Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Book of Tongues - Gemma Files

Last December publisher ChiZine Publications offered a free e-book for a very limited period of time to everyone who mailed them a new year's wish. Since I needed something to try the new E-reader I got for my birthday, I took them up on it and more or less at random picked A Book of Tongues, book one in the Hexslingers series by Gemma Files. With opportunities such as these, I usually pick something I wouldn't ordinarily select and this horrific western certainly seemed a bit out of my comfort zone. It didn't turn out to be quite as strange as I expected it to be but it was certainly a challenging read for me.

After three tries I still haven't written a decent synopsis and since I am a little short on time this week I caved and used the publisher's:
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.

Magicians, cursed by their gift to a solitary and painful existence, have never been more than a footnote in history. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a plan to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world-a plan sealed by an unholy marriage-oath with the goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men. To accomplish this, he must raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis.

Caught between a passel 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.
Although the novel is set in the American west, during and just after the Civil War, Files adds a lot of elements one wouldn't normally encounter in a Western. Files mixes in a good dose of Maya and Aztec mythology. Some of the darker elements of their pantheon offer great material for a horror novel. The goddess Ixchel drives many of Rook's actions. Theirs is an uncomfortable relationship. Ixchel may be more than a mere magician but when it comes to cooperation, she is just as mistrustful. Force, intimidation and threats are what keeps Rook in line even if it does not erase his own agenda.

The novel is very graphic, both in terms of violence and sex. Chess is someone who radiates sexuality, the reason for which will become apparent towards the end of the book. This intense sexuality results in quite a few descriptions of homosexual acts. I must admit I thought it a bit over the top early on in the book but after finishing the novel I realized it does serve a clear purpose in the story. It is clearly linked to what I consider the strongest point of this novel: the development of the characters.

By nature the relationship between two magicians is always one of one being subjected to the other. There can be on equality, no cooperation and no lasting alliance between two magicians. In the end, the stronger will prevail. We start out with Rook intentionally keeping Chess ignorant of the reason he keeps him around. He, in turn, is subjected to the goddess-magician Ixchel, plotting to return her forgotten religion into a new, sixth, world. As the novel progresses the relationship and power balance between the three shifts dramatically. I very much liked the dynamic of the relationship between these characters.

I initially had some trouble with the style of the novel. The prose and imagery Files employs didn't always appeal to me, which made the early stages of the novel tough going. Once she starts filling in the history of the characters though a number of flashbacks and things start falling into place it became a smoother read though, and I must admit the scenes set in the underworld was a good piece of writing.

All in all I guess I could have done a lot worse with a book picked more or less at random. I don't read a whole lot of horror (or is this fantasy, the line seems to be very blurred these days) so I don't know how this would go down with more the more dedicated readers of the genre. I like it well enough to keep an eye out for the second part.

Book Details
Title: A Book of Tongues
Author: Gemma Files
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Pages: 259
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0981297866 (trade paperback)
First published: 2010

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