May 072015

Cover for Vermilion by Molly TanzerLocus:  Vermilion: mingling the Western past of  mining towns and migrant Chinese railroad workers with fully sentient bears and sea lions who deal with us as they ply their trades – and no one blinks an eye. Many genres meet in this first ‘‘Adventure of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp’’. Lou is described as ‘‘a gunslinging, chain smoking, cross-dressing Taoist… who keeps San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si’’ (entities feared in Chinatown), and her profession has aspects of exorcist, alchemist, and private detective. As Tanzer puts it, psychompompery demands ‘‘intense concentration, physical stamina, and quick reflexes.’’ Ghost-banishing alchemy comes with a risk of mercury poisoning and bad side-effects from the title substance: ‘‘Frequently handling vermilion was dangerous enough, to say nothing of inhaling the dust from grinding it at home.’’ When a bear who monitors boondocks in the West (for legal violations ‘‘during the hibernating season’’) asks Lou ‘‘What do you do?’’, she starts with basics: ‘‘I work with the dead,’’ since ‘‘disembodied spirits and whatnot… go stir-crazy from being tethered to the place where their body passed.’’ Though normally she does this in the City, rumors of some laborers who never came back to Chinatown from jobs in the Colorado Rockies have raised enough alarm to send her on the prowl far from home. With new traveling companion Shai – a handsome, well-spoken Chinese dude – she feels unexpected stirrings of romance, marvels at wild landscapes (vividly described in fine prose), follows the trail of clues to mountain clinic The Temple of Youth (which has its own mad scientist, Dr. Panacea), shoots and gets shot in a gunfight, and  heads toward a showdown with sheer villainy. Late in part three of this offbeat penny dreadful, a dragon does prove crucial to the plot, and genre shifts again: suddenly it’s steampunk!