Review – A Book of Tongues, by Gemma Files

I’m not quite sure how to summarize A Book of Tongues, so I’m going to take the lazy route and quote from the back cover:

“Two years after the Civil War, Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow has gone undercover with one of the weird West’s most dangerous outlaw gangs-the troop led by Reverend Asher Rook, ex-Confederate chaplain turned hexslinger and his notorious lieutenant (and lover) Chess Pargeter. Morrow’s task: get close enough to map the extent of Rook’s power, then bring that knowledge back to help Professor Joachim Asbury unlock the secrets of magic itself.

Because magicians, despite their awesome powers, have never been more than a footnote in history: cursed by their own gift to flower in pain and misery, then feed vampirically on each other-never able to join forces, feared and hated by all. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a mind to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world-a plan sealed by unholy marriage-oath with the Mayan-Aztec goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men, who has chosen Rook to raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis.

Caught between a passle of dead gods and monsters, hexes galore, Rook’s witchery, and the ruthless calculations of his own masters, Morrow’s only real hope of survival lies with the man without whom Rook cannot succeed: Chess Pargeter himself. But Morrow and Chess will have to literally ride through Hell before the truth of Chess’s fate comes clear-the doom written for him, and the entire world,”

A Book of Tongues is a wonderfully brutal read, all the more so, because Gemma Files manages to finagle sympathy for what could otherwise be a rather unsympathetic group of characters. Many of these characters are not what you would call nice. Chess is an unapologetic murderer; Rook is desperate and ruthless; and even Morrow is a liar.

Files’ merciless prose reaches out and reveals what they’re made of as each of these rough-shod gentlemen is trapped, bound like a fly into the webbing of the story. They’re lives quickly become interwoven, and eventually they learn that they’ll need each other to find their way out.

At first Chess’ character is the hardest to sympathize with, as he is the most openly violent and cruel. And because you see him through the lens of first Morrow and then Rook, it’s hard to get a read on him other than his love of absinthe and bloodshed and his desire for Rook. But by the end of the book, as more and more of Chess and how he’s put together is slowly revealed, it was Chess that I came to love the most. I feel deep rooted sympathy for him and what has befallen him in his life. He has had the hardest road, and in the face of it has stood up and laughed in its face. More than any other of the characters I want him to succeed; I want him to win.

A Book of Tongues is very graphic, not only in blood and gore (of which there is plenty), but also in sexual situations. Sometimes the events were so vivid in my mind that I didn’t quite know what to do with them, and I had to lower the book for a moment and take a breath before continuing.

This is the kind of horror that leaves you shaken (in more ways than one), with your head spinning, and not quite sure where you stand. While actually reading the book, I don’t know I could actually say that I liked it — the experience was a little to visceral for that — but that now I’m done reading I desperately want to read more. Thankfully, A Book of Tongues is book one of a trilogy, and the sequel, A Rope of Thorns comes out this June.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal. If you feel inclined, you may comment either here or there.]