I’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting the very oldest titles off my TBR, especially since starting this project. There are a few dusty, more obscure ones I’ve had trouble tracking down and had to wait until the ol’ budget was flush enough to make an order. Vermilion is one of those. I don’t think the cream always floats to the top—there are plenty of fantastic books that haven’t gotten nearly the attention they deserve, while there are loads of extremely meh books that get baffling amounts of unearned praise. I’ve tried not to be a snob about small presses or self-publishing, and I’ve found some of my favorite reads through those outlets.
But sometimes, there’s a reason you haven’t heard a lot about a book.
Vermilion follows Lou Merriweather, a bi-racial teenage psychopomp in post-gold rush San Francisco. Her specialty is geung si, a ghoul somewhere between zombie and vampire from Chinese legend that has become increasingly common as East and West collide in the hilly city. Her growing business is put on pause when her Chinese mother bids her help investigating a rash of disappearances of young men from Chinatown. The men ostensibly signed up for railroad work in the Rocky Mountains, but railroad work has halted—and at least one of them comes back in a box without a scratch on him but imbued with some serious supernatural energy.
Lou reluctantly agrees and follows her only clue, the bottles of Doctor Panacea’s World-Famous Elixir of Life that came with the boy’s body, east on the railroad to Cheyenne, posing as a Chinese man looking for work. She’s met at her destination by a man named Shai, who figures out pretty quick she’s not the promised worker, but buys her lie that she’s a prospective patient ashamed of her condition and agrees to take her the sanatorium where the Elixir of Life is produced and where Doctor Panacea’s patients sup on healthful food and lots of elixir until they’re ostensibly well enough to be on their way. But, of course, nothing is quite as it seems.
Beware, lots of spoilers ahead.
The setup for this book is so cool. Sometimes, I look at these old titles I wrote down and feel like it was a different person who wanted to read it, but I was completely on board with this. Foul-mouthed heroine with an attitude? Yes, please. Supernatural elements overlaid on a neglected part of history? Give it to me. Even some of the stranger elements were like sprinkles I readily accepted, such as the fraught diplomatic situation with the bears (and sea lions), or even the hotel featuring men and women bedecked in harnesses for the prospective pleasure of residents. All weird worldbuilding, and I was down for it. And then, just as Lou and Shai were nearing the sanitorium, Shai drops the bombshell that Doctor Panacea is actually a vampire who is thousands of years old, and that the whole Elixir of Life thing (a carryover from Renaissance alchemists) is an effort to make back the money they lost from their plantation when the Union won (also, Shai is hundreds of years old, thanks to the elixir). Which all seemed like a step too far, but by then I was invested enough to see if it all came together in glorious chaos.
But it didn’t. When Lou makes it to the sanitorium, she bungles everything—not spectacularly, just disappointingly. She’s so far shown to have street smarts, but she can’t keep her mouth shut for five bleeping seconds. She can’t stick to her own script. And when she finally confronts Doctor Panacea himself, she gets her butt handed to her immediately and, after briefly being tortured for…reasons?, is thrown in with the bunch of missing Chinese men who are, understandably, baffled that she came alone with no backup plan. Lucky for her, her ex-boyfriend and his new gang of monster-hunter pals just so happened to be at the sanitorium and save the day.
Which is really disappointing, because I’m all for a flawed character, and for teenagers in stories not being expected to be perfect heroes, but when all was said and done I wasn’t sure why author Molly Tanzer thought Lou was the most interesting person to follow. Afterward, Lou isn’t humbled, she doesn’t grow; she learns next to nothing, as far as I can tell. There was plenty of potential there for a fantastic character and for two-thirds of this book I was so hopeful that Lou could be a temporary balm for the gaping hole where the next Locked Tomb book belongs. But Lou lacks the adaptability, the reflection that could make her truly relatable.
Also, on the subject of disappointment, let’s talk about that vampire. I’ll admit to being skeptical with the addition of a vampire when I signed up for a ghost story, but it turned out I had every reason to be. Before the reveal about the vampire, I was guessing the missing men were being used somehow to make the potent elixir—some blood or bone magic drawn from them because they were from a marginal community likely without the resources to look for or find them. The latter part was true, and I did appreciate that little nugget of societal commentary, but the stated explanation for why they were actually being held at the sanitorium was vague, brief, and unsatisfying. After the revelation of the vampire, I assumed they were little Capri Suns for Doctor Panacea to slurp on, but no. They were being used to build a railroad, all right…of sorts—the sort that uses a flying dragon train. Long story, explained entirely in the last 5% of the book, but the TL;DR is it was yet another moneymaking scheme? Not terribly vampire-y.
In fact, there’s so little that I would expect from a vampire. There are bodies, but they are used not for blood but for meat? To feed the patients? Because Doctor Panacea, in addition to being a vampire, is apparently sadistic and cheap. This would be fine if he were a nuanced villain whose evil dripped off the page or with whom I found myself identifying uncomfortably, but when Lou confronts him (and immediately gets tied up and tortured), any guise of slickness goes out the window. I truly expected him to start twirling a mustache, and all of his dialogue played in my head like he was being voiced by Rainn Wilson as an animated villain.
There are other little flaws in Vermilion, too; the one that bugged me most was that the majority of the verbiage both in narration and dialogue seems lightly taken from the 1870s, but there will be the occasional anachronism that stands out poorly because of the comparative accuracy with the rest of the prose (which would be delightful if it were frequent enough to seem deliberate). But the biggest thing is, well, the multifaceted disappointment I’ve outlined in great detail over the last five paragraphs. I think you can have a few of those and get away with it. You can take twists and turns with a reader and it’s fine. But you have to stick the landing, and I don’t feel like Tanzer did.
“Disappointment” is the best descriptor of how I feel after finally finishing Vermilion. There were so many cool things about it. The setup, great. The worldbuilding, fantastic. Character potential, totally there. I would have happily read a whole series of this if it even halfway met expectations. Maybe that’s the issue: I expected too much out of Vermilion. I expected it to be something Tanzer apparently never meant for it to be. That’s disappointing, too, because I really wish I could have read that book instead of the one I got.