A Book of Tongues
Chizine Publications, 2010
I was excited to read A Book of Tongues on just the mention of the “weird west” in the book’s description. My love of Pinnacle’s Deadlands setting certainly fueled my interest even the title of the series this books kicks off Hexslinger reminded me of Deadlands so I was certainly excited to dive into my A Book of Tongues with my past experiences with the weird west as impetus. Nostalgia is always a dangerous thing and I’m uncertain how much what I hoped the novel would be colored my interaction with the text; likely more than was healthy. The novel centers around Pinkerton agent William Morrow’s undercover job with notorious hexslinger and outlaw Reverend Asher Rook and Rook’s lover the murderous Chess Pargeter. Morrow is their to ferret out the extent of Rook’s powers at the behest of a scholar seeking to harness magic users for use by the Pinkertons and the U.S. Government. Things of course don’t go to plan and the machinations of an Aztec deity have repercussions for everyone involved.
Nostalgia aside the plot seemed exciting and had all the elements that I thought I might enjoy: magic, mystery, monsters and mayhem. Unfortunately there was one thing that held my enjoyment of the novel in check: sex. Lots and lots of sex. Had I paid attention to the Publisher’s Weekly snippet on Chizine’s website I might have noted the comment about “raunchily explicit gay love story” but I didn’t; though the description is extraordinarily apt. To be entirely clear it is the “explicit” part that I’m taking issue with here. The sex in A Book of Tongues is pervasive and common enough to detract from the rest of the novel. The problem is just that the sex in A Book of Tongues is both pervasive and and explicit but that sex and sexuality in general are seemingly implicit in the nature of magic of the novel and sex and passion are used as expression of the power of “hexes” (the term Files uses for magicians and sorcerers) and plays an integral role in the parasitic relationship “hexes” have with one another. As mentioned above a huge part of my problem had to do with my expectations. I found the sex in A Book of Tongues to be a major distraction from what amounts to a completely fascinating story full of horror and magic.
So what worked in A Book of Tongues? While confusing (I had a difficult time grasping the myth-laden introduction that preceded the major sections of the novel) I enjoyed the inclusion of Aztec mythology in the story. Much fantasy fiction seems to be very much anglo-centric so to see the inclusion of Mesoamerican culture behind many of the magical antics of the novel was a refreshing change of pace. I particularly enjoyed Files’ interpretation of hell with the use of the “sunken ball court” seen in much Mesoamerican architecture being used by horrid corpses for an eternal game. The deities Files uses are also impressively horrific, self-serving with a chillingly callous disregard for human life. While William Morrow is a sort of typecast loyal hero, Files imbues both Chess and Reverend Rook with a great amount of depth. Chess in particular, from his introduction wearing his purple suit and with his ornery attitude right down to the startling revelation about his nature towards novel’s end, jumps off the page. Rook, a man whose starts as simply shaken in his faith is slowly drawn towards an increasing desire for power and respect down a path that is tragic, mesmerizing, and somewhat terrifying.
A Book of Tongues is hampered by it reliance on sex as a plot device. Will everyone find this to be the case? No. For some the sex might not be bothersome at all. For me at least it made reading the book something of a chore and more than once had me wanting to put it aside and move on. Despite that, and beyond the sex, is the makings of an excellent novel. Files has created an intriguing setting with a fascinating mythology and I am definitely curious to see where it goes from here. But will I be picking up the next volume? If sex as prevalent in the next volume as it was here then probably not. Those who aren’t comfortable with explicit sex should most definitely stay away for the more curious the product page over at Chizine Publications has some links to some more in depth preview information about the world of the Hexslinger series and I highly recommend anyone on-the-fence about giving the book a try to head over there and check it out for themselves. For an entirely more thorough and exhaustive examination of the novel you might also try reading Brit Mandelo’s review over at Tor.com; it’s far more eloquent and inclusive then I could ever be.