Karen had to learn to do for herself years ago when her beloved Da died, leaving her orphaned and penniless. Working as a high-class prostitute isn’t exactly what her parents would have wanted, but she’s good at it, and she’s comfortably situated at the finest bordello in Rapid City, where the girls are well fed and protected from abuse; any man that tries to cross the line will face the wrath of the proprietress herself: Madame Damnable. The employees of the Hôtel Mon Cherie are even allowed to keep forty percent of their considerable wages; Karen plans in a few years to save up enough money to buy her own stable and become a respectable businesswoman.
And then one night the girls are startled by the arrival of the vigilante Merry Lee, badly-wounded after rescuing one of the many women kept prisoner in the dockside cribs for the sailors’ uses. Hot on their heels is the pimp, Peter Bantle, and his whole posse. Soon Karen’s mostly squared-away life is thrown into a chaos of sadistic flesh-peddlers, secret plots, a US Marshall and his Comanche partner hunting a mysterious figure killing streetwalkers, and most importantly Priya, the half-starved crib-worker Merry Lee rescued who just happens to be the loveliest woman Karen has seen in all her life.
The setting of Rapid City (a fantasy-version of Seattle or San Francisco) in the late 19th century technically puts this book in the Weird Western genre. But with the steam-powered automatons and airships and mind-controlling gauntlets, Elizabeth Bear’s latest novel Karen Memory is one of the most gloriously steampunk books I’ve ever read.