Book I read this week: June week 3

We’ve been busy finding a house to buy this week and doing all of the things that go along with that, so I’ve had less reading time than usual. But it was very enjoyed reading time, because the one book I read this week was a superstar.

Vermilion: The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp by Molly Tanzer is such a fantastic book. I don’t even remember how it came to my attention, but when I read the blurb:

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.

I knew it was for me. It’s part Western, part pulp novel, part I don’t even know what. The writing is a joy, the characters are well developed and interesting, the action and adventure are top notch. The world that Tanzer has created is drawn with a soft touch- there are sentient animals (mostly bears) living alongside humans, supernatural monsters are real- but those aspects are added so casually that it’s completely believable that they exist in this alternate West.

The part that I appreciated the most was the character of Lou. She’s good at what she does, she has complex feelings about her parents, she’s prideful but realistic- she’s a 19 year old. But most interesting to me: she’s ugly. She states numerous times in the beginning of the book that she’s not attractive (she dresses in men’s clothing for convenience’s sake, and often people think she’s a man). But later in the book she comes across a childhood friend who she has always had feelings for and there’s a moment when you think it’s headed toward a “what are you talking about, Lou? You’ve always been beautiful” moment, but no. She’s actually ugly. And I LOVE that so freakin’ much. By the end of the book she’s gone through things that have further messed up her face, and it doesn’t matter because she is who she is. She doesn’t have to be perfect and beautiful. The fact that she’s a woman does play into things in a minor way- there are always possible complications when you’re pretending to be a man in the Wild West, and there are a few ruminations of a romantical nature, but those have less to do with being a woman and more to do with being 19 and trying to figure out your place in the world. The major plot points and the things that happen to her and the choices she makes are the same as they would be if she was a man in a book of this genre, and I love that.

There is one section of the book that takes place in a “gentleman’s” club on the outskirts of civilization that toes the line of graphic content, but it serves to illustrate the outskirts of civilization aspect.  I just thought I’d mention it for readers sensitive to that kind of thing.

But the book is full of interesting (but never pedantic) thoughts about living as a minority and/or living between worlds- Lou is half Chinese half Caucasian and doesn’t fit into either world. The missing Chinese workers are considered disposable by authorities. Treaties with the bears are disregarded and abused. It’s really well done.

If this sounds like your type of book, I highly recommend it. I do think it would need to be your type of book- I don’t know how well it would work as a introduction to the adventure/pulp genre- but try it! What could it hurt?

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