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A Book of Tongues: Volume One of the Hexslinger Series Paperback – April 15, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
A Pinkerton detective infiltrates a Wild West gang led by a spell-casting preacher in this boundary-busting horror–fantasy debut. Agent Ed Morrow is dispatched by a professor of magical research to evaluate the hexslinging abilities of Rev. Asher Rook, a renegade chaplain who survived his own hanging, and his lover, the prickly sharpshooter Chess Pargeter. As Morrow becomes part of the gang, the Aztec goddess Ixchel slowly seduces Rook into a bloody ritual marriage that endangers Pargeter and leads their followers down a road to hell. Files smoothly weaves an unusual magic system, Aztec mythology, and a raunchily explicit gay love story into a classic western tale of outlaws and revenge. Though it grows somewhat cumbersome in the leadup to a cliffhanger that demands resolution in the planned sequel, this promising debut fully delivers both sizzling passions and dark chills. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Gemma Files writes her words and her images as deftly as a straight razor, slicing so surely that the reader is not even aware that the protective skin of his imagination has opened into two neatly divided flaps, (with) a few seconds of red grace before the pain comes and the screaming begins. ----Michael Rowe, editor of Queer Fear I and II
Boldly, brazenly, Gemma Files pushes her hands deep into the red and seeping unconscious places and finds the bits of treasure worth pulling back out into the light. ----Caitlin R. Kiernan, author of THE RED TREE
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The first third of the book is a jumbled knot. The narrative jumps all over the place in terms of the past. We start in the present, then two years ago, and back to the present. Then to a specific event more than two years in the past. Back to the present. The next is nine months before that point. Then months after the specific event, and that's where the rest of the first third proceeds from. Aside from the first flashback chapter, this isn't done to present certain plot points in a specific order, so there was little reason to not lay the flashback chapters in chronological order. Not only is it frustrating but it throws the pace off the rest of the story.
This is done to focus on the history and relationship between Chess and Rev Rook, but the problem here is that these characters are repugnant characters. I am down with anti-heroes but these guys full-out have tar-black souls. Chess is a downright remorseless murderer who delights in killing - multiple characters point this out. Rook has little personality to him, and while there's a kernal of regret about all that killing, there's not much else to make one care about these characters at all. Since almost all of the book revolves purely around their relationship instead of a movement of plot, it kills any desire to read further to find out "what happens" to despicable people.
Also the book is too explicit, and to me it's explicit for the sake of it. A huge deal is made of the characters being gay - that's fair, it is 1866, and Chess flaunts it because he'll kill anyone who remarks on it (and does so, often) - but it's a constant thing in the narrative. Every scene someone remarks about it. Chess is routinely depicted as seducing men or Rev and Chess are making out/having sex. And my issue isn't with the gay aspect - if this was a straight couple I'd be as equally vexed by how much focus it was getting. There's even a lengthy sex scene early in the book that is just there - a character is sneaking in on them to do x, but instead just stands there and watches it even when watching makes him uncomfortable. Why, when we're in his POV, would he stand and watch at length instead of doing what he came to do?
But at the 65% mark when that same character has his consent removed by Chess and is pretty much molested, I threw the book down and swore the book off.
It's also explicit in other ways; Rev is routinely receiving dreams from an Aztec entity, and these exchanges feel more like excuses to offer obscene bloody imagery and gorey descriptions than anything. Yeah, I understand the Aztecs fetishized blood, but it came off as in-your-face and splatter-punky.
The matter's a real shame too. Files' writing is interesting, the magic (when it actually happened) was intriguing, and I wanted to learn more about the world and see things happen.
I had somehow gotten it into my head (and onto my spreadsheet) that <em>A Book of Tongues</em> was Gemma Files' first young adult novel. That particular misconception lasted exactly three pages into this bloody, profane, ugly, violent, utterly enchanting western. For the second time this issue, I'll throw out the disclaimer: there's no way I can write a biased review about a Gemma Files book. While she hasn't quite earned a spot yet on the Shelf of the Immortals (where reside such authors as Kathe Koja, Sonya Taaffe, and Ira Sadoff, people I would unhesitatingly move my family to Utah to marry if they asked--yes, even Sadoff), I have yet to come across a piece of her writing that isn't so hugely enjoyable that I can resist throwing hyperbole around like Crisco during a Falcon Studios prison drama food fight, so take this review with as much salt as necessary. But the simple answer is, "this book is just as awesome as every other Gemma Files book I have ever read."
I should also probably mention in passing that another reviewer's comment of "well-written but tasteless" is dead on the money. Those of you who are experiencing Gemma Files' work for the first time may not be quite prepared for that. I'd strongly recommend going back and reading some of her short stories in comparison; "Skeleton Bitch" and "Every Angel" are fantastic starting places for getting a handle on Files', ah, unique aesthetic when it comes to things that squick out the Constant Reader. But then adding that compels me to add that there's a kind of number line of squick. And while everyone's particular definitions of "that's just gross" rearrange that line to suit said person's own tastes, I'll tell you that on my personal line, Files is out beyond the pale of Poppy Z. Brite's infamous dissection scene in <em>Exquisite Corpse</em>, but can't see Charlee Jacob (<em>Haunter</em>), Pan Pantziarka (<em>House of Pain</em>), or Monica J. O'Rourke (<em>Suffer the Flesh</em>) over the horizon.
In any case, what all the fuss is about: in this alternate-universe America, the Northern government, during the Civil War, worked on a program to cultivate destructive magicians, nicknamed "hexslingers", for the war effort. One of them, a former camp pastor, went very dangerously rogue. Fast-forward a few years, and Asher Rook is the head of an outlaw gang who's been terrorizing the entire western territories. The Pinkertons are after him, and to that effect, they've planted a mole in his organization--Ed Morrow, the ostensible main character of the story. (While Morrow's identity as a Pink is a minor spoiler for the first few chapters, it's mentioned both in the jacket copy and PW's review, so I figure the damage has already been done.) Ed is attempting to keep his head on his shoulders and keep his mission a secret while also trying to puzzle out the odd, complex relationship between Rook and his number-two man, Chess Pargeter, which goes far beyond the carnal, as well as try and figure out where his loyalties lie when, inevitably, he has to make choices that will benefit one group to the detriment of the other.
The American West has become the new stomping grounds for trailblazers in this sort of worldbuilding, and it's produced some real barnburners. This is one of them. Files keeps her grounding in contemporary horror and dabbles a bit in steampunk (the device Morrow is supposed to use to read the magical aura, as it were, of Rook could have come right out of one of China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels--or, perhaps more to the point, one of Cherie Priest's Dreadnought novels, set during the same time period), but the book definitely put down some strong roots in the Old West. It would not surprise me in the least to know that Files had not only read McCarthy's <em>Blood Meridian</em>, which it echoes more than once, but also Chamberlain's <em>My Confession</em> (the book upon which <em>Blood Meridian</em> is based). Which brings up another salient point for those who wonder about the extremes of sex and violence to be found here: the Old West was as lawless and ugly a place as those sections of the big city you won't go anywhere near after dark, except the chances of a patrol car coming by were even smaller back then. While no one has ever denied Chamberlain probably exaggerated a bit, and no one denies McCarthy embellished some of Chamberlain's exaggerations, I doubt either one of them extended that carp more than a few inches beyond its actual length. Files only makes a lateral move here with the inclusion of the paranormal; her readings of human nature are, as always, dead on.
Or you could just set all that aside and skip to the last paragraph, where I tell you "if you read only one bizarro western this year, it should be Jordan Krall's <em>Fistful of Feet</em>. But when you're done with that, you'll want another, so you should immediately pick up Gemma Files' <em>A Book of Tongues</em> and hop to!". Seriously. Read this, preferably at your earliest opportunity. It's awesome. ****
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This novel lacks an interesting premise.Read more