Once upon a time, in a weird Old West where magic works and everyone usually wishes it didn’t, two soon to be ex-Confederate soldiers fall in love. One is Chess Pargeter, a queer-to-the-bone gunfighting prodigy who seized upon the Civil War as his ticket out of the squalid San Francisco whorehouse district where he was born and dragged up by his abusive opium-addict prostitute mother. The other is the Reverend Asher Rook, a preacher who stole the collection money and fled to the front lines wracked with guilt for failing to utter a peep against his Missouri congregation’s burning alive of a local witch’s sickly, suspiciously goat-eyed child.
When Rook himself winds up being hanged for the murder of his insanely fanatical commanding officer, he violently manifests as what is locally known as a hex, sweeping away everyone but the similarly court-martialed Chess and a few other allegedly traitorous fellow soldiers in a literal whirlwind of magical destruction. Thus “damned black as night with the discovery of his own power” as denounced in the Biblical book of Exodus, Rook abandons his previous earnestly respectable ways and turns hexslinging outlaw, yielding to his long-secret “liking for the Other” by embracing Chess as well.
But the psychically vampiric nature of the way magic works in their world, and the grandiose schemes of a recently-resurrected Aztec Goddess who has appointed herself Rook’s patron deity, render the likelihood of any but the most fleeting positive outcome for this killer couple’s romance even slimmer than it was for Bonnie and Clyde. Consumed by equal parts altruistic love, prideful fatalism, and self-interest, the Reverend Rook resorts to increasingly apocalyptic measures in an attempt to have his cake and eat it too. In addition to being both a slightly steampunk fantasy Western and an m/m romance, A Book of Tongues is most definitely a horror story.
I found and read the second Hexslinger novel, A Rope of Thorns, before managing to track down A Book of Tongues. Compared to the second installment of the series, in which the action flows more inexorably and organically, A Book of Tongues does have the occasional artistic hiccup — or at least the odd moment in which the literary spell being woven temporarily becomes insufficiently seamless to distract the reader from certain logical inconsistencies in the plot.
For instance, there is Rook’s grand plan to get the drop on the posse assembling to track him down by sending Chess into town ahead of him as a deliberately conspicuous diversion. In practice, this seems to boil down to the Reverend’s semi-deliberately setting his lover up to be caught and beaten up badly enough that Rook’s at-that-point unreliable and ill-understood powers will automatically activate in response to his righteous wrath at Pargeter’s mistreatment.
Another instance of this occasional awkwardness in narrative flow involves the book’s third central character, undercover Pinkerton detective and ostensible Rook gang member Ed Morrow. In one sequence early in the novel, Morrow attempts to carry out his instructions to measure the fallen preacher’s power with a compass-like scientific instrument by sneaking up on the two gang leaders as they noisily make love in a hotel room. Since the instrument in question has been known to begin vibrating and clicking at the mere prospect of proximity with a major league magic-user, one might have assumed that this task could have been adequately carried out while Morrow hovered discreetly outside his supposed bosses’ closed bedroom door. Instead, he somehow winds up watching them have sex, only to discover too late that a telltale slice of his own face is visible in the bedroom mirror, and that Rook has been aware of — and planned on — his presence all along. The narrative is so focussed on the officially straight Morrow’s fascinated-despite-himself observations of Rook and Pargeter’s activities in bed (along with the subsequent pillow talk) that the reader might be tempted to conclude that the bedroom door is wide open or nonexistent until a reference to the Pinkerton’s “ek[eing] a little further toward the door, sidelong” finally occurs a page and a half into this sequence. The overall effect struck me as bearing distinct overtones of the appreciative female (or gay male) gaze, albeit in an artistically tasteful, touching, and virtually unexploitative — though somewhat logically disruptive — way.
To be fair, the logistical implausibility of this scene seems likely to stem at least partially from the author’s usually non-fanservice-related propensity for striving for a panoramic quasi-omniscient narrator’s-eye view of the proceedings, while at the same time filtering the story through the perceptions of a variety of different third-person viewpoint characters. This practice becomes notably smoother and more effective as the novel progresses and the telepathic side effects of hex powers begin to affect both the magic-using characters and the non-magical associates they wish to influence or communicate with.
I normally dislike it when magic is portrayed as automatically entailing the kind of high price and collateral damage characteristic of almost all the wonders worked by Rook and the other hexes in A Book of Tongues. Such depictions often smack of old saws about “things man was never meant to know,” and suggest a certain ambivalence on the author’s part about the excessively unrealistic heights of imagination involved in the very fantasy genre he or she has chosen to write within.
Gemma Files’ Hexslinger series doesn’t fall into this trap. According to Rook’s would-be nemesis, the pious smalltown sheriff, preacher, and posse leader Mesach Love, who appears to have certain quasi-magical spiritual powers of his own, magic is an unnatural destructive force that no decent person should meddle with. But the bigger picture presented by A Book of Tongues‘ mosaic of shifting points of view makes it clear that the reality is far more complicated. In the Hexslinger series, magic, far from being some inherently inhuman force perversely summoned from outside the normal universe, is in fact part and parcel of the world and the human condition — albeit a part that often turns destructive when improperly used, especially under violent or unjust circumstances. But the most essential and unalterable thing about it is that, like love and sex, for which it often seems to serve as metaphor and manifestation, hex power is an inescapable force of both nature and human nature. For Asher Rook especially, magic, love, and sex are inextricably intertwined. So much so that once Rook is traumatically awakened to his own allegedly damnable hexacious ability, the prospect of losing either that ability or Chess, the “pocket-sized Satan” lover his previously Other-fearing views forbade him to accept, seems tantamount to cutting out his own heart.
[Margaret O’Connell is a staff writer for the feminist comics and pop culture webzine Sequential Tart.]