Stone Mad: Spirits, steampunk, and science

Stone Mad by Elizabeth BearStone Mad by Elizabeth Bear fantasy book reviewsStone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear instantly charmed me with her 2015 novel Karen Memory, in which a young “seamstress” battles against greed and corruption with the aid of her friends, a U.S. Marshal, and a hulking ambulatory sewing machine. The first follow-up tale, Stone Mad (2018), is a slight novella jam-packed with action, adventure, folklore, and romantic strife.

Karen Memery and her brilliant girlfriend, Priya, are treating themselves to a top-notch dinner at the Rain City Riverside Hotel, with plans to go see an illusionist’s widow performing his stage show afterward. Karen’s healed up from her previous effort to save Rapid City, they’ve moved from the Hôtel Ma Cherie to their own little homestead, and they’re as close to married as two ladies in their time and place can be, so it’s time to celebrate. Their lovely evening is spoiled when a pair of spiritualists known as the Arcade Sisters cause a fuss and accidentally awaken a tommy-knocker in the hotel’s basement, nearly bringing the building down around their ears. It’ll take all of Karen’s gumption and pluck to set things right, especially since her insistence on tackling this mystery drives a deep wedge between herself and Priya, and doing the right thing may prove to be the worst decision possible.

The Arcade Sisters seem to be influenced by, but not directly drawn from, various individuals and pairs of spiritualists throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their antics and devotion to their stage personas are admirable, especially when Bear reveals the secrets and genuine cleverness behind their success. The widow Mrs. Micajah Horner herself is a fictional creation, as well, though it’s no fiction that women of a comparable era would have been relegated to re-creating their husband’s stage shows rather than performing their own acts. Karen lives in an only slightly-sideways version of our own reality, and Bear does a good job of incorporating historical precedent into this Gold Rush town.

I made a point of re-reading Karen Memory right before reading Stone Mad, and there’s a slight tonal shift between the two books. (Perhaps Karen’s been influenced by listening to months of Priya’s sometimes-maddeningly proper grammar.) The entire story within Stone Mad could have used a little more feeding, rather like Priya herself — I would have liked to see more of Karen and Priya simply being together, so that their disagreements and Karen’s hard-headed attempts at reconciliation could carry more weight. As happy as I was to see honest, adult examinations of what it means to be beholden to and responsible for another person, and for those examinations to be given equal weight regardless of the party in question’s gender or sexual preferences, there was often a sense of telling the reader how much Karen and Priya love one another rather than showing it.

Still, I was glad to get a chance to read another of Karen’s wild adventures, and I certainly hope there will be more to come. It’s always a pleasure to see interesting chances taken with a genre like steampunk, and Bear provides a heart-warming story of redemption in among Stone Mad’s crashes and machinery.

Published March 20, 2018. Now Karen is back with Stone Mad, a new story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker―a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City. Karen and Priya are out for a night on the town, celebrating the purchase of their own little ranch and Karen’s retirement from the Hotel Ma Cherie, when they meet the Arcadia Sisters, spiritualists who unexpectedly stir up the tommy-knocker in the basement. The ensuing show could bring down the house, if Karen didn’t rush in to rescue everyone she can.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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4 comments

  1. April Vrugtman /

    This one is on my to read list. I loved the first one.

  2. The two spiritualists sounded to me like the Fox sisters, but as you said, there were many family groups devoted to exploring spiritualism.

    • The Arcade Sisters aren’t an exact analogue for the Fox Sisters, but I definitely had them in mind throughout the novella. :)

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