I am having trouble describing the genre that Vermilion deals in with any accuracy because there is a lot going on in this thing. “Dark fantasy” is way too vague a term and “weird western” doesn’t really cover the riches within these pages. Perhaps we could invent a term and hype it up accordingly- in which case I nominate “jiangshipunk”. Anyway, Vermilion charts the adventures of Lou Merriwether, a 19- year old Taoist psychopomp (Greek world, means “soul guide”), living and working in 1870s San Francisco. Lou is tasked with guiding the unquiet spirits of the dead to the afterlife, so that their recently deceased owners can find peace. She has inherited the job from her late father, but life among the immigrant communities of the West Coast is hard and her mixed heritage and difficult relationship with her mother complicates things. When she is asked to track down a number of missing young workers who have disappeared somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, she jumps at the chance. Unsurprisingly though, this is case has far wider implications that our amateur detective has anticipated, especially considering that this is a world where outlaws and monsters are running wild. And did I mention the talking bears and sea lions?
The novel could have been a self- conscious mess. Tanzer (whose deliciously wicked A Pretty Mouth I liked even more than Vermilion) is juggling a number of genre tropes and themes here and at times the whole construct is in danger of collapsing. It never does though, partly because beneath all the weirdness lies a time- honoured adventure story and partly because the disparate elements keep the reader invested. Every time I thought I had the book pegged as a specific thing, it would swerve into some wholly new and entertaining territory: Chinese mythology- flavoured occult yarn, picaresque western, opulent vampire chronicle, etc., etc. There are dragon fossils, inept monster slayers, pansexual brothels, snake oil salesmen in possession of the elixir of life, jackalopes, tobacco- obsessed talking bears and a general penchant for gender- bending. I totally approve. Tanzer does a great job conveying the flavours and colors of the era and the effect is synaesthesia- inducing. In fact, by the time the bears showed up, I realized that I had been visualizing the story as some sort of 80s- era Disney animated feature (but with extra bloodshed). Tanzer never flinches from showing the racism and unbearable brutality that Chinese railroad workers of the era had to deal with on an every day basis and she never resorts to melodrama.
If there’s a drawback, it’s that Vermilion feels like one of Lou’s adventure’s out of many. She is a likeable character and this is one of those occasions where the work would be somewhat diminished if this was her only outing. Which basically means that I ‘d love to see more of her adventures.