No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 13, 2010

2010/51: A Book of Tongues -- Gemma Files

... there he was again -- right smack back in the same place, slogging through black river water to his knees under the jaundice-yellow sky. Skulls to the left of him, flowers to the right, the very air itself an obsidian storm through which knives swirled by, drawing blood 'til it felt like all he had left for skin was a single walking wound.(p.14)

Read for review for Strange Horizons: this is not the review I shall be submitting there (which I'll add a link to when it's up), but a more subjective and less critically-oriented discussion.

A Book of Tongues is the first in the Hexslinger sequence (there's no indication of how long this sequence will be, though I suspect trilogy): it's set in the 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, in a Wild West where magic works.

Hanged by the neck for mutiny and murder, Confederate chaplain Asher Rook finds himself snatched back from death by a mysterious power, the Lady of Traps and Snares to whom all hanged men belong. "Graphic physical insult can cause talent for hexation to express," according to the report prepared by the Pinkerton Agency, and Rook finds himself possessed of the power to level a town, summon a whirlwind, turn a man to a pillar of salt. Unsettlingly -- and surely because of his previous, albeit half-hearted, vocation as the Reverend Rook -- his medium of expression is Biblical quotation. (The Book of Exodus is good for summoning a plague of ants.)

Rook and his lover, the gorgeous, arrogant and amoral Chess Pargeter ('queer to the bone', in his own words), accrete a gang of outlaws and terrorise the West. Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow infiltrates the gang with the Manifold -- a thoroughly steampunk device made by a professor of Experimental Arcanistry at Columbia, with which Morrow hopes to determine the nature and extent of Rook's power. The Agency's ultimate goal is to understand the nature of magic so that it can be used for less nefarious purposes: ideally, they'll persuade Rook to change his allegiance.

Unfortunately, the Lady of Traps and Snares also wants to turn Rook's powers to her own ends, and she has rather more clout than Pinkerton's. As quickly becomes clear -- to the reader if not to the characters -- the Lady is, or was, a Mayan goddess, with all the (literal) bloodthirstiness that implies. She has been waiting for a long time in the Sunken Ballcourt, gathering power and scheming, and now her plans are coming to fruition. Rook is warned that following the Lady is a dangerous choice, not only for him but for Chess, and for the whole world: does he heed the warning? Guess.

A Book of Tongues does a masterful job of showing Rook's transformation from morally-upstanding preacher to outlaw and magician: in particular, the relationship between Chess and Rook evolves from wary stand-off to seldom-voiced but deeply-felt love and devotion. (Also, to a plethora of graphic descriptions of rough sex: this may deter some readers, as may the body-count and the endemic casual violence of the setting.) However, this is very obviously the first of a series: there are a great many loose ends, a major cliffhanger on the last page, and a sense of the scene being set for resolution -- though very likely with things getting worse before they get better.

I want to see how that resolution works out: and I want to read more of Files' prose, which is sharp and slick and colloquial and unexpectedly poetic.

I've been trying to think what A Book of Tongues reminds me of, and it's Storm Constantine's first Wraeththu trilogy: themes of love, sacrifice, apotheosis; a passionate love-affair that isn't enough to keep the lovers together; protagonists who are used by greater forces. ('Chess' and 'Rook': gaming-pieces.)

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