Once upon a time in the West there exists an infamous gang of outlaws, headed by two of the badest bad men you could ever have the misfortune to encounter. Chess Pargeter is a gunslinger, a man whose ability with a six-shooter is nothing short of supernatural. He’s also slight, boyish, ginger-haired, and entirely too willing to give of himself to any man in need of a little bodily companionship. These days, however, his favors are reserved primarily for his partner in crime, Asher Rook. A former chaplain in the Confederate army, Rook was due to be hung for a variety of crimes — including, of course, Sodomy — when Satan took a hand, rescuing him and his companions from the gallows. That is when Rook discovered that he was a hexslinger, and when he set out on a life of crime.
Allan Pinkerton and his famous detective agency are hot on the heels of Rook, Pargeter and their gang. Their hopes lie mainly with Ed Morrow, a brave agent who has managed to infiltrate the outlaws. Morrow, of course, can do little by himself, but he carries with him a strange, mechanical device invented by Dr. Joachim Asbury of Columbia University’s division of Experimental Arcanistry. Science, it seems, is all that stands between civilization and the predations of the hexslingers. And yet, for all their animosity, outlaw and lawman may yet find common cause. It is not only the newcomers to America who can wield arcane powers. The native peoples did too. Caught unawares, the Aztecs fell before the power of the Steel Hats and their One God, but they and their Mayan forebears are not defeated. Their gods lurk in the Underworld, seeking for that one powerful mage that they can use to wreak revenge on the white men.
Ladies, gentlemen and persons of mixed and indeterminate gender, a round of applause please for Gemma Files who appears to have invented the Queer Steampunk Dark Fantasy Western.
A Book of Tongues is a lovely little book. Its main drawback, from my point of view, is that it is merely the first book in a series, and I need to read more books to find out what happens to Chess, Ash and Ed. A drawback for others might be the generous dollops of male-on-male sex that Files delights in serving up at every available opportunity. I have no particular aversion to sex in fiction, but I have no real idea whether Ms. Files manages to provide an accurate portrait of what gay men think, feel and do. The book seems to me rather more realistic than much of the m/m slash that I’ve seen, but I’m not the best person to judge and I have seen concern elsewhere that women writing about gay men is just as voyeuristic as men watching “lesbian” porn. I’m hoping someone can comment authoritatively on this for me.
Of course those people who dislike the whole idea of gay sex will be utterly squicked out from the start and shouldn’t bother, but somehow I doubt that many such people read my blog.
Back with the book, one of the things I liked best about it was the way in which Ash Rook casts spells by quoting Bible passages. Indeed, there’s a whole section in which he and the do-gooding Sheriff Mesach Love fight a magical duel by quoting the Bible at each other. Some people will doubtless find this hideously blasphemous, but with any luck they are the same people who won’t be reading the book anyway because they are squicked out by gay sex.
The Wild West atmosphere also seems very well done. The characters speak in dialect a lot, and that all seemed pretty much spot on to me. That includes the more upper class accents of Pinkerton and Asbury. Again I’m not an avid consumer of Westerns, either in books or on TV, but I’ve seen enough in my time to think that Files has the setting down pat.
The other really intriguing thing about the book is that Pargeter and Rook are very much anti-heroes. They are both serial murderers. Pargeter in particular seems to kill people with about as much thought as he would spend on squashing a fly. The closest thing that the books have to a sympathetic hero is Ed Morrow, and yet the more he comes to know of the men he has been sent to hunt down, the more he comes to like them. This makes me really want to know where Files is going with this.
The second book in the series, A Rope of Thorns, is already available, so I’ll be checking that out when I get some time (Hugo reading first). If you are looking for something very different to read, you might want to check them out too. Though you may want to wait until the series has finished, because A Book of Tongues leaves you with a whole lot of unanswered questions.
Ebook editions of both books are available from the Wizard’s Tower store: