Vermilion by Molly Tanzer is an amazing book. It was the one I have spent years looking for. I read a crazy amount of mystery novels, but as I mentioned in my review of the Red Princess Mysteries by Lisa See, when it comes to historical mysteries, the protagonist is always the same – a white widow of means. I even read two mystery series set in San Francisco this year, and in both of them, Chinese characters are relegated to the sidelines, if they are present at all. Vermilion finally breaks out of this mold. Tanzer has created a fascinating story with a unique main Chinese character that appeals to almost all readers.
Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.
When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.
On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…
The main character of “Lou” (short for Elouise) is completely different from most mystery novel heroines. She is half Chinese, half white, a girl who passes as a boy, is mostly attracted to boys but certainly appreciates lovely females and works as a Taoist exorcist in 1800s San Francisco. She is absolutely riveting. I loved reading about her and her adventures.
I also appreciated how important Chinese culture is to the story. Chinese people and Chinese culture are not simply there to give San Francisco “color” or to fill the sidelines. Chinese culture, people, and language are integral to the story, and Tanzer did an excellent job researching and incorporating Chinese elements.
The story is set in America, though, which is highly influenced by European culture. The way she integrates Chinese and European fantasy (especially vampires) was fascinating. I’ve never read a book before that uses both. Usually, authors focus on either one or the other, as if they are mutually exclusive and cannot exist in the same realm. The way Tanzer integrates all of these elements together is brilliant.
The only criticism of the book I have is that the prologue is terribly boring and is not a good introduction to the story. Honestly, I think the prologue might even turn some readers away. My advice is to keep reading or just skip it. The prologue is not integral to the story at all. The first chapter, however, is brilliant, and once you start reading it, you won’t want to stop.
I really loved this book and I hope Tanzer has plans for more adventures for Lou.
What about you? Have you read Vermilion? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
Don’t forget to enter this month’s drawing! Learn about this month’s prize, Beijing Monkeys, here!