I am a sucker for interstitial characters: those literary beings who work the borderlands and thresholds, guiding other characters and the reader from one state of being to another. In Vermilion, her first novel, Molly Tanzer introduces us to Lou Merriwether. Lou is half Chinese and half English; she is a female who dresses as a male and she is a psychopomp, a magical artisan whose skill is to guide spirits of the dead across the threshold into the afterlife — even if they don’t want to go. You want your interstices? Lou can help you with that.
Lou lives and works in 1870s San Francisco, in a world different from ours. With a Chinese mother and an English father, now dead, Lou doesn’t fit comfortably in either culture. She is making a living as a psychopomp when her mother volunteers her to explore a Chinatown mystery. Several young Chinese men have followed an advertisement for work in Colorado. None of them has written home or been heard from since, and soon one of the mothers discovers that her son has become a geung si, a Chinese vampire. Clearly, something is very wrong in Colorado, and Lou agrees to go explore.
In Colorado, Lou infiltrates a “sanitarium” run by Dr. Panacea, who also markets a healthful elixir. Dr. Panacea’s Elixir of Life is not quite what it seems, and neither is the sanitarium.
Lou’s magical psychopomp tools are imaginative and concretely described. In San Francisco, we see the ways in which the world is different, with sentient bears and sea lions who own the franchise for the ferries that criss-cross San Francisco Bay. I liked the sea lions, but as the book continued and the bears became more of a plot point, I grew to love the bears.
Lou has Western attitudes and a Western mode of speech, so the moments when she seems Chinese, which mostly involve interactions with her mother or with food, are few but touching. She emerges early in the book as a young woman who has learned to be tough or at least project toughness, who is still enough a product of her culture to be hot-cheeked with embarrassment when she spots two men having sex in an alley, and again in Colorado when she spends the night at an inn that caters to an (ahem) “unusual” interest. Her relationship with her mother and the nature of unfinished business between them adds a bit of vulnerability to her character.
As the mystery progresses, Tanzer plays both with gender roles and identity. Lou is not the only person who is other than she seems. Shai, Dr.Panacea’s loyal servant, is beautiful, vulnerable, and shadowy. Many of the guests are also not quite as they present themselves. And where are those missing Chinese men?
Tanzer’s prose is filled with wicked wit. Her descriptions are good. They are not necessarily lyrical but they get the job done, especially in sections where Lou is traveling up into the Colorado Rockies, and later at the sanitarium, which occupies a wonderful cave complex. I did think that the book bogged down during Lou’s journey from the train station to the sanitarium, with a lot of travelogue and exposition. Generally, in a couple of places the pacing flagged. While I enjoyed the mystery aspect of this story, and many of the images in the final dramatic fight scenes, I loved this book best when Lou was in San Francisco.
Vermilion is a fun puzzle, a gender-and-genre bending romp. A few people have labeled it steampunk. To me, it is never true steampunk until a mechanical contraption shows up. There is a contraption in Vermilion, and it is completely worth the wait. Some of those awesome images I liked are employed in the description of the “secret project” at the heart of the story.
With a subtitle of “The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp,” Vermilion looks like the start of a series. Tanzer creates a fantastical world that holds together, with a fantastic character at its heart. I would love to read more Lou Merriwether adventures.