There’s a lot to be said for the narrative possibilities of the American west when it comes to speculative fiction, and surprisingly, not a lot of fiction actually takes advantage of it. I tend to be on the perpetual lookout for books that are set around this particular era (which is in and of itself commemorated by tall tales and strange stories) and when I read the back of Gemma Files’s Book of Tongues, I was sold. Not only is it a dark fantasy/horror novel set in the west post-Civil War, it’s a story with queer characters and relationships, from Chess to Morrow to the Reverend Rook. Sexuality is a fluid and often unpleasant thing in this book. It was certainly a breath of fresh air to read.
It’s not without the occasional flaw, but overall I think it’s an interesting way to spend a day reading. It bears more of a resemblance, out of the other books reviewed in this series so far, to Kiernan’s The Red Tree than anything else. While the story—being as it is about magic and “hexslingers”—may have touches and implications of fantasy, it strikes me as deeply informed by horror fiction and in debt to the traditions of semi-erotic horror.
The best part of this novel, hands down, is the language. Files has mastered the particular sound of southern speech, which hasn’t changed much since the era she’s writing about. Many writers feel that dropping a “y’all” here and there or cutting of the “g” at the end of a word is enough—it isn’t. There’s a particular pattern of word usage and inflection that’s unique to the dialect that requires a much defter touch. Files has that touch, make no mistake. The fact that she manages not just dialogue in the proper sense but also the entire text is something that wins her double-thumbs-up from me.
Aside from having the perfect narrative voice, the language is great in other ways. The imagery Files pulls up, be it of the landscape or the characters or the more “horrific” parts of the story (the monsters, the gods, the Sunken Ballcourt, et cetera), is ridiculously vivid. Despite the fact that I read this on a plane with what felt like a metal spike jammed firmly through my eardrums, I never lost focus or lost her threads. She had me wrapped up in the story so tightly that I could barely put it down. The sentences do become tangled on themselves every once in awhile, though I can hardly fault her for that, with the structure of the dialect she’s mirroring. It’s a minor problem for a text that is otherwise so pretty.
I will also praise her erotic scenes—they’re short and sweet, but also deeply intense and personal. I originally had a minor gripe about the fact that all of the men around Chess seem to want him (that’s a trope that just kills me), but when you discover halfway through the text that in reality it’s Chess’ unexpressed powers manipulating the world around him, it’s understandable. He can make his guns shoot when they shouldn’t be able to, hit things he shouldn’t, fire true over his shoulder—it’s not just sex that he’s wielding, consciously or not. Additionally, the only female character who shows up to stay is a very scary goddess, and Files does not write the presumable sex scene between her, Chess and Rook that is definitely a rape. (That is the one thing that is discussed and not shown in the text, and I admit gratefulness—with the intensity of the language, the beginning of the scene between Chess and the goddess is already enough to make your skin crawl. I suspect the rest of it would have made me pause in reading to keep away the creeping horrors. It’s not that I don’t appreciate being made to feel awful by a book, but sometimes, well, the cut-away is nice.)
An aside: the lack of women actually doesn’t bother me, though others might feel differently, because it’s appropriate to the time period and setting. This is an outlaw band. They are a robbing, murdering bunch, and women were not something they considered “partners in crime.” It’s realistic, to me, though it’s problematic—history often is.
In any case, Chess and Rook are both characters who are very up my alley. We’ve had this talk before—I really love bad, awful, terrible people who are at the same time redeemed or vindicated by some other aspect. The writer manages to make them important, to make you care about them and not just hate them. Files manages that here. Chess’ tiny moments of regret that go un-admitted but linger are some of the most poignant parts of the tale. His character alone makes this novel, though everyone else is great, too. Chess is, to put it simply, a badass. He’s openly queer in every way he can manage and will kill you if you decide that it’s a problem. He’s small and pretty, but he’s still the scariest person in the pack. But, but—he’s also made vulnerable by Rook, who betrays him in the worst possible way. (With all the good intentions that normally pave the way to Hell, too, which makes it yet more painful to witness.)
Morrow, who I would call the lead of the story, is more of a good guy drawn into circumstances beyond his control for his job. By the end of the book, things have gone pear-shaped in every possible way, but he and Chess have developed a relationship of sorts. He can see that vulnerability and the brave front Chess is putting on what’s happened to him and how alien and terrifying it is. I have my suspicions about the sex scene between them—he might be blaming it on Chess’ ability, but I get the feeling throughout the rest of the text that he was growing some feelings he wasn’t ready to deal with. Chess just has a way about him of yanking those to the forefront.
I respect her portrayal of the world at this point, also. Files doesn’t shy away from the inherent racism, sexism, and homophobia that was absolutely rampant at the time. While it’s flinch-worthy and uncomfortable, that is sort of the point of a story with its roots grounded firmly in horror, and also the work of any writer worth their salt. It was an ugly time, and to pretend otherwise in your fiction is to erase the struggle of those people who were on the bottom social rung. This is where I feel the blurbs on the back (from Michael Rowe and Caitlin Kiernan) ring absolutely true: she does dig her hands in and pull out the parts that we need to see and shouldn’t ignore.
As a whole I was enthralled and intrigued by this book. A fair warning, though: the ending is not quite a cliffhanger, but at the same time, it really is. The next book promises to be just as wild and strange and terrible (in the good way) as this one. I personally am excited to read it. I mean, it’s a magic-riddled, horror-strewn West with hexes running around wrecking reality and a spectrum of queer characters. I’m pretty much guaranteed to like it.
(On a semi-related note, Emma Bull’s Territory may not have any queer characters, but it’s an excellent fantasy set in the West. In case you’re looking for more before the next book in this series comes out.)