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Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

This entry is part 46 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts get published with some lag. I’m trying to be more punctual, though, and this one’s very recent.

Though I’ve never been much for Westerns, Vermilion: The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp was a fun ride. I mean that quite literally: the audiobook entertained me while cycling around Sejong City in the dark of night. 

The story  is entertainingly creepy and weird, and I was surprised how recognizable Tanzer’s voice is here, given how different the book is from the other novel of hers that I’ve read. Some of that is her tone, some of it the subject matter, but I think a lot of it is little things: the way her characters often admit to disarmingly awkward truths about themselves, the little weird combination of innocence and worldliness they seem to have, a propensity for including a touch of gleeful smut here and here. Well, I say “they” but this is only the second book by Tanzer that I’ve read (the last being The Pleasure Merchant)… and yet that sense of familiarity was inescapable. 

Clever as the story’s twists were, it was the setting that really fascinated me: the author’s take on the “weird west” subgenre is set late in the old west (in the 1870s), and it manages to engage with real-life issues from the time—the racism against and maltreatment of Chinese immigrants, the dangers of the old West, the dark side of the Westward Expansion (which seems to have been stalled in this world)—while also including things like intelligent animal folk and enough problems involving the undead that psychopomps provide a necessary service—elements that, far from being just window-dressing, end up being quite important to the narrative. There are also tantalizing hints of the wider world, one in which where dragons once flew, at least in the skies of the far East, and where other occult forces seem to lurk just beneath the surface at every turn. 

That’s not to sell the characters short. We see this world through the eyes of an outsider character who is stubborn, tough, and smart but with the occasional streak of naïveté. Seeing the world through Lou Merriwether’s eyes is especially interesting because she’s liminal in a number of ways, caught between worlds—racially (as a half-Chinese and half-English person), as a psychopomp (which means she is able to interact with the dead), and in terms of her gender presentation (she dresses as a man out of habit and a desire for safety). Because of this liminality, Merriwether is able to perceive a lot of elements in the setting that others would miss. The minor characters also are all wonderfully particularized and fun, too… the nice ones and the nasty ones alike. I also very much enjoyed the look at the annoyances and strains of sanatorium life offered by the book: it was fun to see the inside of a “wellness center” of the sort that seem to have become a thing at that time, with the weird twists that are natural to this fantastical setting. 

Anyway, I had great fun with the book, and recommend it. 

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