Molly Tanzer, 2015
High in the Rocky Mountains of late nineteenth-century Colorado there is a sanatorium. It is run by one Dr. Panacea. That's Dr. Panacea. You can now be confident to the ninety-fifth percentile as to whether this book is something you’ll enjoy as rambunctious fun, or if it will only serve to annoy the everloving shit out of you.
The rolling hills studded with iron-grey scrub brush and patches of low spiny cactus yielded to true mountain terrain—at least so it seemed to Lou. The canyon walls seemed impossibly high; the cold smell of winter pine trees dizzying…
It’s also got anthropomorphic wildlife and ghosts and a non-cis protagonist and non- binary supporting characters and undead romance and monster hunters and bears. Oh my!
Lou Merriweather is a nineteen-year-old half-Chinese half-English psychopomp living in an early-industrial San Francisco so riddled with ghosts and the supernatural that they’ve enacted ordinances in order to deal with them. Lou has inherited her late father’s business and works with her bag of suitably steampunk paraphernalia to shepherd the souls of the restless dead into the next world – a psychopomp essentially being an exorcist with a scientific veneer and a more intricate kit-bag. When her mother hears word of scores of men being lured from Chinatown with promises of railroad work only to disappear entirely, Lou finds herself pressured to investigate, and when the zombified corpse of one of the men is shipped home in a packing crate stuffed with snake-oil, Lou goes full P.I. and heads to the interior to find out what’s what.
Lou seems almost purposefully designed to be one of those characters that the more reactionary members of the SFF ‘community’ tend to get pissy about in terms of ‘ticking the PC boxes’: in addition to her mixed heritage she’s also a transvestite who, in intent if not in practice, appears to be bisexual. Though honestly, I’m not sure if any of that terminology is correct. Her tentative considerations of the more ambiguous facets of her sexual orientation are handled with an assured lightness and subtlety, and no little humour:
The look in his eyes—it might have been longing, or even hunger. The sexy kind of hunger, like she’d read about in books.
Her attitude to dress, meanwhile is more bluntly utilitarian: she dresses as a man and is quite content not to correct people if they jump to their own conclusions (as I did before I got a properly close look at that wonderful cover). She’s also awkward and chippy and headstrong, as well she might be given that in practically every situation she finds herself she’s going to be excluded by one or both or all of the ‘communities’ (there are those scare quotes again) she might notionally belong to. And you know what? Ticking all those boxes means she’s interesting. More like this please; I really should start building a library of mixed-race characters who exist for reasons beyond representing the exotically safe other. Suggestions on a postcard to the usual address, please.
Anyway, back to Vermilion. Identity and passing and belonging are clearly important themes, and I’d be lying if I said that their treatment was especially subtle, but then neither is Lou, out of some degree of necessity. She’s the reason this all works as well as it does (and it does). As a character she’s wonderfully constructed; the considerations of performing her own marked identity in such an unmarked manner obviously driving the author to properly consider how it would and should be done. And while the right-on bludgeon does get wielded on a couple of occasions, for the most part the negotiations of identity come through as entirely organic to the character and the context in which she exists. She’s easily my favourite novel character so far this year.
That context is also glorious; a kind of counter-factual fantastika wherein a race of sentient bears played a decisive role in deciding the American civil war, so earning concessions from the North that included the halting of all railway construction in the American West, to obviously detrimental effect on its subsequent economic development. The West is still very much Wild, then, and in the most literal sense, populated by sasquatches and jackalopes and all manner of other mythical fauna. The care and regard for the foundation myths of the American hinterland are both palpable and critical, a difficult balance to pull off and one that Tanzer achieves with style.
As for weaknesses, I think we could usefully group these into two categories, those that don’t really matter, and those that might. In the former category is the occasional tendency for the dialogue to shade over into info-dumpy exposition, and every so often Lou’s motivations are reported when you suspect they might have been better demonstrated. However, both these are essentially about manifestation of character, and there’s enough good character work done elsewhere to compensate amply.
In the second group, I initially thought I’d be talking about the pacing. The first half of the book doesn’t exactly drag, but up until about two-thirds of the way through I thought I’d be writing about how it could have done with tighter editing and being 15-20% shorter. However, on closer examination I’m not sure that’s right: the obvious ways to do this would have been by cutting some of those scenic descriptions or streamlining the dialogue, but there really aren’t that many of the former (which, by the way, emphasizes just how memorably well they’re done), and one of the reasons info-dumps are common is precisely because they’re efficient ways of moving the story on.
The final quarter of the book, meanwhile, is a headlong rush towards a rousing conclusion and slightly anticlimactic coda, and I think this suggests the real reason the earlier sections feel a little less than urgent, because it’s not until we’re a good 70% of the way in that we actually meet the main antagonist. It’s not the pacing that’s off, it’s the tension (though of course they’re largely indivisible). Prior to the appearance of the Big Bad, there’s really no sense that Lou is in any immediate danger, and more seriously there are no existentially threatening opponents for her to knock up against until the final chapters. This is not to deny how the slow-grind of race- and other identity-based microaggressions can eventually wear down a person’s sense of self, but by definition slow-grinds don’t make for seat-of-the-pants storytelling. The middle act of the traditional three act structure is often labeled as ‘rising tension’, and here it doesn’t rise so much as puff-up slightly; being denied entry to a hotel (again) is somewhat less dramatic that being tortured with a pair of pliers, and a journey driven by a sense of social obligation is less compelling than a journey driven by an imminent threat of death.
No, that’s not true. Social obligations and bucking against them can be hugely compelling, but the slow teasing apart of an individual’s psyche is associated more with literary fiction than steampunk for a reason. This is not to say that steampunk is an inherently unsophisticated subgenre, or that it can’t do these things, but, y’know… Punk. If you’re going to populate a story with cowboys and talking bears and Chinese zombies then you’re going to create certain expectations in the mind of the reader. Vermilion eventually comes good in this regard, but the path it takes to get there is a touch more leisurely than the subject matter would lead you to expect or want.
A lot of this is down to that second act, which consists of a relatively peril-free road-trip towards the fateful sanatorium of Dr P., and whose principal purpose is the establishment of Shai, the main supporting character. This means that the action is a little sparse and, [BIG OLD SPOILERY SPOILERS HERE] furthermore, that the almost complete about-face Shai performs in the final act, while entirely congruent with the greater themes of passing and identity, does leaves you feeling a little perplexed at an individual level; it’s not a character arc so much as a character cliff. Likewise, the bears promised so much but are disappointingly absent for much of the book; after hanging an obviously ursine-shaped gun above the mantelpiece at the end of the first act, when the story finally fires it in the coda it’s a bit of a damp squib.
[SPOILERPHOBES CAN OPEN THEIR EYES NOW. OR WHATEVER] Now, I said these latter issues might be problems. They’re basically structural, and as such their impact can only be properly assessed in reference to the whole. Taken as a stand-alone book, this is a fun work with a superbly realised protagonist and important thematic explorations, whose breadth of imagination is somewhat undermined by an unclear sense of structural cohesion. However, since finishing this I’ve read an interview with Tanzer where she hints that this will not be the last of Lou’s adventures, and this changes everything. As the establishing work in a series, the focus on theme and character at the expense of plot and resolution can be much more easily forgiven, and those threads left hanging turn from anticlimaxes and frustratingly unrealized missed opportunities to deftly planted seeds promising future growth.
Most importantly of all, however, is that I want more Lou, and if I need to construct a pompous and high falutin’ critical argument in order to justify that then so be it. Vermillion is good, and I have every faith that the sequel (there will be a sequel, right? RIGHT?) will be even better. More like this please.