At some point, most religions seem to offer visions of widespread gore and pending annihilation—perhaps none more gorily than the linked faith of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. For her first novel A Book of Tongues, Gemma Files injects elements from that religion into the already-brutal Wild West soon after the Civil War, amping up the horror of a very dark tale that introduces the Hexslinger Series. Even Clint Eastwood’s stoic gunslinger from those spaghetti westerns might blanch at some of the doings here, as Files describes them with a graphic, unflinching eloquence.
Her “hexslinger” Asher Rook is a former preacher, turned by extreme trauma into a magician who now wields his small black Bible like a weapon. In it he can always find appropriate words for a curse, which lifts “bodily from those gilt-edged pages in one flat curl of unstrung ink, a floating necklace of black gothic type” (shown here in such a text), with devastating results.
Rook’s gang includes his gay lover Chess Pargeter, a green-eyed madman with red-gold hair, tireless sexual appetites, a phenomenal ability with guns, and a complete lack of scruples. A newcomer to the gang, undercover Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow, is on assignment to investigate the criminal use of magic but has few defenses against its use on himself—including one episode that will leave him both horrified and ashamed.
While the members of this little outfit are no strangers to homicide, robbery, and Barbary Coast whorehouses, as bloodletters they’re complete amateurs next to the elder powers who’ve been haunting Rook’s dreams and eventually draw him into a kind of hell where two opposing female entities have different ideas of his (and our world’s) destiny.
Violent, sometimes foul-mouthed, explicit in many ways, A Book of Tongues may discomfort anyone except the most seasoned fan of horror or homicidal Westerns. More than one passage made me wish I could “read” with my eyes tight shut. But a kind of natural poetry runs through even the worst of it, combined with an imaginative view of magic. it’s there in the title taken from one of its epigraphs, a poem by Gwendolyn MacEwen. That quote opens with the title phrase and ends: “Beware! I [now] know a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it.” Such an image transcends mere gore, and so does this debut novel.
—Faren Miller, Locus Magazine, April 2010.