A Book of Tongues (Hexslinger #1)
by Gemma Files
Chizine Publications (2010)
Do you love a good western? Sure you do, but do you love evil westerns? Well, I think that’s exactly what you’re going to get when you read Gemma Files’ debut novel, A Book of Tongues, whether you use that adjective in a complimentary manner or not.
The novel is set in a world set a couple of years after the American Civil War, but with one key difference from ours: it’s populated by wielders of magic known as hexslingers. In this world, a Pinkerton agent named Morrow is tasked with infiltrating a criminal gang led by a hexslinger known as Reverend Rook. Rook, aided by his right-hand man and lover, Chess, isn’t on some mere mission of petty theft and murder. The former preacher is haunted and under the influence of an Aztex goddess bent on reentering the world and bringing a few of her friends back as well.
That right there sounds like a simple enough setup for some good ol’ pulpy western fun, but there’s more to this story than just that. Heroes are pretty hard to come by in this novel, for one thing. Just about every major character we experience this story through has either some serious emotional baggage or just a mean-spirited streak running through them. There’s also a strong “in over my head” vibe from both Morrow and Rook, as Morrow finds undercover work with the gang especially daunting when Chess’ violent nature regularly rears up when out in public, and Rook’s gradual discovery of what his magical powers are capable of doing and where they could lead offer a bleak future ahead of him.
The story comes off a bit disjointed in parts, not only with the switches between points of view that really affect the pace of the novel, but there are also these little preludes at the beginning of each of the three acts that feel quite disparate from the rest of the book. It’s an engrossing read though, unhindered by the fade-to-black moments. Some of the language, particularly relating to the mythology was a stumbling block for me–but I’m a dullard with that sort of thing anyway. A real anglophone, I am. But on the other side of that coin is Files’ way to weaving the dialogue and the narrative into a rich tapestry of this magical wild west. It feels utterly authentic, and by the time I reached the end of the book I was ready for more, which is just as well because the book clearly points the reader towards the next book, A Rope of Thorns.
I’ve read other reviews that express a certain discomfort, or simply surprise, as it relates to the unfiltered homosexuality that exists between Rook and Chess. I didn’t really have any qualms with that at all. Frankly, I thought it was a nice change of pace from the cut-and-dry westerns I’m so used to watching or reading that make zero reference to gay characters, particularly genuine gay characters. In fact, the relationships between the magical elements of hexslingers and the sexuality demonstrated between them was a fascinating aspect of the novel.
For a debut novel, it’s an ambitious yarn Gemma Files has spun, and is yet another example of Chizine’s eye for stories off the beaten path. I’m looking forward to reading A Rope of Thorns, but all the previously published short story collections of Gemma Files, because this author is one to watch in the years ahead.