The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Sharon K. Goetz on Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion.
Long before I was asked to review a book in this venue, Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion caught my interest. Its cover uses neutral browns, greys, greens, and blues to depict a figure swinging a medical-style bag while crossing windy grassland. Like the almost garish brush-strokes of the title, the figure’s goggle lenses are picked out in bright cinnabar tones. The synopsis is good, too, since I don’t usually twig to cover art: “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.” Steampunk-era San Francisco (“weird Western”) with an embrace of the city’s Chinese traditions? Yes, please.
The unitary Lou whom we see on the cover comes apart once the narrative begins. Lou, who dresses male both for work and for reasons that Lou doesn’t quite examine, has been contracted to exorcise the spirit of an unpleasant Army lieutenant’s dead wife. Naturally, the lieutenant has lied about how long ago his wife died and by which means; Lou’s pragmatic concern is to avoid being overpowered by the spirit. The exorcism’s physical and psychological depletion sets an agreeable tone of an alt-San Francisco with better texture than some, and with the intriguing inclusion of sentient bears and sea-lions. Lou’s mother, a herbalist, soon steps forward despite estrangement to ask Lou to investigate rumors of a ghostly railroad and the disappearance of young Chinese men: “I am inclined to believe something more earthly is stealing away the sons of the Middle Kingdom, but I do not know what it might be” (p. 45). Between the earthly and unearthly stands Lou, whose sympathy and righteousness are engaged as she learns what little may be learned about the case in San Francisco.
In Part Two, Lou carries her investigation by train to Cheyenne; she shares tobacco with a bear, then is picked up unexpectedly by a polite, ruthless person named Shai. Having the wit to offer guest-right to the bear is the last clever, thoughtful, or even selfishly savvy thing Lou does for most of Part Two. You will have readerly expectations different from mine, whoever you are, and you may enjoy how the narrative overtakes any given character’s subjectivity for the sake of crafting a whiz-bang adventure featuring treachery, a gender range wider than binary, and an immortal with unusual employees. Many other reviewers have (e.g., NPR)! To be clear, I love those things, too, and gender in particular is handled with a care and vibrancy that would be belied by any reviewer’s attempt to match specific characters with labels.
Two things detract somewhat from my enjoyment of Vermilion as a whole. For me, it’s all right that Lou’s various partial memberships—neither comfortably female nor male, neither white nor yellow, neither fully in the earthly world nor out of it—come with certain shorthand tags. A narrative needs to make a story of recognizable things or risk bogging down. Thus, the invocation of the common topos of the ungrateful daughter and misunderstanding mother is acceptable; that Lou manages the odd feat of passing as Chinese to every single non-Chinese character, including one who I’d thought would know better, yet also passing as white till choosing to out herself two ways at the brothel, is acceptable. (In real life, double-passing is rare to non-existent.) What I hadn’t expected is for Part One’s worldbuilding mode to come with careful characterization and Part Two’s action mode to flatten it, at times sacrificing character to plot. To put it another way, Lou of Part One is proactive; Lou of Part Two is much more reactive. Part One does its job too well, in a way!
The aspect of the book’s final chapters which cements my sense of flattened characters is extremely spoilery, so I can’t describe it in detail. It involves bears, and it involves them in a peculiarly typed way that evokes stereotypical descriptions of Native Americans. Since no Native characters appear here in what is otherwise a strongly built US Western setting, it would be encouraging to learn more about them in Lou’s world, to see more of the bears and sea-lions, and to journey again with Lou, should Tanzer decide to continue Lou’s adventures.
Sharon K. Goetz works for a print-and-digital project that creates critical editions. Too fond of textuality for her own good, she has also written software manuals and completed a PhD investigating medieval English chronicles amidst their manuscript contexts. As time permits, she reads widely and plays computer games.