A Book of Tongues: A strong talent is at work here

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Book of Tongues by Gemma FilesA Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

A western horror story full of gay gunslingers and the Pinkerton men they seduce – sometimes you can understand why people ask writers where they get their ideas, because Gemma Files sure has a humdinger of one with this first novel. Throw in some Mayan mythology and a lot of magic, and you’ve got a plot that comes at you so fast and furiously that you have to put the book down just to catch your breath.

A Book of Tongues is Volume One of the HEXSLINGER Series, to be continued in A Rope of Thorns (which has been published and is on my shelf, though I haven’t gotten to it yet). Two characters dominate the first volume:  Chess Pargeter, an incredible shot who thinks as little of killing another man as you or I think of killing a mosquito; and his lover, Reverend Asher Elijah Rook, an ex-Confederate chaplain who becomes imbued with magic when he undergoes the punishment meant for another man. The story is told mostly from the point of view of Edward Morrow, a Pinkerton man sent to infiltrate Rook’s gang and get a reading on his magical abilities.

Rook is a reluctant hexslinger, one who uses Bible verses to shape and charge his magic only when he sees no other alternative – at least, that’s the case at the outset of the novel. He falls into a life of crime pretty much by accident, the same way he falls into a sexual and emotional relationship with Chess, but once started down that road, he has to figure out how to deal with it all. He wrestles mightily with all of this, none of which he asked for; some might say he became a bad man solely because he chose to be a good man on one occasion.

Chess believes of himself that he is simply a gunslinger who happens to be a homosexual. The son of a San Francisco whore, he sees himself as something similar, a man who uses sex to get what he wants – except when it comes to Rook.  He fascinates men who consider themselves heterosexual, and they seem to fall in love with him – truly in love – with surprising ease. Is this Chess’s own magic, or is there something else going on here?

Morrow tries to figure the whole thing out, and to measure the magic Rook gives off for a special study the Pinkertons are doing, but he finds himself involved in the gang more deeply than he expected. When Rook goes on a sort of magical mystery tour and drags Chess and Morrow along, things get very ugly.

Files writes about graphic sex and violence in way that does not spare her readers in the slightest. You’re likely to wind up with things you’d rather not have in your head, in a kind of detail that you can’t easily shake out. Yet despite this, or maybe because of it, the pace of A Book of Tongues starts to flag around the middle of the book. Files, who has written plenty of short fiction, doesn’t yet seem to have the pacing of a novel figured out, much less the pacing of a series of at least two books. The power of the images she builds with her horrific descriptions dissipates the longer she writes, so that one becomes inured to it and wants merely to know what happens next, and becomes impatient with yet another bloody scene.

Nonetheless, there is a strong talent at work here. As Files polishes her work and her technique, I expect that she will be writing novels strong enough to compete with the best in the horror field. Despite my misgivings about the pacing of A Book of Tongues, I’m left wanting to know what happens next to these characters.

Hexslinger — (2010-2012) Publisher: Two years after the Civil War, Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow has gone undercover with one of the weird West’s most dangerous outlaw gangs-the troop led by Reverend Asher Rook, ex-Confederate chaplain turned hexslinger and his notorious lieutenant (and lover) Chess Pargeter. Morrow’s task: get close enough to map the extent of Rook’s power, then bring that knowledge back to help Professor Joachim Asbury unlock the secrets of magic itself. Because magicians, despite their awesome powers, have never been more than a footnote in history: cursed by their own gift to flower in pain and misery, then feed vampirically on each other — never able to join forces, feared and hated by all. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a mind to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world-a plan sealed by unholy marriage-oath with the Mayan-Aztec goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men, who has chosen Rook to raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis. Caught between a passle of dead gods and monsters, hexes galore, Rook’s witchery, and the ruthless calculations of his own masters, Morrow’s only real hope of survival lies with the man without whom Rook cannot succeed: Chess Pargeter himself. But Morrow and Chess will have to literally ride through Hell before the truth of Chess’s fate comes clear-the doom written for him, and the entire world, in A BOOK OF TONGUES.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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  1. What a powerful review, Terry. It leaves me feeling torn — I think I want to read it, but I don’t know…

  2. It caught my eye too, because I love Westerns, and Terry’s reviews are excellent. But at the risk of sounding prejudice, I’m just really getting tired of the whole gay cowboys thing. So this book lost me at that.
    I don’t have a problem with books with male characters who are gay, (One of my favorite David Gemmell books is Quest for Lost Heroes), it just seems to me that ever since the movie Brokeback Mountain, Westerns have become the medium to use as the proving ground for gay male heroes. I completely understand why that is, but I also realize traditional life-long Western fans of my generation are probably not the target audience either.

  3. Marion, I’ll give you an update when I read Book Two, because frankly I’m not sure if I’d read the first book, given what I know about it, either. If that sounds incoherent, well, that’s sort of how I feel about this book.

    Greg, there is no — and I mean absolutely positively no, nada, zilch — comparison to be made between this book and Brokeback Mountain. Sex is violence in this book, even when it’s love. The fact that it’s homosexual sex doesn’t seem to really make all that much difference. And neither Chess nor Rook can be called a “hero.” This is a very, very dark book.

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