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.