later termed “The Vegetable Empire” starts with the arrival of seeds all over the world: the only one who manages to thrive lands in 19th Century England in the garden of Sir Arthur Blackwood, the royal botanist – and promptly proceeds to eat Sir Arthur’s sister’s maid, taking on her appearance and memories.  Far from being appalled by what happened, the Blackwoods take the seedling into their circle, as a novelty and a subject of polite study, even bestowing on her the name of Lady Antheia, from the goddess of flowers. As Antheia later writes in her memoirs, “better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say”.  The lack of a shocked reaction to Antheia’s method of interaction with humans is commentary enough on the period’s regard for household help and of their short-sightedness about the creature they have welcomed into their midst with little or no thought for her true, blood-thirsty nature: after all, Antheia comments, all they see is “the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles”.  She looks like a woman, therefore she can offer no threat, can she?

When six years later the bulk of the invading army arrives, England and the rest of Earth are unprepared for the assault, not understanding how their perceived superiority in culture, breeding and arms (that include airships and ray guns and so forth) seems to melt in the face of a veritable shower of seeds that cover the ground and start sprouting invaders, with appalling results.  As a shocked Sir Arthur is forced to accompany Antheia to the Queen to negotiate a surrender, he struggles to wrap his mind around the incursion, and Antheia’s reply forces him to consider what the British Empire has done until that very moment, taking resources they wanted and needed: “that’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do”.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing skills make this story shine in a delightful way, not in spite but because of the main character’s personality: even if your are not a reader partial to shorter works, I would recommend reading this one for the amazing experience that it is.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: THE RED HOURGLASS (Slaves of the New World #1), by Ashley Capes

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve often reviewed the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose writing range goes from fantasy to magical mystery to (albeit mild) horror: this time he’s tackling another genre, steampunk – but with a touch of magic thrown into the mix.

The siblings Mia and Thomas are running from pursuers across a desert landscape: they just buried their deceased old protector and guide David, and their prospects look quite bleak, since over the horizon a dust cloud signals the approach of the hunters looking for them.  Mia and Thomas are escaped slaves, the condition indicated by the hourglass tattoo on their arms: in this future or alternate history, slavery has returned – at least in Australia, so that the country has been isolated from the rest of the world because of this – and the siblings were the property of self-proclaimed King Williams, who wants them back because of their special gifts.

The clues in the narrative point to a classic steampunk background: steam-powered vehicles, the mention of airships (although this particular technology seems to have been lost by the ruling dynasty) and so on, and yet there are a few tantalizing mentions of a more advanced past, one that has now become more legend than actual memory. On top of that, however, there is magic: Mia shows a sort of precognitive ability, paired with her almost total blindness, and the knack of summoning a powerful creature with destructive powers; while later on Thomas discovers an affinity for steel, which he can bend or break with the sole strength of his muscles.

The world in which they move is an intriguing one: even though it’s not immediately mentioned, we soon understand the action is based in Australia – if the author’s origins were not an obvious clue, there is at one point a mention of an iron fountain shaped like a kangaroo to make this clear. The country appears different from the one we all know, the desert encroaching on the fewer livable spaces, red dust creeping forward like a tide that covers abandoned cities and chokes everything and everyone.  It’s not clear what happened, but at some point major environmental and political upheavals must have combined to create the present situation, one that nobody in power seems to care about.

As the two siblings run for their life and freedom, while searching for answers about the past they seem not to remember – including the bewildering changes worked on them by the mysterious Alchemist, something they have no memory of, as well – we get to know this cruel, harsh world and its few islands of respite, like the colony established by former slaves on the shores of the ocean, or the rebel camp where a handful of fighters tries to subvert the rule of King Williams’ dynasty, or the freemen of the mangrove village no one seems to know about.    I have to admit that these proved something of a frustration to me, because they were more like fleeting glimpses rather than deeper explorations of these enclaves, where I might have learned more about the past and the events that brought on the current situation.  The same happens with King Williams’ capital city, a place of hard labor in the smoke-belching factories and of fear of terrible retribution for those who cross the ruler’s wishes: I would have loved to know more, and to see more than the quick peeks the novel afforded.

On the other hand, this is a story carried by motion, the constant, running motion of the two fugitives trying to stay at least one step ahead of their pursuers, so I understand how it would have been difficult to… stop and smell the roses, so to speak: still there is that nagging voice, asking for more, that is not so easily silenced. My hope is that the next installments in the series will shed more light on the whole scenario and bring about a few answers as well.

As an introduction to this world, The Red Hourglass is an intriguing offering that promises to develop into a quite exciting story, one whose follow-up I’m looking forward with great interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, by Genevieve Cogman (The Invisible Library #1)

What a fun read this was! Novels dealing with books exert a strong appeal on a compulsive reader, and this one is no exception: what’s more, the titular Invisible Library is a fascinating entity in and of itself. First, because it’s a huge repository for incredible amounts of books, and second because of its location: the story postulates that there are many parallel realities coexisting next to one another, and the Library is located in a place belonging to none of them, a location where space and time have practically no meaning.  Dusty volumes fill up row upon row of shelves, while modern computers are strategically placed where Librarians might need them, and from the occasional window one can at times see cobble-paved streets lit by gas-lamps.  As I said, fascinating…

Irene is a junior Librarian tasked with retrieving a particular book the Library wants, and following the last phase of her planned heist drops us straight into the heart of the story, through a narrow escape from animated stone gargoyles and hounds from Hell that carries the same kind of thrill as a dive into deep waters. Here we learn one of the most important peculiarities about Librarians: they can use Language (a special speech construct that is constantly adapted and modified to suit Librarians’ needs) to force inanimate objects like door locks to obey their commands – it’s not exactly magic as we usually consider it, but it’s an interesting detail and, at times, a very useful tool.

Having managed a successful extraction from this particular alternate world, Irene looks forward to some well-earned rest to be spent doing what she enjoys most – reading books. This was what caused my instant connection with the character, even though she was not fully fleshed yet: Irene might be a thief/spy/adventuress, but above all else she is a reader, one who in the end wants only “to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading”.  The author could not have found a better way to endear her to us readers than this, indeed.

There is no rest for the weary though, and Irene’s superior Coppelia sends her on a new mission to retrieve a precious volume of Grimm’s tales from an alternate London that’s usually off-limits because of its chaos contamination, which means that magic and technology clash in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And on top of that, she must take an apprentice with her, a young man named Kai, both an unknown quantity and a departure from Irene’s usual solo missions – not to mention that Kai seems to harbor some secrets…

There is little time for Irene to dwell on all this, however, since the version of London in which the two find themselves presents several obstacles to the assignment: a late nineteenth Century alternate with steampunk overtones – think of Zeppelins and steam-powered machines – where Fae, vampires and werewolves coexist alongside normal humans. On top of that, the book Irene is looking for has just been stolen after the murder of its latest owner, and she finds herself working alongside Detective Vale (this world’s version of Sherlock Holmes) battling with steam centipedes, clockwork alligators and various other contraptions, while supernatural creatures drive forth their own agendas and a dark figure from the Library’s past – the mythical Alberich – extends his murderous shadow over everything and everyone.

This unstoppable flow of surprises and death-cheating adventures keeps the story going with good momentum and at the same time serves to flesh out Irene’s character more: what I like about her (apart from her love of books, of course) is that she’s skilled but not overconfident (unlike her previous teacher and sometimes competitor Bradamant) and she takes her mentoring duties toward Kai quite seriously, trying to avoid the mistakes Bradamant made with her, when she hogged all the praise and heaped any blame on Irene. Moreover, she’s ready to face the dangers inherent in her chosen work – and more than once, in the course of the story, she suffers damage of some sort – but she’s not reckless or stupid, nor does she fall into the “heroine needing help” narrative trap.  Irene feels quite real as a character, because she’s driven and willing to better her position in the Library, but at the same time she’s aware of her limitations and knows when to move aside in favor of people with more experience.

On the other hand, the other characters are somewhat less defined: we learn something more about Kai along the way, granted, and we get interesting glimpses about Vale and Bradamant, but they are still… in flux, so to speak, probably waiting for the next installments in the series to get some more flesh on their proverbial bones. The same happens to the concept of the Library itself: we see a few quick flashes of its long corridors filled with books, we learn that there are endless passages and junctions – and this reminded me a little of some kind of multi-dimensional puzzle in which one could get too easily lost – but we know nothing about the creation of the Library, and how it developed over the centuries, and across the worlds.  But this will probably be detailed more in the next books…

The overall mood of The Invisible Library reminded me a little of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series: the coexistence of werewolves and vampires, the steampunk elements, the mysteries hiding behind every corner, but where Carriger’s work is a headless romp carried by tongue-in-cheek wit, Cogman’s brand of humor is more subdued and far less outrageous – unless she decides to have a refined party crashed by mechanical alligators, that is.  The light-hearted fun mixed with more dramatic events creates a good blend that makes for a swift, entertaining read: it might be a little on the thin side, as far as the plot is concerned, yet there are times when some lightness is not only welcome, but rather necessary for a change of pace, and I believe this series might become one of my go-to stories when I want to… take a breath from more intense reads.

There are a few elements that detract from the overall positive experience though: for example, the moments when the characters fall prey to the need for lengthy exposition, going over previous occurrences and recapping them in painstaking detail – to me these segments felt like wading through quicksand where a moment before I was flying on a dirigible.  And the Language – fascinating concept that it is – seems to be used too liberally, to the point that it takes on the shape of a convenient plot device rather than a tool to be employed in the direst of circumstances: as if to drive this point home, it seemed to me that Irene’s skills were brought in better light when she was momentarily unable to use Language, rather than when she wielded it as a weapon at the drop of a hat.

These little snags notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Invisible Library quite a bit, and will look forward to the next installments in the series, one that I can recommend for its high entertainment value.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE HANGED MAN – P.N. Elrod

23245584Steampunk has often been a difficult genre for me, and only the recent acquaintance with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series changed my outlook about it, while thanks to P.N. Elrod’s The Hanged Man I have reinforced my conviction that I should explore it more often.  Unlike Carriger’s work, this novel adopts a far more serious tone, but it’s just as involving and peppered with fascinating characters and situations: one of the happy instances where I’m glad there will be more books to follow this one, not to mention hopeful that the many tantalizing hints seeded along the way will be developed further.

The action takes place toward the end of the 19th Century, a time period quite different from the one we’re familiar with: Queen Victoria did not marry Prince Albert but an English noble and she has been the promoter of several enlightened laws, including the vote for women and the creation of the Psychic Service, tasked with aiding police work through the use of psychically gifted individuals.   Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury is one such person, her gift being the ability to sense residual emotions left over in a crime scene: she is called to “read” an apparent suicide that she’s quickly able to rule as murder and a very peculiar one at that, since there are no emotional traces from the killer, as if he were a ghost.  This inexplicable detail is compounded by a dramatic finding that affects Alex on a deeply personal level and that launches a dangerous investigation that will touch several layers of London society and pull her and her associates into a labyrinthine path of baffling discoveries and convoluted misdirections, carried out at a breathless, breakneck pace that kept me glued to the book and, at times, reading on until the small hours.

If the story itself is a compelling one, rich with unexpected twists and turns, the characters are just as fascinating: Alex is a complex heroine, a person who found a useful channel for her gift but at the same time is wary about it and highly conscious of the way it keeps her, and everyone else equally gifted, apart from mainstream society.  This is indeed one of the best features of the story, showing how such peculiar abilities can be a mixed blessing: on one side, people with psychic talents risk being overwhelmed by them (like Alex’s own mother, who received no training and succumbed to madness) and on the other they are looked at with suspicion and not completely accepted by the general public.  In Alex’s case, her perceptions expose her to the best and the worst of the human soul, while the misconception that she can actually read thoughts breeds uneasiness – and sometimes distrust – in those she meets, and the fact she’s a woman holding a job adds to the mix in an unfavorable way: despite social reforms, British society is still very much like Victorian England as we know it, and such activities are frowned upon if not openly ostracized.

There is a definite feeling of loneliness permeating Alex’s psychological makeup, and despite her successful handling and rationalizing of it, despite her pragmatic approach to life, one can perceive how the emotional barriers she built around herself – out of necessity because of her gift, and out of defense against the world’s reactions – are starting to close in on her.  There are a few traumas in her past, the biggest being the perceived abandonment by her father (a detail that will turn into a surprisingly unexpected revelation toward the end of the book, one of the very best in the story), and Alex does not even enjoy the support of family, since both branches of it suffer from their own peculiar quirks, yet we are afforded some glimpses into the friendships she’s slowly (and ever so tentatively!) building in the Service.

Lieutenant Brooks – the somewhat reluctant new addition to the ranks – is the most interesting one of course, due to the careful hints at a romantic relationship: I appreciated how such possibilities are being built with careful slowness, and moreover there are some secrets in Brook’s past that might provide fascinating developments in the future. The author’s choice not to transform their meeting into love-at-first-sight is a clever one and I’m certain it will pay handsomely in the near future.

Other remarkable figures are Sir Richard, the Service’s commander, and Colonel Mourne: both possessing a gruff, no-nonsense attitude, they look more unfriendly than they really are, but at the same time they seem like the kind of people that could bring Alex out of her self-imposed exile and help her tap her abilities to the fullest.  Inspector Lennon of Scotland Yard falls into this same category: bluntly outspoken and rough-mannered, he’s one of my favorite secondary characters, acting in delightful counterpoint to the more refined ways of the Psychic Service.

Diverse and interesting characterization blends seamlessly with a story focused on mystery, secret societies with murky goals and a fascination for the occult, and a nasty plot involving various strata of London society. Add to that the Seers, able to catch glimpses of the future they cannot precisely convey; men who can turn into tigers; the Victorian equivalent of SWAT teams and bizarre weapons and you will get an absorbing novel that both holds your interest from start to finish and that launches what promises to be a great series.  And if sometimes characters indulge a little too much in explanations – as it happens in a few instances – you will be able to overlook this small bother thanks to the relentless narrative flow: when a book can carry you elsewhere with so little effort, and keep you firmly there, such small details can be easily shunted to the sidelines…

I’m eagerly looking forward to the next book in this series, indeed.

My Rating: 8/10

Reviews

Review: VALOUR AND VANITY – Mary Robinette Kowal

12987423There are books that are just perfect when you are in need of some respite – either from too-dark stories or from the annoyances that real life sometimes places in front of you: this kind of book takes you elsewhere in an effortless way because you are so familiar with the setting and the characters that you feel as if you were enjoying a relaxing chat with old friends.  The Glamourist Series by M.R. Kowal is indeed this kind of story, and as a bonus it keeps improving with each new book.

The plot in itself is a fascinating and entertaining one: Jane and Vincent travel to Venice to connect with Murano’s glass-blowers in order to perfect their technique of trapping glamour in glass. On their way to the city their ship is boarded by pirates though, and the two – after a few other misadventures – find themselves penniless and cut off from any ties with family and friends. As if this were not enough they are caught in a convoluted web of spies and swindlers and have to battle both with their destitute state and the consequences of their craft being put to evil use.

Such a story-line is more than riveting, of course, but what makes the book extraordinary are the characters, and the way their growth – both as individuals and as a married couple – is shown in an organic and very believable way.   There is a sizable romance component in Ms. Kowal’s stories, and it’s a necessary part of their structure since it’s based on an alternate version of the Regency era, but it’s never the foundation of these books, or the reason for the characters’ existence: what carries the story here is the way these people evolve – and there is nothing more effective, for that evolution, than putting them through the proverbial grinder.

When Jane and Vincent met in Book 1, their interactions went more along the expected lines of genre stories as one would find, for example, in Jane Austen’s work, while in Books 2 and 3 a few elements of darkness and grief were introduced, so that the danger of drowning the protagonists in saccharine-laden marital bliss was successfully averted. Still, I found that Jane’s character appeared a little submissive – even for the times’ standards – and far too self-effacing for my tastes, and even though this element further faded as the story-line progressed, I kept hoping for a more assertive stance on her part. Well, I can happily say that my wish was granted in Valour and Vanity, even though the character maintained her defining qualities.

In this novel Ms. Kowal managed to blend in a seamless whole both modern considerations and the era’s social viewpoints: for example, Jane is able to find some steady work, while Vincent can barely manage as a street performer, thus presenting the reader with a situation we can find in our present days – that of a man unable to support his family, while his wife is the one bringing the bread home, literally.  It goes without saying that this state of things builds conflict in the relationship and leads to a heated quarrel that exposes all the raw nerves Jane and Vincent have tried to ignore so far. The whole scene has a very realistic feeling and makes you feel deep sympathy for both of them, while understanding that they need to let it all out to be able to go on and overcome their troubles.  These are not perfect characters, and stress brings individual flaws to the surface, but it’s exactly this show of humanity that further endeared them to me, not in spite of their insecurities, but because of them.

What emerges from this difficult moment is not only a reinforcing of Jane and Vincent’s bond but, more important, the acknowledgement (especially from Jane) of the equal footing they share in the marriage: from this point on both of them will know how to lean on the other for support – without shame or loss of self image – because they have reached a true partnership. This is also what allows them the luxury of expanding on the subject of children and how parenting duties might interfere in their work as glamourists. It’s a very modern discussion in the themes it touches, and yet it’s carried on through the medium of the historical period’s worldviews and sensibilities: the author manages this in a flawless way, at the same time keeping her characters true to themselves.

The cast of supporting players is just as variegated and interesting:  from a group of organized swindlers that could stand up to the guys from “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” to the moody and secretive Murano glass-blowers or the group of enterprising nuns with a flair for adventure, the secondary characters breathe further life in the story and help relieve the brooding sadness that hangs over Jane and Vincent, and of course Venice and Murano add their own background magic to the mix.  There’s even a cameo from Lord Byron himself, dashing in and out of the scene trailing impromptu verses in his wake…

As much as these books have been delightful reads, this fourth volume stands several notches above its predecessors and bodes very well for the continuation of the series. Which makes me quite happy.

My Rating: 8/10

(On a more personal note, I will be “off the grid” for a few days: if I don’t reply to your comments, please be patient, because I intend to do so on my return. Thank you!)

Reviews

Review: TIMELESS – Gail Carriger

11324166The last book in the Parasol Protectorate series is a good advertisement for the rule about leaving the game while you’re winning: the story is still strong, the characters as entertaining as ever, and many new threads hint at possible developments for the future. Yet Gail Carriger decided to consign Alexia Tarabotti Maccon & Friends to history, so to speak, letting them go to make room for new players. If it was a planned choice to avoid having the characters overstay their welcome, it was indeed a brilliant one, even though I know I will sorely miss these characters and their adventures.

The action starts a couple of years after the birth of Prudence, Alexia and Conall’s daughter and Lord Akeldama’s adopted child: Prudence turned out to be a metanatural, i.e. she can acquire, through touch, the characteristics of a supernatural creature, rendering them mortal once again – only Alexia can reverse the situation, laying hands on her child.  And this is a very spirited child indeed: we first see her as Akeldama and his drones attempt to bathe her against her will, with consequences that are both funny and worrisome – it’s no wonder that many supernaturals wanted her dead even before she was born!

I love what Carriger did with Prudence: children are not easy to handle, either in writing or cinematography, since they can come across as too adult for their years or cloyingly over-cute. Not in this case though: she hardly speaks (“no” being her preferred word, even though she can impart several layers of meaning to it…) and yet one gets the clear impression she’s an acute observer of the world, just like her mother, and that being who she is and living with such a… colorful household, she has a definite advantage over other children, as clearly evident in her dealings with Ivy’s own offspring, who are about the same age but appear less aware of their surroundings.

Alexia’s attitude toward motherhood is also refreshingly unexpected, since she applies a sort of detached, scientific view to child rearing that is not too dissimilar from the way she deals with society in general. The affection, the motherly love and protectiveness are there of course, but they are handled in the usual no-nonsense manner Alexia applies to everyone else and that has the dual benefit of keeping her in character while offering several opportunities for Carriger-style quips – like this, for example: “the infant-inconvenience had shown very little interest in the proper use of utensils, her attitude seeming to be that fingers had come first in her life, so why mess with a good thing?”.

As far as the story is concerned, the Maccons – together with the Tunstell troupe of actors – travel to Egypt at the summons of Matakara, the most ancient vampire Queen, who wants to see young Prudence. The opportunity to study the so-called “God-Breaker Plague” in its place of origin motivates Alexia and family to risk such a journey, one that will nonetheless turn out to be fraught with unsuspected dangers, not to mention serious privations like the lack of decent tea – a fate indeed worse than death. Meanwhile, in London, the Woolsey pack pursues a similar investigation and uncovers interesting and preoccupying details.  The creation of two separate narrative threads imparts a lively pace to the story, and also creates the opportunity to focus on other characters – particularly Professor Lyall and young Biffy – and to answer a few mysteries that have been crafted and slowly developed in the previous books.

Biffy in particular comes to shine in this final chapter of the series: his journey from Lord Akeldama’s favorite drone to a somewhat unwilling werewolf has not been easy, as readers saw in Book 4, but here he has reached a sort of balance, one that allows him to go beyond self-imposed boundaries and make incredible discoveries about himself and his place in the Woolsey Pack. The lost person who went about unsure of his identity has morphed into a very assertive individual, as evident in the course of a crisis brought about (not so surprisingly…) by Felicity Loontwill, Alexia’s mean and spiteful half-sister.  And his association with Professor Lyall – another favorite character of mine – is developed with a wonderful mixture of warmth and authorial affection that further enhances both characters, adding new layers to their psychological makeup. One of the best facets of this book, indeed.

Other well-known players come to the fore here, in a sort of final bow before their audience (and considering the presence of the Tunstell acting troupe, it looks quite fitting): many take unexpected turns that deepen the mystery surrounding them, instead of shedding some light on it – Floote, Alexia’s unflappable butler is a case in point – and the feeling of unfinished business this entails adds to the impression of a story that will still go on, but out of the readers’ sight.  The thread I’m most sad not to see developed is the one concerning Ivy Tunstell: no spoilers here, because it’s something that must be savored directly, but it’s such an unforeseen and amusing twist that it should deserve at least a book of its own. I wonder if this particular narrative thread will be addressed in the new series focusing on a grown-up Prudence: it’s something to set my hopes on…

There’s a quote from a returning Alexia, as she discusses the Egyptian events with Lord Akeldama, that sums perfectly the spirit of these books and this wonderful character: “A new queen, plus five Egyptian vampires and assorted drones? You object to my bringing souvenirs back from Egypt? Everyone brings back souvenirs from their travels abroad, my lord. It is the done thing.”

It’s been a fun journey, indeed.  Thank you, Ms. Carriger.

My Rating: 8/10

Reviews

Review: KAREN MEMORY – Elizabeth Bear

22238181Karen Memery is one of Madame Damnable’s “seamstresses” working out of the Hotel Mon Cherie – in other words, she practices the oldest profession in the world, paying a “sewing tax” to the Rapid City municipality to be allowed this… privilege, a dichotomy that shows the ambivalent attitude of the city’s officials toward prostitution, something to be publicly condemned but privately enjoyed.    One night, the quiet of the after-hours relax at the Hotel is broken by the arrival of two fugitives: Pryia, an Indian girl freshly escaped from the clutches of Peter Bantle, owner of crib brothels where women are treated worse than slaves, and often kept there against their will, and Merry Lee, the bold runner of a sort of Underground Railroad for such unfortunates.

When Bantle and his goons try to take their prisoner back by force they encounter Madam Damnable’s resistance and that of her charges: despite Bantle’s use of a peculiar electrified glove that seems to bend a victim to its user’s will, the girls manage to repel the assailants, thus giving way to open hostilities. What until that moment has been just professional rivalry turns into an all-out war, compounded by Bantle’s design to be elected Mayor, a string of vicious murders targeting streetwalkers and a slowly unfolding plot that also points at a planned takeover from a foreign nation.

The cast is completed by Marshal Bass Reeves, in pursuit of the serial killer across the country, and by his Native American deputy Tomoatooah: they forge an alliance with Madame against Bantle, who might be sheltering the murderer and still holds Pryia’s sister prisoner in his hellish bordello. On the background of this dangerous confrontation lies Rapid City, a Pacific Northwest port and one of the last civilized places before the wilderness of Klondike, where the hopeful swarm in search of riches; the narrative is further enhanced by an interesting array of steampunk gadgetry that goes from automated, steam-powered sewing machines to airships.

What catches the eye of the reader, though, and defines this book, is Karen Memery’s unique voice: the tone is conversational, the attitude is matter-of-fact and the speech pattern is unrefined, but these elements blend into a pleasing, fun and engrossing atmosphere that takes you straight into the story and makes it real.  Far from suffering from a “fallen angel” syndrome, Karen approaches her life with straightforwardness and down-to-Earth wisdom, and sometimes even hints at some sort of professional pride, certainly engendered by Madame’s exacting standards.  At some point she gives an interesting definition of the Hotel’s patrons: They think they want a woman, but what they really want is a flattering looking glass wearing lipstick and telling them what they want to hear – there is no criticism in her words, only the end result of observation and experience, bonded with a good dose of practicality: Karen feels no reason to be judged, so she does not judge others in return, accepting life’s different sides with the same wholesome outlook, no matter what.

It’s worth stressing the fact that the main characters in the book have something in common – they are outsiders: Madame Damnable’s girls for obvious reasons, Marshal Reeves because he’s black and his deputy a Native American, and so on. Yet they don’t act as outcasts because they draw strength and courage from the support they offer each other, and this is one of the traits that make them special and lend the story its main appeal.   The overall feeling is that of a tightly-knit group of people who are as close as family and as such face any challenge or threat that might come their way. This is also reinforced by the awareness that these individuals are defined by their personality, and the way it works within the group’s dynamics, rather than by any outward difference: for example, Bea, one of Karen’s co-workers, is black; Miss Francina is trans-gender and Karen herself is attracted to women rather than men.   What the author managed here is to portray these differences as… non differences: the characters’ diversity is just an integral part of their psychological makeup, the organic and genuine representation of people, and for this very reason it carries a far stronger message than any impassioned preaching could have achieved.

The story itself is a compelling one, piling up difficulties for the characters in a breath-stealing crescendo that often leaves you wondering about their chances for success or survival, but the biggest surprise comes at the end, in the Author’s Note: here Elizabeth Bear reveals that Madam Damnable is loosely based on the figure of Mary Ann Conklin from Seattle, who ran an establishment that was part courthouse and part bordello. On reading this detail I went in search of more information online, and discovered that Ms. Conklin’s nickname of Mother Damnable came from her extensive use of foul language (a trait the fictional Madame shares) and that she could swear fluently in several languages.  In the same way, Merry Lee owes some of her traits to several courageous women who risked everything to help others who were “exploited, enslaved and legislated against”.  Marshal Bass Reeves, on the other hand, was a real, flesh-and-blood person: born a slave in 1838, he became a free man with the abolition of slavery in 1865 and his superior detective skills helped in securing several dangerous criminals to justice.

I found all this to be as fascinating as the fictional parts of the book: the need to know more, to dig deeper into areas I knew nothing about, was indeed a bonus. A book that sparks my curiosity, and compels me to look beyond its confines, is a special one and I admire the seamless way in which Bear melded history and fantasy in a cohesive and engaging story.  This is an author I need to keep on my watch list.

My Rating: 8/10