Sep 112015

vermilion_cov_smVermilion, by Molly Tanzer

Synopsis: A weird western following a half-Chinese exorcist as she tracks down an evil force in the Colorado Rockies that’s killing her countrymen and turning them into undead.

Book Review: Boy am I conflicted about this book. It has all the trappings of something really great, but then it falls short of the mark in really frustrating ways. Let’s start with the good stuff.

The book is fun! It’s imaginative and well written, and the dialog pops! Tanzer has a fantastic way of bringing people to life through their words, letting them reveal their own character. It’s been said that Joss Whedon is an accidental feminist, because his strength is writing amazing dialog, and you can’t write amazing dialog with people who aren’t real to you. Tanzer has a similar strength, and no, this won’t be the last time I compare her to Whedon.

The writing is very modern and casual, in a the-narrator-and-reader-being-real-and-talking-with-each-other way. You feel like you’re a close friend of the narrator, and she’s just laying out her life for you. Lines like “[The couple] looked at Lou as if she’d strutted up and farted right in their mouths,” get you to love the narrator. The novel is full of this frankness and humor that is delightful to read.

It also starts out fairly light and wise-crack/adventure-ish, but keeps displaying flashes of darkness, and near the end takes a hard left turn into Quite Dark territory, with gore and torture and such. Again, very Whedon-esque, where he starts out with a wise-cracking cheerleader type and can take you into something like the Miss Calendar or Dark Willow episodes with stomach-dropping rapidity.

And, of course, the villains are just as real as the protagonists are. The villain and his wife (when not slipping into the abuser/battered-wife dynamic they sometimes have) are ABSOLUTELY ADORABLE! I loved them! The fact that you can relate to them, but still really hate the fucker and want to see him die a horrible death is fantastic.

And the cast of supporting characters is quirky, strong, and interesting. You see all the reasons to love it, right?

I do feel there to be two major flaws though, one which hindered my enjoyment, and one which hindered everyone’s enjoyment.

On the personal level, it never went very deep. It started to, several times! When a vampire-sympathizer brings up the protagonists hypocrisy because she eats the flesh of mammals and doesn’t think twice about it, I thought we were really going somewhere! Especially when she considered for a while, and conceded that maybe it was so bad, as long as they were otherwise good people and stuck to hospices for the dying to “feed on the weak and sick, like any other honest predator” she might have no beef with them. Unfortunately this is never explored again. It’s just left there, and we never have to worry about it because it turns out our villain is quite evil. Likewise, when the vampire-sympathizer points out that the undead are hunted simply for existing, our exorcist protagonist flirts with a crisis of conscience. She thinks maybe the undead are people too, and instead of forcibly expelling them from our existence – basically re-killing them – maybe they have some right to un-life like real people do. Then she never again worries about anything like that, and keeps doing her job of killing ghosts and zombies and vampires. It’s super-disappointing to have something that potent brought up, and then just dropped and staying instead with surface-level action and unrequited-love stuff. :/

A more general complaint is that the stakes are never very high for the protagonist. One might say they’re almost non-existent. She doesn’t seem to care about anything very passionately. We never get the feeling that if she loses it’ll matter. There’s no one she’s fighting for, no fate of the world at stake, etc. Even when her own life is in danger it doesn’t feel like that big a deal, because she’s so cool and jaded about everything. As readers we never have an emotion stake in her winning, aside from the “well, she’s the protagonist” thing. This left me (and the other people in my book club) feeling very unsatisfied by the novel. The trip was fun, but in the end it didn’t seem to matter much and it was hard to figure out why.

Which leaves me at an uncomfortable place – I am honestly not sure if I would recommend this book to past-me or not. I like things with substance to them, and this novel felt like it had great style and flair but lacked heft. I guess I’ll have to put it down as “Recommended if you’re looking for reading material, but don’t bump it to the front of your reading list.”

Book Club Review: Due to a confluence of unrelated factors, our turnout was pretty low this week, so I’m not sure I can judge how well this works for book clubs in general. However even with just three of us there ended up being quite a bit to talk about, as we tried to figure out why it was that we seemed to both like this and not like it at the same time. And, to be fair, some people liked it quite a bit, while others were far less happy with it. Having a wide spread of opinions like that is also quite conducive to good conversation, leading us to compare notes and argue points. That fact that it was enjoyable on a page-to-page level helps too. Though I’m not as confident as normal, I would say that for book club purposes, this is Recommended.

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