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Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Vermilion (2015)

by Molly Tanzer

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I gave up on this book about 90% of the way through. It's really rare for me to ditch a book so close to the end, but I just got to a point where I didn't care any more.

The book has a lot of things going for it. It's a fun mash-up of a whole bunch of things: a cross-dressing mixed-race exorcist, sentient talkative bears, vampires, Wild West urban fantasy. There's a lot of humor and even more suspense, and a generally engaging story.

But the more I read, the more problems I had.... First of all, one of the things that really bugs me about alternate history is when the "alternate" part only starts right before the book starts. I mean, this is a world with ghosts, talking animals (and they seem to broker more treaties with the talking animals than with the Native Americans - what's up with that?), vampires, magic.... and yet as far as the reader can tell, all of history up until right before the action of the book isn't significantly different. The only apparent difference is that the bears won't let humans build more railroads. But given a would like this, wouldn't race relations be different? Wouldn't the entire history of the Wild West be dramatically different?

So, okay, I try not to take the book to seriously and move on.... but then the characters have such a modern view of things like race and sexuality. The main character is constantly griping about things that amount to micro-aggressions, yet in a culture where the Chinese are barely considered human, micro-aggressions wouldn't even register. And everyone is really accepting of the fact that homosexuality is a thing that happens (even if some characters think it is immoral). They exhibit a very 21st-century acceptance of homosexuality and non-binary gender identity.

I was mostly able to ignore these things for the sake of a good story, but towards the end, some things just went too far, some other things that could have been interesting turned out to not be interesting, and I just couldn't bring myself to care any more. ( )
  Gwendydd | Jan 31, 2016 |
tl;dr version: Read this book. If you love the places where speculative fictions overlap, this is the place for you. A lil weird west, a lil steampunk, a little alt-history, entirely delicious read. It really took me back to that place of the essential joy in reading.

Excerpted from my blog @ jenna-bird.blogspot.com:

Vermilion is the story of Elouise Merriwether - Lou for short. Lou is half-Chinese and lives in San Francisco in the late 1800s, but on an alt-Earth. Here, alchemy is real and ghosts are a problem with legislation in place to solve. A problem Lou is plenty capable of handling as a Psychopomp (she guides the souls of the dead into the afterlife, but she’s not a ferryman - she only opens the way). She also gets by in many situations by letting people assume she’s “Mr. Merriwether” – Tanzer touches on some gender fluidity topics in what I considered a graceful and engaging manner.

Here, the railroad expansion into the West has been halted by political complications in the post-Civil War era. In this world, the Bears and some other creatures are sentient members of the world, with their own influences and power. This situation overlaps with Lou’s life when young men from within her community go missing after answering the call for railroad work that no longer exists.

This is where and how Lou’s adventure really begins.


Molly Tanzer’s writing really pulled me in. The writing perspective is third person, but limited and very close to Lou. There’s an attitude in the prose that reflects Lou and helps connect the reader to her. I’m an empathetic reader, so when Lou was frustrated, I was frustrated for her. When she was confused, I felt that confusion. It was easy and enjoyable to connect with Lou. She has a healthy amount of cynicism and sarcasm, with just the right amount of sass and stubbornness, and rounds those aspects out by being a generally good human being with a decently strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.


Lou is a strong presence on the page. There’s a lot of mystery about her, on a deeply personal level, and it’s not all unraveled for the reader. This is to say - in the same way that you can know almost everything about your best friend, there will always be a layer of mystery to them, as they are constantly figuring themselves out. Lou is faced with a lot of decisions that speak to and shape the very core of who she is. This is something I enjoyed, immensely, and I’m hopeful there are future adventures for Lou that I can join in on as a reader.

Even better than this level of wordsmithing was the crafting of the plot. Initially, I had some very strong ideas about where the story was going to go - the “what’s going on” of it all. If you read enough books, watch enough movies, you start to get ideas about where a story is going. Sometimes predictable isn’t a bad thing (and had Vermilion been predictable for me, the writing was still good enough I would not have cared). It turned out though, that I was wrong in a pretty big way! Despite this, where another story might’ve not read true to itself (I drew my conclusion based on what I thought were clues in the story), Vermilion unfolds as though this were the only path the story could have taken, and it was the most perfect one.

I won’t tell what I thought was going on, nor what was really going on; what I will say is that it is amazing to see this sort of craftsmanship in a debut novel.


Vermilion is a wonderful read with just the right amount of strangeness and a whole lot of heart. It is engaging and delightful with a good balance of ups and downs, and a lot of interesting turns in plot that I never saw coming, but was excited to discover.

*Please note: I received an advanced review copy of this text from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
( )
  jennaelf | Jan 5, 2016 |
Out of the large stack of books recently sent to us by horror publisher Word Horde, Molly Tanzer's Vermilion is the first full-length novel of theirs I've gotten to read (the rest so far have been story anthologies); and it certainly does not disappoint, a sprawling and epic steampunk tale with supernatural elements and lots of strange little details in its world-building (such as the intelligent bears who live in the Rocky Mountain region, who like Native Americans have negotiated a territory-based peace with the US government). It's a big book to be sure, and you'll need to be an existing steampunk fan to make it through the whole thing; but this is also a great challenge for those who like contemporary urban fantasies, and who would like to see such storytelling run through the filter of Victoriana from 150 years ago. Strongly recommended.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.7 for steampunk fans ( )
  jasonpettus | Jan 5, 2016 |
Odd. An intriguing setting, in gold rush California, but there were a few too many things happening, and too little development.
  LibraryGirl11 | Aug 20, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Molly Tanzerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gómez, OsielCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rose, DaltonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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