Book of Tongues by canadian writer and poet Gemma Files is strait up a great joy, a marvelously twisted viscerally written grim horror set in the old west. Like George RR Martin's Game of Thrones her fiction is gritty, animal and unafraid to offend the sensibilities of more gentile readers . This novel is not for the easily offended or for the closed minded, to be blunt if gay sex is not something you want to read about or even have referred to don't go here. And this is not a novel for kids, period, end of story. Ms Files also uses the christian bible in ways that may be offensive to people who hold with the faith... just a gentle warning... I dug it but I'm a lapsed catholic... Now on with the show.
Set in the last years of and following the Civil War the players and the world are all finding a new way to be. The existence of magic cast by people called Hexslingers has made little difference to history of this world; hexes as they are called do not play nice together since practitioners end up feeding on each other; beyond a short alliance don't hang together all that much. Gemma follows the stories of the outlaws and those on the fringes of gentile society as is the case with all great westerns . Her prose is if not flowery in image is in aspect and takes many flights into imagery connecting it to its major mythological source - the blood driven Mayan Mythos, expect long consonant filled names, knives , fire blood and hearless chests.
We start the tale in medias res as with all great epics, one of the protagonists Chess Pargeter late of the confederate force and son of a san francisco hoar being accosted in a San Francisco club for his fancy dress and ladylike manner. The miners attention draws the notice of our second hero the pinkerton spy Edward a man deeper then he seems at first glance who tries to warn the fool off his compatriot. The dustup that follows and the eventual meeting with the gangs head Rook gives good introduction to the type of action that follows in the corse of the story. The tale takes our party through a meeting with a celestial (chinese) mystic in Chinatown who gives more hints to the thrust of the tale and the future adventures of Rook himself, gives us the past of all the players large and small with trips into a pinkerton train car for a mission impossible style briefing and a confontation between spy and target that comes upon the reader quite quick.
Gemma goes on to describe the past of the anti-heros Asher Rook and Chess and their time in the war. She portrays actions and decisions that are both smart and stupid and the events that lead up to the attempted hanging of a possibly one time good man. The sections that detail the fever dreams of Rook where he sees the Rainbow woman and is visited by a native shaman hold a great amount of un real yet substantive quality that gives them a credible dreamlike feel. Ms Files' players, Ed our erstwhile included do things that are flawed and human and though not always likable they do come off as human and believable in the same way as Martin's best characters always do.
If anything I found myself wanting the novel to be longer and deal with some of the lesser players like the earlier mentioned celestial albino Songbird and the leader of the pinkertons. We get few scenes with these players as we get with the scientist Jochiam Ashbury who is trying to study the nature of Hexslingers for the government. Gemma delves in to the much ignored native american mythology of the Maya and Inca for her more mystical elements opening up questions in my mind about that mythos that I have had a little indoctrination to and makes me again want more. This is one of the aspects that reading westerns have brought out of late the desire to learn more about subjects only touched on in my past education; the beliefs of the natives of the americas and the experience of the chinese and other immigrants to the US.
So like Deadwood, if the moralistic grey area, neither good not bad story really appealed to you as a viewer; if the aspect of potential of Clive Barker like descriptions dont make you quail and you dont mind some strange in your intimate encounters A Book of Tongues may be for you. It is good not so old fashioned western storytelling. Gemma gives you people of all stripes with wavering alliances and morality all trying to make their way in an uncertain and often cruel world; her characters are petty and crule, cowardly, oddly caring at times and nothing is ever easy in their world much like the real one. Action here is fast deadly and dramatic and spellcraft is powerful and often unexpected. Ms Files gives the readers a lot to think about and ponder if they want on top of the great weird adventure that is A Book of Tongues.
Ok partners that is the first of my western romp, Gemma I like your style; I will be on board for the second volume Rope of Thornes..... this stranger has to mosey for a little but I'll be back.
This week will see several reviews beginning my treatment of steam/neo western stories...
Tuesday I will hit the marvelous A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files
Thursday will be Tombstone day with The Buntline Special
And Saturday will see the Gunslinger reviewed...
I hope everyone will be entertained..
Next week I will trip back to fantasy to be followed by some hard SF and then back to Westerns and he'll maybe a little RPG reviews... I love me some print media and I think you should support read dead wood product too...
Ok I have not commented about my love of comics so I have to comment now.... I love comics and superhero comics are one of the genres that appeal to me.... seeing that DC released an Infinity Inc. this week makes my happy and wishing I had a disposeable income since I really loved these earth-2 characters and want this hardcover collection....
ahhh anyway here is the cover image
The version of the Huntress that was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, the son of the golden age Hawkman and Hawkwman, the Daughter of the golden age Green Lantern, the offspring of the Atom and the new Starman.... it was the first team that was a legacy of the comics past and it was a great read.....
Though I have not yet read the Parasol Protectorate series from Gail Carraiger I previewed enough of the first volume to know it is on my must read list and Orbit is making it easy this month for people with e readers to get the first three books - Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless. The fourth in the series Heartless is out this month so if you are a reader into Steampunk with a PG Woodhouse comedic flair at 9.99 for the trio of books is an excellent deal...
Here is the link to the website.... Orbit is one of the more diverse genre publishers today covering the spectrum of horror, science fiction and fantasy ... they have a ebook deal every month and its well worth signing up for the newsletter.....
The Curious Case of The Clockwork Man succeeds on multiple levels; best of all getting more of his alternate history of Richard Burton and Algernon Swineburne as agents of the crown. As the second novel in this projected trilogy he continues to build and expand on the world and characters he introduced and I think his writing has enough strength, detail and character to stand alone in addition to building on what came before. As with the initial penny dreadful mystery, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, the plot is built on a story, this time a scandal, of the era and again Mark is apologetically and entreatingly irreverent to historical figures including plenty of action and intrigue along the way. He also touches on the inequality of the era, the ugliness of the class differences and prejudice inherent in the system that some people have commented as overlooked in Steam era fiction.
The alternate world created by the choices and events in the first novel is one increasingly divergent from our own 1800’s but still recognizable as the era:
“The king’s agent swung along at a steady pace , with the hustle and bustle of the streets churning around him. Hawkers hollered, prostitutes wheedled and mocked, ragamuffins yelled, traders laughed and argued and haggled, street performers sang and juggled and danced, pedestrians brandished their canes and parasols and doffed their hats and bobbed their heads, horses clip-clopped, velocipedes hissed and chugged, steam horses growled and rumbled, carriages rattled, wheels crunched over cobbles, dogs barked. It was absolute cacophony. It was London. “
The efforts of the two polar forces of industrial change - the technologists and the eugenicists are quickly remaking the world; it is a different industrial revolution from ours, not a better or cleaner one. We learn that a conflict with Ireland was solved with a terrible eugenicist weapon to horrific effect,men are being replaced in their jobs by creations of one or the other modernizing force. Tensions in the wider world are also touched on with references to the conflict in the americas and strained relations with the continent.
In this adventure Richard Francis Burton agent of the crown with his assistant and poet Algernon Swinburne along with their colourful allies in Scotland Yard and several new guests are drawn into a robbery/conspiracy involving a brass clockwork man and a seemingly innocuous inheritance case that grows into a much bigger conflict, namely the Tichbone affair. It was a real case involving the ninth richest estate of england and a lost heir; a highly improbable claimant arrives one with little if any resemblance to the lost son and becomes the center of a legal case that spawned real riots. In Hodder’s world altered by paradox, plots with plots and grotesque surgery this situation becomes a conflagration threatening to topple the status quo in the land. The various elements and plots come together seamlessly in the climax tangled up with stolen “mythical” gems, seances, haunting and a curse from the past and plots by forces on the edges of scientific possibility. Richard and his allies encounter madness, grotesques and monsters both human and less then in the corse of the case along with none too few encounters with faeries (re: Charles Altemont Doyle father of Sir Arthur C Doyle) .
When reading Mark’s work it is often the little touches and quotes that stand out and he incorporates incidental characters that I really want more of. The appearance of near eastern sufi dervishes, substantial east indian members of the police force, street merchants and Oscar Wilde as paperboy and psychics, and drunks artists and rakes; incidental characters sometimes with personality and presence in a much bigger picture. They all are there building a much bigger and though improbable believable world.
Through memories and dreams the novel expands on the north african travels of Burton and John Speke and builds more tension for the implied future confrontation. For readers uninitiated into the tale he gives new and yet still informative background to the rivalry between the one time friends and colleagues. Mark ads to the myth of their exploration of the Nile and the lakes of the region adding more mysteries in the deliriums of Richard’s struggle with malaria.
It also reintroduces the inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunell, Nurse Nightengale and has a prolonged cameo by Charles Babbage. Looking at the handy biographies in the appendix you can get a few more clues as to what is happening, but it does not give away the best elements of the story. There are visions of spirits, faeries, astral bodies, and the already shown Clockwork man, which becomes Burtons property and sparring partner. There is many a fight in the novel and the one depicted on the cover is quite gory and shocking involving much of the regular cast. Hodder plays with the conventions of horror stories like the loss of control of ones self, “zombies” and maddness. The riots of the real Tichbone affair happen here too but twisted out of proportion much like the claimant himself.
The Case takes Richard and Algy from the streets of London to the country estate of Tichbourne and back before luring Burton to visit Bedlam Hospital where we are treated to the horrors of how the mad were delt with.
Like all good mystery/thriller stories things that are in the first scenes have effects in the climax; like all good hero tales the players begin in one state and change through the struggles of the tale. The Richard Burton that we start with who loses himself in drink and avoidance faces his percieved past failures and comes out a stronger man ready to face his unforeseen future and now unknown future.
This time around Mark has a bigger cast of characters so we do not get near as much time with Algernon which is a shame because the masochistic poet was so fun in the first outing. He spends more time fleshing out the bobbies particularly DC Honest who was one of my favorite of the background cast of The Strange Affair… There are so many intriguing side players like Trounce and the new additions like the rough sleeping philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer introduced during the chase scenes in the initial caper ecomes more and more a central part of the tale accompaning Burton and Swineburne to mix with the commoners at the Tichbone estate and much more. Being a philosopher there are many times his words and thoughts are quoteable and applicable now as then:
“The republican form of government is the highest blinking form, but, because of this it requires the highest form of human nature - a type nowhere present existin’ in London, that’s for bloomin certain” -Spencer ( in reality Spence was the man who quoted the survival of the fittest that Darwin used later)
I know there is a great amount of Victorian Steampunk/Steamopera out right now and I think there is a great uniqueness and strength to Hodder’s world to recommend it. Back in November there were many bloggers talking about the proliferation of the sub-genre and its lack of recognizing the inequity and prejudice of the era and one of the uglier elements of the this novel. Mark handles this topic without commentary on most occasions and sometimes makes characters hard to like for me. Again I will say that alternate history is one of my favorite tropes, reading fantasised versions of the past make my want to know the reality..
Pyr again has put together a package that is worth more then the 1600pennies that they ask for. The story is a b movie monster thriller based in history and the gorgeous cover is an event beautifully illustrated. There is so much I like about the novel I find it hard not to gush and not to give things away. (The image above does not do the cover justice)
There is so much foreshadowed for Richard and Algy and for the world. This world is a great playground for the imagination. I hope that there will be more then a trilogy here…. Maybe a western someday or an asian story in this place. Mark Hodder gives what you might think is coming and surpasses expectations; he spurs my imagination and sense of wonder with his hints and I want more.
“I myself have argued that the spread of so called civilisation is little more then invasion and suppression, looting and enslavement…”-burton
You can find my review of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack here.
Pry has a sample of the first novel up at their website here.
Blakiana Mark Hodder's website devoted to Sexton Blake can be found here.
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man came out this month... I received my copy from Pyr for review purposes. I would urge people to look for their local shops and order locally but....
You can find it online at; Powell's Amazon
and also available at the Pry Website here through the company via pay pal....