Gemma Files, <strong>Hexslinger, vol. 1: A Book of Tongues</strong> (ChiZine Publications, 2010)
I had somehow gotten it into my head (and onto my spreadsheet) that <em>A Book of Tongues</em> was Gemma Files' first young adult novel. That particular misconception lasted exactly three pages into this bloody, profane, ugly, violent, utterly enchanting western. For the second time this issue, I'll throw out the disclaimer: there's no way I can write a biased review about a Gemma Files book. While she hasn't quite earned a spot yet on the Shelf of the Immortals (where reside such authors as Kathe Koja, Sonya Taaffe, and Ira Sadoff, people I would unhesitatingly move my family to Utah to marry if they asked--yes, even Sadoff), I have yet to come across a piece of her writing that isn't so hugely enjoyable that I can resist throwing hyperbole around like Crisco during a Falcon Studios prison drama food fight, so take this review with as much salt as necessary. But the simple answer is, "this book is just as awesome as every other Gemma Files book I have ever read."
I should also probably mention in passing that another reviewer's comment of "well-written but tasteless" is dead on the money. Those of you who are experiencing Gemma Files' work for the first time may not be quite prepared for that. I'd strongly recommend going back and reading some of her short stories in comparison; "Skeleton Bitch" and "Every Angel" are fantastic starting places for getting a handle on Files', ah, unique aesthetic when it comes to things that squick out the Constant Reader. But then adding that compels me to add that there's a kind of number line of squick. And while everyone's particular definitions of "that's just gross" rearrange that line to suit said person's own tastes, I'll tell you that on my personal line, Files is out beyond the pale of Poppy Z. Brite's infamous dissection scene in <em>Exquisite Corpse</em>, but can't see Charlee Jacob (<em>Haunter</em>), Pan Pantziarka (<em>House of Pain</em>), or Monica J. O'Rourke (<em>Suffer the Flesh</em>) over the horizon.
In any case, what all the fuss is about: in this alternate-universe America, the Northern government, during the Civil War, worked on a program to cultivate destructive magicians, nicknamed "hexslingers", for the war effort. One of them, a former camp pastor, went very dangerously rogue. Fast-forward a few years, and Asher Rook is the head of an outlaw gang who's been terrorizing the entire western territories. The Pinkertons are after him, and to that effect, they've planted a mole in his organization--Ed Morrow, the ostensible main character of the story. (While Morrow's identity as a Pink is a minor spoiler for the first few chapters, it's mentioned both in the jacket copy and PW's review, so I figure the damage has already been done.) Ed is attempting to keep his head on his shoulders and keep his mission a secret while also trying to puzzle out the odd, complex relationship between Rook and his number-two man, Chess Pargeter, which goes far beyond the carnal, as well as try and figure out where his loyalties lie when, inevitably, he has to make choices that will benefit one group to the detriment of the other.
The American West has become the new stomping grounds for trailblazers in this sort of worldbuilding, and it's produced some real barnburners. This is one of them. Files keeps her grounding in contemporary horror and dabbles a bit in steampunk (the device Morrow is supposed to use to read the magical aura, as it were, of Rook could have come right out of one of China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels--or, perhaps more to the point, one of Cherie Priest's Dreadnought novels, set during the same time period), but the book definitely put down some strong roots in the Old West. It would not surprise me in the least to know that Files had not only read McCarthy's <em>Blood Meridian</em>, which it echoes more than once, but also Chamberlain's <em>My Confession</em> (the book upon which <em>Blood Meridian</em> is based). Which brings up another salient point for those who wonder about the extremes of sex and violence to be found here: the Old West was as lawless and ugly a place as those sections of the big city you won't go anywhere near after dark, except the chances of a patrol car coming by were even smaller back then. While no one has ever denied Chamberlain probably exaggerated a bit, and no one denies McCarthy embellished some of Chamberlain's exaggerations, I doubt either one of them extended that carp more than a few inches beyond its actual length. Files only makes a lateral move here with the inclusion of the paranormal; her readings of human nature are, as always, dead on.
Or you could just set all that aside and skip to the last paragraph, where I tell you "if you read only one bizarro western this year, it should be Jordan Krall's <em>Fistful of Feet</em>. But when you're done with that, you'll want another, so you should immediately pick up Gemma Files' <em>A Book of Tongues</em> and hop to!". Seriously. Read this, preferably at your earliest opportunity. It's awesome. ****