So . . . yeah, Gemma Files’ debut novel is quite dark, twisted, and very ambitious with its blend of fantasy, western, and horror.
Set in an alternative, post-American Civil War and Wild West, a gang of outlaws is set to bring about the end of the world, complete with plenty of blood, dark deeds, violent action, black magic, and even a trip to Hell. Leading the way are messed-up characters well-suited to the task, Reverend Asher Rook and Chess Pargeter. Rook is an ex-Confederate chaplain, a fallen man turned outlaw, and hex (magic user) who uses the Bible’s words for dark magic. An ancient Aztec deity seeks an alliance with Rook to bring her, her posse, and serious bloodletting back and end the world as it is. Chess is Rook’s "pretty little Satan" second-in-command and lover, "a lit firecracker shoved up the whole honest world's backside," and the very embodiment of the ruthless outlaw (a lot like Sandman Slim, except Chess makes him seem almost angelic). Then, there is Edward Morrow to complicate matters, a Pinkerton agent assigned to infiltrate and spy on Rook’s gang and the most decent person in this bunch.
That lit firecracker reference could fit this book because it can push buttons to the breaking point. The writing is suited to a dark story and twisted characters. In a word, graphic: the language, the visual imagery, the violence, the horrors of the Aztec world, and everything else (yes, the sex), with no punches pulled. The language is powerful and eloquent, poetic at times, as well as vulgar, full of profanity, in-your-face offensive, humorous sometimes and hilariously wrong at other times, and very visceral, delivering a virtual punch to the gut. Files incorporates this language into the dialogue, descriptions, and narrations, bringing this Weird West world and its characters alive.
There is a certain fascination at work here where you cannot turn away from the horror. These otherwise disreputable characters are fascinating to watch and to see what happens to them. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, against forces and deities they have little understanding of but must take action, they are pushed beyond what they know and what they thought they would ever do. Flawed characters, even the “good” ones, make choices out of desperation, selfishness, vengeance, stupidity, friendship, and even love, and these moments make them surprisingly sympathetic and very human. Even more so, when none of the characters escape the consequences of these choices, especially when things do not go as expected, regardless of intentions (“road to Hell” and all).
Look for A Book of Tongues on the VBPL Catalog. The next Hexslinger book is A Rope of Thorns, concluding with A Tree of Bones. M. K. Hobson’s less horror-oriented Hidden Goddess is also about blood magic-using warlocks in a post-Civil War America attempting to resurrect an Aztec goddess (see the prequel’s review). Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds is another paranormal story with potty mouth prose and messed-up characters. Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is an eloquently written historical novel of two men’s love and how one of them schemes and defies all to protect it (see review). Check out 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, as Files models Chess on the character of the loyal and ruthless lieutenant, Charlie Prince.