A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files is the first book in her Hexslinger series. Let me borrow some of the back cover’s excellent summary: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. […] Rook, driven by desperation, has a plan to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world—a plan sealed by an unholy marriage-oath with the goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men. […] Caught between a passel 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…
This book is fantastic in so many ways. The writing is incredible—relentlessly sharp prose, deeply believable characters, and a fascinating magic system. It’s very dark and gritty, full of violence, death, and swearing, but it’s not what I’d call “grimdark”, not nasty for the sake of lifting up nastiness. All three of the main characters are absolutely understandable, even while I found myself begging them not to make the bad decisions they invariably end up making. Morrow is a genuinely good man with a strong sense of loyalty, lying to those around him for the sake of his job. Chess is hot-headed, amoral, violent, and loves to kill; he’s also hurt, in love, and afraid to make himself vulnerable even for a moment. And Rook is a once-good man who believes himself damned to hell, and makes choices, these days, out of his trauma and loss and self-hate more than he makes them out of goodness. Call them the good, the bad, and the ugly!
Plus, the book starts with a Wild West shootout over some men insulting Chess’s in-your-face homosexuality, and quickly proceeds to him making out with Rook over the bodies while Morrow stares in disbelief, which I’ve got to say is a real quick sell for me.
I’d have rated this a five out of five, except that it’s also an intensely uncomfortable read, and not just because of the very real hurt these characters visit on each other as they make bad choices. The characters are products of their time and place and are damned racist and sexist; the narrative follows the voice of whichever character is on screen, which is a very strong narrative choice when selling a mood or setting—but means we do see anti-Chinese racial slurs repeatedly in the narrative text itself, depending on which character is the POV character at the time. This might not be as uncomfortable if, for the duration of the first book, the story itself showed more to the POCs and the ladies of the text—but unfortunately, we don’t have any POC characters who are not in some way tropey to the setting (opium dealers or users, prostitutes, mystics, etc), and I don’t believe there’s a single female character in this book who isn’t evil, doesn’t get hit in the face, and/or isn’t killed. Nor are any of them important to the story bar the main villainess.
Now, some of it is called out narratively, via a character’s condemnation of white people and some other references to their biases that crop out throughout, but it was still a big lack in the book, and I wavered for a long time over whether I should rate this 3 or 3.5 instead of 4/5 rating. I actually read partway into the next book before writing this review to check it was a continuing problem or one the author recognized, since that might tell me if the “hints” I was picking up were there or if I was just reading into it because I wanted to believe in this—and, at least halfway through the sequel (which is as far as I have read at this point), it no longer seems to a problem to the same degree. The Chinese wizard we have met previously gets an actual name rather than just the one white people use for her and we see some of her thoughts and feelings in the prologue; the protagonists are also joined by a new female POV protagonist (of Jewish descent!). Since it seems to me like the author was setting up the characters’ close-mindedness through the narration in order to deliberately open this up throughout the series (and here’s hoping it stays that way!), I settled on a higher rating—but even so, we don’t get it in this book, and I still want to mention it since there are definitely people to whom this will be more of a personal sore point, and I wouldn’t want them stumbling into it unawares.
That said aside, coming back to the good: The narrative frequently jumps around in time in a way that I think some people could find off-putting, but it worked for me because it tells a nonlinear story by creating the emotional storyline separately from the narrative timeline, and choosing to follow that emotional storyline instead. I think that it wasn’t always successful with these choices due to small flaws (for example, if Chess says “Don’t leave me” at x later point in time, and y earlier point of time that we read afterwards references those words, the first conclusion is it’s chronological, not that he’s said it more than once, so that’s a place I got tripped up in understanding when sections were set). But it was successful more often than it wasn’t, and seeing a story prioritize building the emotional story over a chronological one was a fascinating narrative experiment.
I can’t stress enough how rich the text is, and how quickly I came to love these characters—massive warts and all. It was a fascinating, engaging read, and I’m very interested to keep reading; I’m completely caught up in the story and very, very excited to see how it resolves.