Poor Lou Merriwether. She’s doesn’t belong anywhere. As the daughter of an Englishman and a Chinese woman, she’s excluded from both communities in end-of-the-nineteenth century San Francisco. She doesn’t dress like a woman, so those who don’t completely disapprove of her don’t know how to behave around her if they find out that she’s not male. Then there’s her occupation. Lou is a psychopomp. Her job is to make sure that the souls of the departed move on to whatever awaits them on the other side. Lou cannot be easily categorized. In Vermilion, by Molly Tanzer, we see Lou trying to do good on behalf of people who mostly don’t understand her. Still, she stubbornly does the right thing.
The introduction to Vermilion quickly gives us a taste of a strange alternate version of western America. Lou is “persuading” the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth to stop haunting her unpleasant husband. (The wife is haunting him to get a bit of justifiable revenge.) Once the job is done, Lou grabs a quick bite prepared by a sentient, talking bear before learning that her estranged mother has a job for her. In this version of America, the country has agreed not to build anymore railroads after completing the transcontinental line in a treaty with the bears that helped the Union win the Civil War. Consequently, there are a lot of Chinese immigrants out of work in California. Chinese men are disappearing somewhere near Estes Park, Colorado, after following a mysterious job offer. Lou’s mother, a pillar of the Chinatown community, asks Lou to investigate. Lou refuses, at first. She’s not an investigator. She’s a psychopomp. But then one of the missing men comes back undead and Lou reluctantly takes up the case.
Vermilion doesn’t give its readers any chance to rest. Lou’s on a train to Cheyenne, en route to Estes Park before too much time has passed. She meets the second-in-command of the Sanitarium that’s at the center of the mystery in Cheyenne in a lucky break. On the road down to Estes Park, Lou learns that her task is a lot more dangerous than she realized.
Lou, being an amateur, is not a good investigator. She has no backup and frequently charges into situations where she could easily get killed. She’s sometimes a little clueless about reading people. All she really has going for her is her stubbornness. No one else will find out what happened to the missing men. Even Lou’s friends are willing to shrug and move on because the villain they’re up against is so formidable. When Lou does make a little headway, everything goes to hell.
I hope I haven’t given away too much of Vermilion‘s plot. The plot is what drew me to the book in first place. It just sounded so very interesting. And yet…I feel a little disappointed in the book. Lou sometimes behaves in ways that I think are contradictory to the point of being out of character. There are a few too many lucky coincidences. I can forgive Dickens for that, but few other authors get a pass when it comes to coincidences. The beginning of Vermilion is solid, but the setting becomes increasingly sketchy as the plot takes off. I lost the sense that Lou lived in a fully realized world. After a while, there were too many problems for me to really enjoy the book.