Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Author Molly Tanzer has been a longtime favorite here at the Arkham Digest. Both of her collections, A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion help set the standard for modern weird fiction. Vermilion is Molly Tanzer's first novel, and is one of the biggest releases of the year. The description from publisher Word Horde's website:

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…

The West is always best when it's served with a liberal dose of weird. Tanzer's novel is unique in many ways. Lou Merriwether, the protagonist, is a half-Chinese girl in a time and place where the Chinese are looked upon as being less than human. Being a psychopomp also further alienates her from the world, as people seem to regard people in her line of work as being creepy. Lou has a few close friends, but is a bit of a loner. She's stubborn and tough and far from perfect. She makes mistakes, sometimes acting without thinking, and berates herself for not thinking things through. She doesn't give up though, she is determined and tenacious.

Gender fluidity is also a prevalent theme throughout the novel, and the willingness to explore the subject is one of the novel's great strengths. Too often fantasy protagonists are generic, cookie-cutter characters, but not so in Molly Tanzer's fiction. Lou  is at her most comfortable wearing men's clothing and cutting her hair short, and going by Lou instead of Elouise. Her sexuality itself is a little less clear and defined. Gender fluidity doesn't end with Lou, but for the sake of spoilers I'll leave it at that. 

The diversity on display is perfect. Characters of all races and orientations are represented. The world building is excellent, and Molly has created a gritty Western world in which the supernatural exists alongside the normal. Bears talk and have their own civilization, co-existing with man despite tensions. Spiritual and undead threats are handled by professional psychopomps like Lou, while monsters are dealt with by licensed monster hunters. 

Woven throughout are elements of Chinese folklore and mythology. Geung Si, a hopping vampire/zombie hybrid from Chinese folklore, make a few appearances. While Lou has many tools at her disposal for her psychopompery, she deals with Geung Si by using more traditional Chinese methods. Her other methods deal with using some interesting, steampunk-esque technology. Tanzer created a really interesting system for how it all works, and I'd love to see more.

My only real complaint with the novel was the villain. At times he was way too hammy, one of those villains who catches the character only to reveal all by talking and talking and talking. Tanzer handled this well however, as even the protagonist refers to tiring of the villain and his "hammy" ways. This self-awareness helped me overlook what I thought to be the novel's one deficit.

Fans of fantastic adventure books and readers looking for something fun and different shouldn't hesitate to pick this one up, as it's already one of the best books of 2015.