If you find yourself in late 1800’s San Francisco with a ghost in your house you might be tempted to call an exorcist, or a ghost hunter, but you’d be wrong. What you need is a Psychopomp. A Psychopomp would calm the spirit down, open up a door to the afterlife, and convince the ghost to leave, and in Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion Lou Merriwether is your best choice. Merriwether is a foul mouthed 19-year-old half Chinese girl pretending to be a boy that is amazing at her job. That might seem like a lot to unpack, but in Tanzer’s take on the weird west that is just the first chapter. So sit down and get ready for a crazy ride that is entertaining and thought-provoking.
Set in post-Civil War San Francisco we are introduced to Merriwether mid spirit removal. She is spunky, doesn’t take crap from anyone, and is very detailed in her job. Merriwether has taken over her father’s business, being able to do jobs both in and out of Chinatown. At her mother’s request she is sent looking for a number of lost boys from Chinatown. Through a bit of detective work she discovers the boys were last seen going up to the Colorado Rockies to work on something mysterious involving a sanitorium tied to a cure-all called the Elixir of Life. As Merriwether works her way up to the mountains she partners up with a man named Shai, battles some bandits, and discovers an old friend. Obviously, there’s some evil afoot in the sanitorium and Merriwether has to do battle with a vampire. He just happens to be a vampire that worked with Lazarus, has a plan to rule the air and feed off the people of America. Vermilion definitely puts the weird in weird west.
The book moves at a decent pace, only dragging near the end. I’m not saying the ending is bad, it is a satisfying ending with a great action sequence. But, it feels like it could have been trimmed up, there is a lot of padding distracting you from the main plot. That is just a small part, the rest of the book is tight and focused, with a wonderful friendship story and enough bits of action to move the plot along.
Shai and Merriwether’s friendship is the heart of the book. The dynamic between the two shine through on each page, bordering on a love story, except for the simple fact that both of them have a secret keeping them apart. Right from the start the lies pile up, with Merriwether pretending to be a boy and Shai not quite what he appears. As they travel to the Rockies together, secrets are revealed, enemies are battled, and their friendship blossoms. Their ride through the countryside is beautiful, Tanzer paints a glorious landscape that matches up with some of the great Westerns. She also builds in some humor as we watch Merriwether try to hide the fact that she is boy, only to find out that Shai already knew. Then she worries he is falling in love with him and tries her best to let him down, again to discover that he is in love with someone else. It was a lot of fun to read and see their journey.
We see the world of Vermilion through Merriwether’s eyes. She is a great narrator to be with as she deals with racism and sexism in San Francisco/old America. It’s really interesting to get this perspective and to learn about the struggles of being Chinese during this time. Then we also have her pretending to be a boy, knowing it’ll help her get jobs and that others will treat her with more respect. These two issues are not the main focus of the book, but it’s an undercurrent that cuts through the story. I appreciate that Tanzer thought to put them in here, elevating the story to something more than a simple Western.
The worldbuilding in Vermilion is top notch. The ability to create a thing like Pyschopomps, making it blue collar, and seem like a real thing is a wonderful example of a master at work. Merriwether has a host of tools to help her move spirits on, including a toy bee, special goggles, a gun that has vermilion bullets, and needle and thread. Then we have monster hunters, vampires, and talking bears.
Yes, talking bears.
The bears helped the Union win the Civil War, granting them multiple rights within the human world. Though these rights are not always respected, especially during hibernation season. There is a great scene with a bear that has the mundane job of making sure legislation is being followed while other bears sleep. I wish we could have explored that world a bit more, we only scratch the surface of it. But, I love the fact that all of these things are living in the same world without much question. There isn’t a massive freak out when a ghost is buzzing around a house, no one has a meltdown when they see a bear selling food. It’s just a weird world and everyone is living in it.
Vermilion is a beautiful western ghost story that mixes the two tropes in a wonderful stew of action and intelligence. The complicated characters are colourful and will pull at your heartstrings. When you get on this train you’ll be raced down a twisting track until you go up the cold steep mountain to face off with a vampire, the conductor leaving you with the train at top speed as he jumps for safety. The train will careen wildly down the cliff face until you smack into a satisfying ending that you’ll wish would last just a bit longer so you could spend some more time with Merriwether. If you are looking for a Weird Western that will keep you entertained and thinking, Vermilion will be the book you want to pick up.
Vermilion is available to purchase from Word Horde here.
Reviewed by Matthew Brandenburg
MOLLY TANZER is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist, 2012), Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations (Egaeus, 2013), this novel, and The Pleasure Merchant, forthcoming from Lazy Fascist in the fall of 2015. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. When not writing, she enjoys mixing cocktails, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, experimenting with Korean cooking, and (as of recently) training for triathlons.
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