Vermillion by Molly Tanzer
Word Horde, TPB, USD$16.99, ISBN 9781939905086. Cover art by Dalton Rose. Cover design by Osiel Gómez. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Molly Tanzer is an award-nominated author of short fiction. With several collections already to her name, Vermillion is her debut novel, and it’s a peculiar book.
Not peculiar bad, mind you. Just peculiar. There’s enough material and sheer badass bizarre worldbuilding in Vermillion to do for any three other novels, and Tanzer sticks in all of it in a single volume. It makes for an odd, off-balance experience, in terms of immersion and structure. And yet it works, somehow: Tanzer has sufficient command of the tools of her craft to make the novel work as a unity.
But I get ahead of myself. Publishers’ Weekly described Vermillion as a mix of “steampunk and ghost story,” but that’s rather misleading. Vermillion reminds me rather more of a modern-day penny dreadful or dime novel, chock full of incidents and events — but with far better characterisation than is typical of either.
Nineteen-year-old Lou Merriweather is a psychopomp. The daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, she’s inherited her father’s business in 19th century San Francisco, and she’s making a decent living sending ghosts, shades, and geung si on to the afterworld, whether or not they want to go — while passing for a man. That is, until she hears that young men from Chinatown who went away in search of work have gone missing somewhere in Colorado. And until one of them comes home dead in a crate full of patent medicine called “the Elixir of Life,” and well on the way to becoming a geung si.* Lou doesn’t especially want to investigate what’s happened to them, as her skills are more suiting to placating spirits than tracking down the living, but there’s no one else willing and able to go. And with a conspiracy apparently disappearing young Chinese men, her conscience — not to mention her mother — doesn’t leave her much choice.
Her quest into Colorado leads her to a ruthless but friendly young man called Shai and a sanatorium known as the Fountain of Youth. The Fountain of Youth is run by a doctor who’s also a vampire — and Shai’s lover — and who’s just a touch on the megalomaniac side. Not only is Dr. Panacea running the sanatorium to bring him a semi-constant supply of human “food,” but he’s been keeping the Chinese workers prisoner to help build him a flying machine. Lou finds herself in the middle of a pretty sticky situation, and she’s not just risking her own life. Because by coincidence the sanatorium is playing host to her childhood friend Bo Wang, who’s dying of consumption, and with whom she’s been in love for a very long time — even though he loves another man, himself. And another of the sanatorium’s patients, teenaged girl Coriander — who’s been dispatched to the Fountain of Youth by her parents in the hope that the doctor can cure her of her patently unnatural attraction to other women — involves herself in Lou’s investigations.
And everything blows up in their faces. The desperate action of the climax almost belongs in a different book entirely, as allies and enemies square off in open fighting while Dr. Panacea launches his man-made dragon into the sky. Can Lou successfully save herself and friends old and new? And what happens, afterwards?
Vermillion is a hell of a ride. Action interspersed with introspection; conflict with scenery; otherness with belonging. It has talking sealions and tribes of sentient bears whose treaties with the United States forbid the building of railways; it has monster-hunters and psychopomps. And it is interested in outsiders, people caught between communities or pushed outside of them. (It doesn’t shy away from depicting anti-Chinese racism, for example, but it’s just as happy to show friendly relationships that cross race, class, and gender lines: it’s not, for example, a particularly heteronormative book.)
Lou is a fascinating character, whose youth and whose position as the child of immigrants determines how she interacts with the world. Her brashness, combined with her innocence, makes her point of view both interesting and believable. And while Vermillion is unevenly paced, it’s still remarkably compelling. I enjoyed reading it.
And I’m really rather looking forward to seeing what Tanzer does next.
*A sort of Chinese undead.
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