Vermilion by Molly Tanzer (Word Horde, April 2015)–Vermilion is the story of pyschopomp Lou Merriwether, a woman able to guide the dead from her world into the next. Half-English and half-Chinese, Lou continues in the trade her father practiced before his untimely death, making her living in the latter decades of an altered 19th century San Francisco. Ghosts and other supernatural monsters exist and threaten the living, and western expansion has stalled due to tribes of sentient bears who swayed the course of the Civil War and won concessions from the North to halt the construction of the trans-continental railroads. This stagnation is keenly felt in San Francisco’s Chinese community where jobs are scarce, and social agitators find it easy to scapegoat the newly arrived immigrants for causing the country’s troubles. A fact that Lou is well-aware of. While she may be able to dull the fact that she’s a woman by wearing a man’s clothing, there’s little she can do to hide her Chinese ancestry. When a missing man returns to Chinatown not quite 100 percent dead and packed away in a crate of medicine bottles, Lou finds herself pulled into a mystery that will cause her not only to risk her life but confront her past and make peace with those she cares about.
Her mission takes her east into the Colorado Rockies where she searches for a sanitarium run by Dr. Panacea. Along the way she finds herself traveling with Dr. Panacea’s assistant, Shai, a strangely erudite gunfighter with a penchant for swordsmanship and bloodshed. It’s in Shai that Lou encounters her foil, as she finds herself both frightened and fascinated by Panacea’s assistant. But Lou’s more than capable of handling herself – or at least surviving the messes and scrapes she appears incapable of avoiding. A brash woman, she’s not likely to let threats or social attitudes deter her from doing her job or maintaining her independence. It also helps that she has a penchant for rather out-sized firearms, in particular a Le Mats special that she keeps prepped with a supply of mercury bullets in case she might need to draw down on anything supernatural. Which she does before too long, as her mission throws her up against ghosts, vampires, zombies, and even a human foe or two.
Molly Tanzer is probably best known as a writer of short historical horror stories. As in her short story collection/mosaic novel A Pretty Mouth, she’s both comfortable and adept at manipulating old narrative styles and playing somewhat fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of the story or for social commentary. In Vermilion Tanzer constructs a world instantly recognizable as the American West, but enjoyably different, an attitude that carries over into Lou’s work as a psychopomp. This science is as much an amalgamation of discordant traditions – Greek metaphysics here, Chinese geomancy and British mechanical invention there – as the United States of the 19th century was a patchwork of diverse immigrant groups.
Ultimately Vermilion calls to mind Joe Lansdale’s The Magic Wagon and Ricky Lau’s slapstick horror film Mr. Vampire along with Cherie Priest’s recent works. Fans of grittier Steampunk novels, urban fantasy, and weird westerns will likely find themselves very comfortable here and enjoy the ride.