Vermilion: The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp by Molly Tanzer is a fun adventure novel that is as intersectional in genre as it is in character. Set in the 1870s, it mixes bits from the pulp fiction, detective, fantasy, steampunk, and Weird West genres, just as its main character crosses gender, race, class, and geographical boundaries. Lou Merriwether is a psychopomp in an alternate 1870s San Francisco. She (Lou is short for Elouise) helps the spirits of the dead move to the next world, doing good business in a city that also plays host to werewolves and sasquatch—and counts among its productive citizens talking Bears and Sea Lions. Lou learned her trade from her father, Arthur, a white man who studied the art in China (specifically Toisan, where the majority of Chinese immigrants to the United States came from). While there he fell in love with Lou's mother, Ailien, and when they moved to San Francisco she set up shop as a successful apothecary. After Arthur's death, Lou took over his business. While she cannot hide her Chinese heritage, she does a lot of work in Chinatown and also uses white folk's stereotypes of "Celestials" to assure them that she can help them, too, with their undead problems. In order to do this, she successfully hides her gender—partly for practical reasons and partly because she looks damn good in men's clothes and likes it.
So, when Chinese men start disappearing in Colorado Territory in unusual circumstances, and one of them comes home in a box with his spirit transformed into a geung si (a kind of violent zombie or vampiric creature), Lou is the perfect person to figure out what's going on: ". . . she was the best person for the job. She was fluent in Chinese and in English, she knew the details of the case better than anyone, and she cared about the outcome, whatever it might be." (p. 72) And even if this means leaving her comfort zone, the big-city bustle of San Francisco, and heading out for the author's comfort zone, the wide open space of the front range of the Rocky Mountains, then that's what it takes. (Seriously, Tanzer's descriptions of the landscape, which I was living in until just recently, were perfect enough to make me homesick.)
Lou is a great character to spend an adventure with. She's active, somewhat ornery, and comes with a rich life history in which her socially liminal status really matters. She can kick ass, but also gets her ass handed to her when she charges into situations without thinking—which is pretty often. Frankly, if it weren't for the benevolence of the plot gods, a lot of her adventures would be cut terribly short. For instance, she blows her own cover immediately after getting off the train in Cheyenne, and only manages to salvage something of the thread, thanks to the mysterious Shai and his almost inexplicable kindness to her (which in turn overcomes his otherwise deep wariness and paranoia). Shai is another interesting character: when we meet him, "Lou thought she had imagined the voice, the touch; that she had turned only to catch sight of herself in a mirror. The person standing behind her was her same height and build, but she quickly realized the eyes into which she gazed were coffee-brown, not green, and they belonged to a young man dressed in a worn but elegant traveling suit." (p. 82) In fact, Shai turns out to be a mirror for Lou in very interesting (yet spoilerific) ways. They journey from Cheyenne to Shai's place of employment in Estes Park, where he works for "Dr. Panacea"—who sells the "Elixir of Life" at a sanatorium in the mountains. The mysterious Doctor also seems to be the one employing the disappearing Chinese workers. This part of the journey has some of the most fun and most frustrating parts of the book, as Lou and Shai jockey around each other, running into their own and each other's secrets and secretiveness. Once they get to the Sanatorium it becomes obvious that Things Are Not As They Seem, and Lou has to dodge the Doctor, his staff, and the other patients to get to the bottom of the mystery, in a madcap comedy of errors that resolves in a moustache-twirling over-the-top climax—and which leaves plenty of room open for sequels, in the best pulp tradition.
Indeed, Tanzer's world of monsters and monster hunters out on the fringes of society is rich with the potential for more stories, and if she chooses to make a series with Lou as the hero, I'll happily follow along. Vermilion is a guilty pleasure along the lines of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, which also uses the late nineteenth century as a setting for steampunk monster tales, although in that case the monsters—mostly vampires, werewolves, and ghosts—are a conspicuous part of the upper crust of British and European society. They're both fun adventure stories with strong women at their cores, although the Parasol books are more tightly plotted. It's interesting to compare the two in other ways, as well: in Carriger's world, the monsters use their immortality to accumulate power, wealth, and influence over the years, slowly overcoming societal resistance to their very existence to the point where they can serve as advisors to Queen Victoria (although always watched by her spies as well); in Tanzer's world, meanwhile, the monsters mostly stay on the margins, preying on marginal people (Chinese workers who presumably won't be missed, very ill sanatorium patients who would presumably die anyway)—and in turn being hunted by others also on those fringes. A group of monster hunters that Lou meets up with includes, for example, a gay black man, an Indian woman, and a gay Chinese man. Finally, towards the end of Vermilion, Lou winds up with a lesbian sidekick whose family sent her to the Sanatorium to try to get her "cured," but who is so incredibly perky and cheerful that I think she might have been sent over from the Parasol Protectorate series in a Thursday Next-style book exchange (cf. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde).
In both cases the protagonists have to be significantly more enlightened than their age in order to fully capture the reader's sympathy. Alexia Tarabotti, the heroine of the Parasol Protectorate books, is an upper-class woman who happily subverts the expectations of her straightlaced family, taking after her roguish father instead. She has no problem making friends across both species lines and—what might have been more shocking at the time—class lines. Likewise, even though the intense and violent racism and homophobia of nineteenth century San Francisco is illustrated in the early chapters of Vermilion, Lou has no problem with LGBTQ characters, and works well across class and racial lines, even if she lacks the polish to impress the upper crust patients of the Sanatorium. One problem is that the world has to bend to accommodate the plot—after demonstrating just how racist this society is, Tanzer has the Sanatorium openly accept Lou and another Chinese man as patients, which seemed quite off.
That brings me to a part of the worldbuilding in Vermilion that worried me. There are a set of characters who are neither monsters in the traditional sense, nor human. The sentient Bears and Sea Lions mentioned earlier also occupy space on the margins of society, for instance having a separate market in San Francisco. However, in the sense of alternate history world building, they co-occupy that space rather uncomfortably with American Indians. In the history of this world, there's a jonbar point at the end of the American Civil War, where after Gettysburg the Northern U.S. strikes a deal with the Bears. The Bears help end the war earlier, and in exchange the U.S. halts the railroad's expansion into the frontier West after the Transcontinental railroad's completion in 1869. That greatly limits the economic fortunes of the Western United States, especially territories such as Colorado that were bypassed by the initial rail line. At the time of the story, the Bears are still successfully enforcing this treaty, and the position of American Indians in society is little different than what it was in our historical timeline. It seems to me that the introduction of this extra force opposing Western expansion on the continent should change things quite a bit more than it does. (Which is a criticism that could also be leveled at Naomi Novik's Temeraire series—a world with dragons unfolds so identically to our own that they are replaying the Napoleonic wars battle-for-battle? Another series of guilty pleasure reading.) Either the jonbar point should go back significantly earlier—to at least the French-Indian Wars if not before—or the situation should be much less changed, with the Animals sharing the fortunes of the real American Indian tribes. I understand the plotting need for this change: Tanzer wants to be able to say that the Chinese workers are disappearing even though all railroad work has officially stopped (otherwise everyone would assume that the missing men died doing railroad work, as was all too common). This opens the suspicion that humans are covertly breaking the treaty with the Bears and killing Chinese workers at the same time, both very reasonable expectations. But I'm not sure that the consequences and implications of the addition are well considered.
That said, there's a lot to praise in Tanzer's fun adventure story. The Chinese background of the folks Lou meets in Chinatown are well drawn, and one couldn't ask for a more diverse cast of characters. One thing I love is that Lou is a fan of the pulp novels of her day, both in English and Chinese. She is reading the adventures of Judge Dee, a Chinese magistrate in the Tang dynasty, long before they get translated into English in 1949. And when something happens that might have come straight from those pulpy serials, she shakes her head and acknowledges it. Everyone is treated with respect, from the monsters to the sidekicks and the heroes. And while the plotting may have holes, it rarely flags and continues to be fun and interesting for the length of the novel. This is a fun group of characters to get to know, and I for one would welcome seeing more of them.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She edits the Locus Roundtable blog, and she can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.