A Book of Tongues, Vol. 1 of The Hexslinger Series, Gemma Files. Chizine Publications.
Reviewed by Leah Bobet.
The first thing I noticed on picking up A Book of Tongues was that Gemma Files can write.
The prologue to this novel — Files’s first, although she’s had several short story collections published through Prime Books — is two pages long. And by the end of it, picky reader that I am, I was already in love with the precision, the lushness, the hard slice of the language. Files infuses descriptions of the horrific with the same kind of visceral, odd beauty as Caitlin R. Kiernan: you simultaneously cringe back and are drawn closer to the page. Her metaphors are unconventional enough to catch your attention, but not so much as to halt you on the page or confuse. It’s prose you can slide into like a hot bath — okay, a very ominous, apocalyptic hot bath. Even before considering the quick-driven plot, the looping structure, the Old West setting flavoured with Aztec and Maya mythologies and haunted by Aztec and Maya hells, A Book of Tongues is beautiful to read.
But the real triumph of A Book of Tongues is in its characterization. Files takes the three players in her love triangle — less actually a love triangle than one of attraction and insecurity and power — and renders them in terrifically objective but compassionate detail. Asher Rook, Chess Pargeter, and Ed Morrow one and all are betrayers, killers, occasionally truly irredeemable, but the shuffling of perspectives on their deeds and motives as they carve their way through their alternate Old West makes them all terribly human. They’re deeply wounded and confused. They dig themselves in too deep and way over their heads. They try very, very hard. They’re still, after all that, amazingly bad men. But it’s very quickly difficult not to find sympathy for each, no matter how they hurt each other — and just about everyone they meet. Through her three protagonists, Files presents an exquisitely complicated and nonjudgmental view of human nature, which, paired with the traditionally (or stereotypically) white-hat-versus-black-hat Western setting, is twice as powerful as it might be in another genre.
That flat inability to derive bad guys and good guys, to keep one character in the same box too long, might be the true driving force behind this story. Stripped down to the core of the desert landscape, unable to rely on the backing of either the outlaw gang Rook leads or Morrow’s Pinkerton bosses, facing down a deific force that isn’t good or bad, but just has no use for a Judeo-Christian notion of morality, every decision the protagonists make is vital and while they are terribly, terribly alone. It’s the very definition of narrative stakes: every choice matters. Only their choices matter. Every regret will be bigger than the world.
It’s that, combined with the cloud of literal apocalyptic doom that builds, slowly but implacably, throughout the novel, that makes A Book of Tongues very, very hard to put down, and that which has it sitting at the top of my list of best novels I’ve read this year, never mind best debuts. This is a first novel from a writer very much in command of her craft; one both intellectually and emotionally captivating. Highly recommended.