Book Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

A few weeks ago I read a rave review of a book called Vermilion on NPR’s website. I am the type of person who typically believes everything NPR tells me, so when they wrote that the book is “a unique, hearty, thought-provoking romp that rewrites history with a vivacious flourish,” and described its protagonist as “one of the most delightful and charismatic fictional creations in recent memory,” I knew I had to pick it up.

Lou Merriwether, our protagonist, is introduced to us on the Amazon sell page as a “gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp.” I’m already in love. What the sell page fails to mention, and what makes Lou even more interesting, is that she’s a girl who prefers to pass as a boy, and isn’t entirely sure that she doesn’t have romantic inclinations towards the fairer sex. All this is to say that, on paper, Lou meets and exceeds all of NPR’s ravings about her innovative, exceptionally realistic character.

With exceedingly high expectations, I loaded up my Kindle copy and dived in nose first.

The story is set in an alternative history – an 1860s setting where talking bears and seals (or sea lions? I can never remember the difference) intermingle with humans, where ghosts, zombies, vampires, and werewolves are as common as bounty hunters and diamond thieves. Discrimination, however, is no less common in Tanzer’s imagined history than it was in reality; the Chinese, the Native Americans are every bit as marginalized as they were in true history, with the bear community thrown in to boot. Lou’s journey takes her from relatively civilized San Francisco to the wilds of Wyoming and finally into Estes Park, Colorado, and the characters she meets at every stage of her journey are as wild and various as she is.

Were my expectations met? Yes, I suppose. I got what I paid for – a rollicking good ride, a brilliantly diverse cast, a page-turning mystery/adventure with as many magical elements as historical. Did I enjoy it? Aye, without a doubt – especially once Lou arrived in Wyoming, and the game was afoot, so to speak, it was impossible not to be drawn into the story.

Yet, something seemed lacking. Hard to put my finger exactly on what. Was I hoping, perhaps, for the occasional pretty turn of phrase? The book is hardly spare, but neither is it particularly descriptive. The language was perfectly competent, if unexciting – nothing to write home about. Was it, perhaps, the banality of the setting, especially once Lou reaches the Sanatorium, where the bulk of the mystery takes place? Hearing about the calisthenics classes, the other patients at the San, and the nitty-gritty of the healing regimes seemed to me utterly trivial, and while some of it was amusing, many more of these details seemed unimportant and distracting. Was I distracted, maybe, by the many twists and turns the plot took? I was, admittedly, sometimes a little confused – mystery isn’t my genre, and I may have been a bit out of practice in terms of following the many threads of the story from beginning to end.

And then there’s Lou’s journey from Wyoming to Estes Park with the strange and captivating Shai, who is perhaps the most prominent secondary character in the book. Lou comes close to falling in love with Shai, before they have a dramatic falling out and part ways shortly before Lou arrives at the Sanatorium. Shai crosses the line between ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ at leas a half-dozen times before the end of the book; it’s safe to say that for me, the end of his story was unsatisfactory, and left me wondering why I’d invested so much time in him to begin with.

But then, maybe Tanzer was just laying the groundwork for a sequel. The book certainly ends on a note that could mark the beginning of a series, and Lou would be one of the most interesting detective-adventurers to grace the bookshelves of that category. If Tanzer wrote and published a sequel, I’d devour it, not only for the joy of meeting Lou and her weird, weird world again, but also in the hopes that Tanzer’s second in the series will be better than her first.

All in all, four out of five stars – a wonderful read that sucked me in and charmed me, with a few elements that could be improved on in future installments. I hope Molly Tanzer does have a sequel up her sleeve; and I hope that if you’re a fan of my friend Jess West’s and J. Edward Paul’s “Weird West” genre of stories, you’ll check out Vermilion, because it not only falls into the category, it stands out.