By Harry Markov
Files, Gemma. A Book of Tongues. ChiZine Publications: April 15, 2010. 278 Pages, ISBN: 978-0981297866.
A Book of Tongues can be best described as “haunting”. The prose is lyrical. It coils, sedates and is addictive as opium fumes. It’s much an enchantment as it is a snare, which snaps around the reader and drowns him in the book’s stark vividness. The story reads like a fevered, fragmentary dance, divided into three books, which roughly equate to exposition, build-up and resolution.
In City of Jades [Book One] Files recasts America after the Civil War as inhabited by hexslingers. These are a minority with paranormal talents, which differ from person to person, and a taste for disarray.
I was instantly drawn to the main trio. Ash Rook is stoic, the classic tall, dark and handsome. He was a former preacher, now turned hexslinger, who can manifest judgments from the Bible. This creates an inverted image and meaning of the Holy Book and the men, who preach from it. Chess Pargeter charms with his childish cruelty and quick-to-shoot mentality. He’s a red-headed, trigger-happy bastard and is totally fine with it. Now, Ed Morrow can be labeled as most-relatable, because he possesses normal, identifiable-within-the-reader traits. Sort of an average Joe. I could easily settle in with him. Files fleshes out her characters without effort. Right from the starting pages, I could see what made these people tick and wanted to see more.
At this point, the reader is introduced to the two intertwining story threads: Morrow’s mission to get an energy reading from Ash and Rook’s quest to discover what his recurring dreams mean.
Skull-Flower shines with Files’ talent in breaking the continuity, fragmenting the narrative and then sewing the past to the present, while juggling different points of view. The story takes a step back to retrace Rook’s transformation and how his sexual relationship with Chess formed. Also, this is the place Ixchtel, the woman from Rook’s dreams, slithers out from her underworld, introduces herself as a goddess and announces her plans to return the other gods from beyond the grave.
Jaguar Cactus Fruit continues the same storytelling model. Files omits facts, only to let them pop up later. She rearranges chronology to her liking, thus weaving a greater sense of mystery and complexity. In the sense of game-changers, this is the most intense third of the story. Truth breeds lies, and loyalty becomes a two-sided coin. The characters travel to Hell and return, all having suffered losses.
Because of the broken narrative and complex interactions between the three men and Ixchtel, the reader can stumble into confusion. I attribute this to the way dialogue is served during the conversations between humans and the spirits and gods from Hell. This is why I advise the reader to slow down and tread carefully, instead of rushing through this book. A Book of Tongues is rich in vocabulary, potent in description and ripe with mythology. It is meant for savouring and you won’t be disappointed.
Files succeeds in crafting her world on two levels. First, the setting evokes an America from the period after the Civil War. The atmosphere just feels right and the authenticity can be felt mostly through dialogue and the typical expressions used. Second, hexslingers remind me personally of the X-Men in some regards. For starters, men manifest their hex when they suffer a severe trauma, which is also the trigger for the mutant genome. The parallel continues as we see how hated hexes are as a minority. How feared they are as well. But I don’t imply that Files’ creation is derivative. Far from it. For instance, hexslingers cannot love each other without consuming each other’s energy, which is the main obstacle between Ash and Chess.
Files plays boldly with mythologies, overlapping Aztec with Mayan. Each book opens with a few passages regarding deities from these pantheons. Gods devour gods. Human sacrifices are made and the reader is swept up in a whirlwind of information amidst gunslinging in vintage Western fashion and magic-borne carnage.
The last thing you probably need to know is that A Book of Tongues features a graphic gay relationship between Ash and Chess, which is central to the development of the plot and the characters themselves without bordering on paranormal romance. The sex scenes are detailed and this may be off-putting for some, though I believe that the dynamics of it surpass many of the relationships I have seen in other books. Yes, the characters will meet prejudice along the way, but homosexuality is not a central theme. What the reader gets is two-fully developed partners defining love, while apocalyptic disasters rumble in the background.
In conclusion, A Book of Tongues is a novel that needs to be read at least twice. It’s a psychedelic plunge into a macabre and fantastical past. Carnal and violent. Dark, yet human. [A+] material.
You can purchase A Book of Tongues through Amazon.com.