Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Weird & Wonderful- Vermilion

For the last meeting of City Lit Books' Weird & Wonderful club, we discussed "Vermilion" (2015) by Molly Tanzer. "Vermilion" is the story of Lou Merriweather, a kind of professional exorcist in a fantastic 19th century American West who becomes embroiled in a sinister scheme. The world is somewhat steampunk, with a very healthy dose of the supernatural, along with some fanciful alt-history turns, such as the talking bears who alter the course of post-Civil War politics in the west.

We had a few criticisms, but by and large we found this very enjoyable, and reviewed it as solid beach read. Possible spoilers below!

One major critique we had was sloppy pacing, particularly during dialog and action scenes. We also thought the diction was a little uneven, sometimes reaching a little too far for period idiom, while at others Lou's comments sound decidedly 21st-century.

We pretty much unanimously agreed that the psychopompery was the best part of the novel—Lou's profession of neutralizing and shepherding to the afterworld various kinds of spirits and zombies, using an inventive and well-described range of tools and techniques drawn from a few different magical/religious traditions. That said, we were a bit confused why Tanzer spent so much of the novel taking us away from that world—the opening chapters are super-strong, but then Lou jaunts off to try to be a detective/secret agent instead. We thought it strange to set up a character and then immediately move her so far outside her area of competence, especially since we liked that area so much.

We looked a bit askance at the talking sea lions, but would have loved to see more of the bears. "They're bearly there," someone commented, to audible groaning. And we also talked about actual bears and the Alaskan bearcam project.

The theme of "supernatural beings living openly among us" reminded us a bit of urban fantasy like Charlaine Harris's "Sookie Stackhouse" or Kim Harrison's "Hollows" series. We liked that the vampire here is 1.) unremittingly villainous and 2.) ridiculously strong & hard to kill.

Talked for a bit about the genre of steampunk, which "Vermilion" is somewhat related to. It's a messy genre, one of them there fuzzy categories—in explaining it to those at group not familiar with the term, we referenced the "Wild Wild West" shows/films, Disney's adaptation of Verne's "20,000 Leagues", the "Bioshock Games", "Myst" (again!), Cherie Priest's novels, and even "Firefly"—despite being a future setting, it still pulls on aesthetic of esoterically-gadgeted, culturally-more-diverse take on the traditional Western.

We actually kind of liked the "no one is quite what they seem to be" theme, even after it became predictable. Whether we're talking about sexual orientation, gender presentation, cultural background, or supernatural status, almost every named character here goes off at a different angle than at first seems obvious. Remarkably low cis-het quotient, and we did note that this does pass the Bechdel Test. None of us were exactly confused about Shai's double identity, although some of us were waiting for a more supernatural dual-gendering, a la Glory/Ben from "Buffy".

We weren't quite sure what to make of Lou's romantic life—claims undying love for Bo, but seems to almost-fall for a female prostitute in like the second chapter, definitely has chemistry with Shai throughout...we noted that a lot of this can be explained under the "being 19 is weird" heading. Also we noted that the "I'll have a sexy snowball fight in order to stop the sexy times" is a remarkably poor strategy and had us thinking of "Beauty & the Beast". A few of us really liked the inclusion of menstrual issues, as this little note of normalizing & body positivity, and also noted Chinese Olympic swimmer's Fu Yuanhui's open discussion that had just come up in the news. However, keeping to our bear obsession, we also referenced a supposed fact from "Anchorman".

We kind of liked the character of Coriander, but worried about excessive pluck. Paul & I explained the pluckmeter employed by the Chicago Nerds. We also weren't quite sure what to make of the reveal that Foxglove is a Pinkerton agent—she seems awful chill with the cannibalism. I realized that folks who weren't raised on horror stories of coal & steel union-busters don't find the word "Pinkerton" as immediately ominous as I do (the Homestead Massacre for instance).

We had a vexed discussion of when drawing on other cultures—Tanzer's use of Chinese medicine etc.—crosses the line into cultural appropriation. In general we concluded this book's alright on that front, and we liked the way it constantly pushed at issues of code-switching, being in two worlds but neither world. Lou's place between Chinese and European-descended America, and between male and female roles based on her dress and presentation, are some of the stronger parts of this book. That and her cool bag of psychopomp tricks.

We had a good set of asides about jackalopes, narwhals, and dik-diks. Also, a brief discussion of silver vs. quicksilver.

Overall, our greatest hope is that sequels to "Vermilion" put Lou back in her zone of competence a bit more—crossing back and forth over the cultural divides in San Francisco, tangling with necromantic entities that she is somewhat able to deal with, rather than big giant plots & vampires she has no hope against. We felt like this story went a bit off the rails at the very end—too big, too much. We did like the bears coming in at the end, and again noticed some "Anchorman" parallels, weirdly enough.

All in all, a highly enjoyable novel, and some of us are looking forward to more from Tanzer. Next up for Weird & Wonderful we're reading Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks", and you can find many more cool events on the City Lit website.

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