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.