by Justine Warwick
Graced with an absolutely beautiful cover by designer Erik Mohr, Gemma Files’ first novel, A Book of Tongues, is a “Weird West” tale set in 1867. It tells the story of Pinkerton detective Ed Morrow, who is sent to infiltrate a brutal gang of outlaws led by the Reverend Asher Rook, ex-Confederate chaplain and dark magician, in order to learn more about Rook’s strange abilities for the government cause. Morrow becomes increasingly entangled in Rook’s world—one of sorcery, gods, visions and blood—and his only hope of escape, or of completing his task, lies with Rook’s lover, Chess Pargeter, a violent man with a bloody past and, if Rook has his way, a dreadful future.
Files’ poetic prose is pitch-perfect: languid, precise and full of dark imagery. While the plot is sedately paced, the author takes the time to build up the universe in which her characters exist: a pitiless world in which death and destruction are commonplace, loyalties are always shifting and magic flows through every aspect like a kind of perverse electricity, with the potential to destroy everything it touches. Files’ characters are complicated and profound, motivated largely by lust, both for power and for Chess Pargeter, who becomes a catalytic figure for Morrow and his quest when the two begin an affair. The sexuality of the three central players is as violent as their lives in the desert, the pioneer towns and the slums of San Francisco, and underscores not only their marginalization but their power to destabilize the world they live in—whether through magic or by their very existence.
It’s a brooding and deeply sinister novel, which will undoubtedly be a challenging read for some, but Files has definitely managed to create a world complex enough to sustain the series that this book initiates. A Book of Tongues closes, if not quite with a cliffhanger ending, with a revelation that sets up the reader for the events of a sequel, the upcoming A Rope of Thorns; it will be intriguing to see where the twists and coils of Files’ imagination take us next.