Saturday, April 4, 2015

Reviewish: Vermilion

On April 15th, Molly Tanzer’s debut novel Vermilion is officially released. Word Horde graciously provided me with an uncorrected review copy and it was, perhaps, the best thing that’s happened to me so far this year. (You can pre-order Vermilion  from their site (as a bundle of print & electronic format of your choice), or on Amazon (just the Kindle version).)

I will begin this review by saying this: I cannot hope to communicate just how good I think this book really is. I can only try to share how much I enjoyed it and where I think its strengths lie so that you (dear reader) can perhaps be persuaded to give it a read.

Vermilion has been reviewed by folks with better qualifications than mine. It has been called a Weird Western adventure story - and it is that! It’s also a Steampunk story. I’m not good at classifying some books, but in these two classifications there’s something missing for me - what do we call fantasy fiction that makes a little magic real? It’s not the weirdest of the Weird West and it’s not the steamiest (not like that) of the Steampunk, but instead it settles into a very comfortable space that isn’t too much of any one thing. This gives Vermilion a special flavor all its own, and suits my tastes quite nicely.

In carving out this corner for itself - not being too weird, not having too many gears, and seeming almost like historical fiction except for a few small secondary-world style tweaks - Vermilion occupies a territory that appeals to me as a reader and as a person. With an overactive imagination, the world often slips into that between space of “what if just a little magic were real,” and that’s where I like it. It’s like real life, sprinkled with a little something extra. This, I think, is also a very good way to avoid the obvious pitfalls of genre fiction (in regards to tropes & stereotypes), but that’s a topic for another day. 

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.

I read this book in just a handful of hours, the first time. I’ve read it two more times since. I’m not a big re-reader, but of late I’ve encountered more and more stories that grab me hard enough that I feel compelled to revisit them; Vermilion holds the title for being the most compelling. That’s saying something, given how rich I consider other reads, like Stant Litore’s No Lasting Burial. Of course, this might be influenced by the slightly lighter nature of Vermilion.

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.

As an aside, of sort: Guys, this book addresses (albeit briefly) notions of xenia! It’s directly mentioned. This is a big deal for me. (Xenia is Greek, and refers to the rituals of hospitality and courtesy offered to those far from home. It’s a big deal in texts like The Odyssey.) I got so excited when I saw this, I squee’d just a bit. Out loud. On the bus.

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. (This is not, however, Tanzer’s first dip in the pool of writing. Check out some of her other work!)

I think I’ve rambled far too much already – if I haven’t convinced you yet, I may not be able to do so at all. 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.

Pre-order it! Let’s show Molly Tanzer the love – and maybe get some further adventures of Lou Merriwether!

Molly says it best:
Pre-orders count towards crucial first week sales, so it’s a lovely way to show your enthusiasm for an author and his/her work. Plus, the bundle via Word Horde includes a signed copy, and an ebook in the format of your choice! You can keep one for yourself and give one as a gift!

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