Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book of Tongues Reviewed!

An indepth review of Book of Tongues from Macabre Republic:

This first novel from long-renowned short-fiction writer Gemma Files reads like Deadwood by way of Tim Powers, William Burroughs, and Clive Barker. Like Powers's pirate novel On Stranger Tides, A Book of Tongues melds fantasy and history (Files includes the real-life figure of Allan Pinkerton as one of the characters in her tale of magic-wielding outlaws in the post-Civil-War American West). Like Burroughs's The Place of Dead Roads (a phrase that Files employs in her novel), this genre-bending work features homosexual gunslingers in its cast. And like Barker's The Hellbound Heart, the book involves a love quadrangle, numerous betrayals, and a trip to the underworld that leaves one man skinless.

But all this is not to suggest that A Book of Tongues is simply derivative. Files exhibits incredible originality, particularly in the system of magic-making that she maps out. Mages aren't built for peaceful coexistence, given their vampiric hunger for each other's power--a situation that creates some spectacular conflict between characters. Also, one of the ways a person's latent talent for "hexation" can express itself is as a result of suffering a grievous bodily harm. The Confederate soldier/preacher Asher Rook undergoes such growing pains when he survives a hangman's rope and transforms into a formidable hexslinger. His pocket Bible is now his "Bad Book," whose words he literally spreads, to deadly effect: when he blows on the opened tome, "the text lift[s] from those gilt-edged pages in one flat curl of unstrung ink, a floating necklace of black Gothic type borne upwards on a smoky rush of sulphur-tongued breath."

A Book of Tongues is no facile shoot 'em up (or hex 'em down). Files's outlaws are prone to deep introspection, and their relationships to one another are shaped by complex motivations. Likewise, the novel is intricately plotted, its non-chronological storyline looping back and forth like some rodeo lasso-trick. (As the first installment in a projected series, the book lacks any real resolution. Files ends on a note of impending apocalypse, and points towards an epic showdown between hexslingers.)

In essence, the book follows the machinations of renascent Mayan/Aztec deities determined to restore a bloody empire built on human sacrifice. Admittedly, I've always struggled with such mythology, experiencing a sense of cultural disconnect that no doubt starts with the gods' unpronounceable names (which can sound like someone gargling on glass while battling a bronchitic cough. "Chalchiuhtlicue"? "Coyotlaxqui"? Your guess is as good as mine.). Files, though, does an excellent job of incorporating exposition and of developing the Mayan/Aztec deities as characters. Even when these figures do not appear in the flesh but instead speak inside humans' heads, their perspective is helpfully delineated by boldfaced/italicized type.

Indeed, A Book of Tongues is an unabashedly graphic text, in multiple senses of the word. The sex is explicit--the detailed scenes of cowboy coupling will be too much for some readers, even those weaned on Brokeback Mountain. The violence is brutal--at one point, a main character has his heart ripped out and devoured (and survives!). The imagery, meanwhile, is never less than arresting. Files's considerable descriptive talents are on full display in this novel, as can be glimpsed in the following passage:

Up from Mictlan-Xibalba, a crack came extending by slow degrees, like the first small tear in a rolled snake's egg--splitting, re-splitting, fine and flexible as dead woman's hair. Meeting on its way with the same artesian wellspring Rook had teased forth once before, it washed the earth beneath their feet free of salt to form a mucky circle 'round himself and the woman, roughly twelve feet in diameter, like it'd been measured out with a pair of coffins for compasses.
Then the crack's furthest finger opened up a smallish hole right in the off-centre of this depression, through which--while they both watched, with similar fascination--a dark tendril poked and furled, coiling the way kudzu does, pumping with evil juice. A quarter-breath, and it had swelled cock-thick. A half-, and it bloomed big as as a big man's wrist. Three breaths later, a young sapling.
Bark like unclean fur, leaves quill-sharp, pine-needles from a giant's Christmas wreath. The tree spread itself out above them, its low-slung limbs hung with vines so heavy they reminded Rook of nothing so much as serpents. But its fruit did shine: satin-silvery, casting light down on the woman's face as she stared upwards, mouth open, wondering--a thin rain of glitter, spores heavy with sleep, and dreams.

[opening of Chapter Fourteen, p. 155]

So does A Book of Tongues ultimately warrant "Most Wanted" billing? The answer is a resounding yes. Gemma Files's fantastic excursion into cross-genre territory is not to be missed. The Western has never been weirder, wilder, or more wonderfully written.

Click here to buy Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

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