Vermilion: A fascinating character in a fascinating alternate world

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsVermilion by Molly Tanzer SFF book reviewsVermilion by Molly Tanzer

I am a sucker for interstitial characters: those literary beings who work the borderlands and thresholds, guiding other characters and the reader from one state of being to another. In Vermilion, her first novel, Molly Tanzer introduces us to Lou Merriwether. Lou is half Chinese and half English; she is a female who dresses as a male and she is a psychopomp, a magical artisan whose skill is to guide spirits of the dead across the threshold into the afterlife — even if they don’t want to go. You want your interstices? Lou can help you with that.

Lou lives and works in 1870s San Francisco, in a world different from ours. With a Chinese mother and an English father, now dead, Lou doesn’t fit comfortably in either culture. She is making a living as a psychopomp when her mother volunteers her to explore a Chinatown mystery. Several young Chinese men have followed an advertisement for work in Colorado. None of them has written home or been heard from since, and soon one of the mothers discovers that her son has become a geung si, a Chinese vampire. Clearly, something is very wrong in Colorado, and Lou agrees to go explore.

In Colorado, Lou infiltrates a “sanitarium” run by Dr. Panacea, who also markets a healthful elixir. Dr. Panacea’s Elixir of Life is not quite what it seems, and neither is the sanitarium.

Lou’s magical psychopomp tools are imaginative and concretely described. In San Francisco, we see the ways in which the world is different, with sentient bears and sea lions who own the franchise for the ferries that criss-cross San Francisco Bay. I liked the sea lions, but as the book continued and the bears became more of a plot point, I grew to love the bears.

Lou has Western attitudes and a Western mode of speech, so the moments when she seems Chinese, which mostly involve interactions with her mother or with food, are few but touching. She emerges early in the book as a young woman who has learned to be tough or at least project toughness, who is still enough a product of her culture to be hot-cheeked with embarrassment when she spots two men having sex in an alley, and again in Colorado when she spends the night at an inn that caters to an (ahem) “unusual” interest. Her relationship with her mother and the nature of unfinished business between them adds a bit of vulnerability to her character.

As the mystery progresses, Tanzer plays both with gender roles and identity. Lou is not the only person who is other than she seems. Shai, Dr.Panacea’s loyal servant, is beautiful, vulnerable, and shadowy. Many of the guests are also not quite as they present themselves. And where are those missing Chinese men?

Tanzer’s prose is filled with wicked wit. Her descriptions are good. They are not necessarily lyrical but they get the job done, especially in sections where Lou is traveling up into the Colorado Rockies, and later at the sanitarium, which occupies a wonderful cave complex. I did think that the book bogged down during Lou’s journey from the train station to the sanitarium, with a lot of travelogue and exposition. Generally, in a couple of places the pacing flagged. While I enjoyed the mystery aspect of this story, and many of the images in the final dramatic fight scenes, I loved this book best when Lou was in San Francisco.

Vermilion is a fun puzzle, a gender-and-genre bending romp. A few people have labeled it steampunk. To me, it is never true steampunk until a mechanical contraption shows up. There is a contraption in Vermilion, and it is completely worth the wait. Some of those awesome images I liked are employed in the description of the “secret project” at the heart of the story.

With a subtitle of “The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp,” Vermilion looks like the start of a series. Tanzer creates a fantastical world that holds together, with a fantastic character at its heart. I would love to read more Lou Merriwether adventures.

April 15, 2015. Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong. When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it. On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive… From British Fantasy Award nominee Molly Tanzer comes debut novel Vermilion, a spirited weird Western adventure that puts the punk back into steampunk.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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5 comments

  1. well, you’ve certainly pique my interest with this one. Is the three mostly due to pacing? Because otherwise it sounds great.

  2. Bill, hard grader, remember? That said, most of my issues were with the pacing. By the way, her physical descriptions of locations are absolutely beautiful.

    • well, that clinches it. Sigh, now I’ll have to go back and revaluate all those other 3’s you gave. You’re killing me (and my book buying budget. You know, if I had a book buying budget. Or would recognize one even if it crawled into my ear and stretched itself out across my white and grey matter)

  3. This sounds fascinating and different in a very welcome way. Thanks, Marion!

  4. You sure sold me on this one, Marion! Thanks for the great review!

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