Author: Gemma Files
Mood: If you’re mad at yourself for your various shortcomings and need to be punished with a book that’s guaranteed to ruin any night on which you pick it up.
Reading A Book of Tongues is like arriving at a party where you don’t know anybody, so you randomly ask someone standing by the appetizers how it’s going and they launch into a three-hour monologue on Mayan religion, the Civil War, poetry, the intricacies of gay sex, and the Bible, and so finally in desperation you say you have to leave but they follow you to your car and ask for your number.
This book is IMMENSELY pleased with itself, and thinks you should be too.
All of the aforementioned themes are stuffed into an out-of-order story featuring gods who take on multiple forms with unpronounceable names, and it’s told through numerous voices fighting to narrate the damn thing – sometimes from within the same sentence.
But there’s not one single enjoyable character to guide you through it all. It’s just a barrel of assholes, being marched forward at gunpoint toward a completely unsatisfying climax.
And for an author who spends so much of the book graphically describing sexual climaxes… the lack of a big payoff is extra insulting.
A Book of Tongues is a Weird Western, aka a Western-fantasy, which is usually my favourite subgenre of all time.
It leaps between several years in the 1860s, blasting through dusty towns in the United States and Mexico, other planes of existence, and actual Hell. Asher Rook is a reverend-turned-outlaw and a hexslinger. When he preaches, the words spring to life and destroy anyone who dares to cross him – or his lover, an unapologetic killer named Chess Pargeter.
Seems like a strong enough premise, right? But it races past any kind of setup, stumbling on its attempts to tether itself to the dark fantasy allure of goddesses with ancient cults. The result is a shallow pair of romantic leads with an implausible ‘love’ story.
Rook is power-hungry and selfish, and treats everybody like crap including Pargeter. And Pargeter is such a hotheaded, violent little shit that it feels incredibly non-consensual to keep telling the reader that everyone falls for him. I mean, there are bad boy archetypes with troubled pasts and there are antiheroes, but Pargeter is too cruel and vain to have any appeal.
Anyway, I think the point is that Rook needs Pargeter to become a Hexslinger, to fulfill the demands of some bloodthirsty Mayan goddesses Rook sees in his dreams. I could be wrong. I don’t really care, because I have zero plans to continue reading this trilogy.
A Book of Tongues makes unreasonable demands of the reader from the get-go, which is problematic.
You have to give us something juicy to hold onto, so that we’re willing to trust when you push our limits. But author Gemma Files seems to expect, nay, DEMAND, that we buy into everything she says while giving nothing in return except pretty words.
- The Mayan religion aspect isn’t fleshed out or supported nearly enough to drive the plot; the barebones introduction to this central theme leaves you floundering while the story abandons the Old West it still claims as a setting
- The writing style is awkward – elegantly poetic phrasing crams up against unconvincing attempts at Western dialogue, so the descriptive language reads as pretentious and the conversations totally fail to capture the time and place
- It’s quite a stretch to believe that white guys who fought for the South are chosen to commune with powerful Mayan and Native American beings when there are Mexican and Indigenous people RIGHT THERE
- There’s no hint from the marketing that this book is full of heavy-duty sex, so you’re reading along trying to grasp all the various religious stuff and straining to find the Western of it all and then BAM, you’re thrust into the boinking (pun intended)
- I’m not here to judge whatever kind of sex floats your boat, but the sex depicted here feels EXTREMELY gratuitous – angry, non-consensual, coerced, purchased, or done to prove a point
- The frequent racial slurs toward Chinese characters, and the homophobic slurs, are defended online as “appropriate for the time”, but if the story was truly trying to be appropriate for the time then there would not be a posse of ex-Confederate outlaws seeking to join up with two overtly gay men who like to have really loud sex
There wasn’t enough horror in A Book of Tongues to horrify me, possibly because by the time you get to the massacres and vivid descriptions of flayed flesh, you’re totally numb from the overabundance of flowery language used in every sentence.
And like I said, the Western element is mostly an afterthought, other than when Pargeter uses his guns or someone has a Southern accent.
What does that leave? The fantasy. But the story spends so much time indulging in its unrealistic dialogue that you can’t even enjoy the descriptions of the dark realms and creatures. Also, there’s virtually NO mention of what the rest of Old West is doing in this universe! Like, how are magic or hexslingers perceived by everyone else? Are there good mages, too? Has magic been around so long that it’s normal, or is it new?
If you aren’t a hexslinger, groupie, or Pinkerton, your POV doesn’t matter here.
I wanted to love A Book of Tongues for the horror element and the queer storyline that it brought to the genre. But I had to force myself through pretty much every page, just to be able to reclaim my bedtime reading as a place of true entertainment. I took literally nothing enjoyable or even memorable away from Rook and Pargeter. They’re not the LGBTQ+ Western characters we need.
If you want a seriously Western-leaning fantasy, read Emma Bull’s brilliant Territory instead.