A Book of Tongues and Cussing, My Favorite Kind.

There’s going to be some swearing in this essay. If you don’t like swearing, you will not like A Book of Tongues.  

This book was pitched to me as “gay Deadwood”. That’s not wrong – there is a bona fide San Francisco cocksucker here in the mix – literally! And like the book that inspired the rec for this book, the action takes place in the complicated mess that is the post Civil War Old West – the odd mix of ex-Confederate soldiers and Pinkertons, Mexicans and Native Americans, slugging it out in the harsh Southwestern terrain and the shitty main streets that play at civility on the edge of this thing and that. And this thing and that aren’t that well defined anyway, so each place is a hinge to another place that’s a hinge. Hot damn. 

And like Deadwood, the style here is absolutely killer, written in its own vernacular that’s somewhere between cliché and profanity, tactile and personal. Files is an author to watch – she’s got words that are strong as hell, a style with force and power. But, and I hate to say this, as a first novel, there are some serious lapses in pacing and exposition. After a pretty boring opening, punctuated by impossibly complex Aztec backstory, the central section ramps up into a fury of action and character sketches that are absolutely joyful to read. The story concerns hexes – magic workers – who are by needs solitary, because two hexes in the same place will try to suck each other dry, even if they don’t want to. The main hex is a man called Reverend Rook, who gained his power when he was hanged by the Confederate Army for fragging his lieutenant. He didn’t frag his lieutenant – that was the San Francisco cocksucker – but he swung anyway. 

So Rook, San Francisco cocksucker, and a covert Pink (this is the Pinkertons, semi-Federal militia who did shit like put down strikes and shoot people for whomever had enough green) work their way through the west, destroying and coming to terms with their own badness. And if this had been the thrust of the story, I might have given this more stars, but there’s a lot of weirdness involving an Aztec cosmology that doesn’t make any sense to me, isn’t well explained, and doesn’t go anywhere I give a shit about. 

Karen was the one who asked me to read this, because she was immune to its charms and wanted to know why it tasted like olives to her when, to so many others, it didn’t, or maybe they liked olives, or something. Honestly, I think the olives metaphor is a good one, because while I liked this, I can see where the things I enjoyed, the things I respected, might not be enough to forgive other narrative lumpiness for other people. I happen to like olives. I like them a lot. The olives here for me were a spectacular sense of profanity and a baroque prose style, but even while I enjoy olives, there were some teeth cracking pits when it came to pacing.

That middle section ramps to a confusing, but still compelling, magical meeting in an Aztec hell, the principles in our crazy love triangle – and don’t think this is some kind of coy fuckless love triangle that has a gormless girl in the middle, but a love triangle with a bunch of stone killing veterans, guys all three – existing in a dream state of blood and death. Then…we jump to a chatty month later, and the aftermath is recounted in flashback. I have serious problems with this, and with how the characters in the final section talk around their characters and what their actions mean. The middle section sketches some of the finest characters I’ve seen in a while – not because they are likely characters, but because they are burning with their impossiblities, completely understandable in the world they inhabit. But the end, blah, stop talking. 

There’s too much weird here, which may be the problem. I’m willing to take on the idea of magic workers – hexes – and their parameters, but this Aztec cosmology business is too much for me. I get the impression that this cosmology is all worked out, and will make sense at some point, but that point is no where in this book, and so I’m left wondering what the fuck. The magical confrontations skew metaphorical in a way I find hard to grasp, and, this is just total bitchiness from me as a reader, it makes me fucking insane when characters talk in both bold and italics . Bold has no place in body text except as a titling element, and it is beyond distracting to see large blocks of dialogue in bold. And if you are going to bold something in body text, don’t you dare mix it with italics. Both are emphatic typography, and it goes beyond shouting to use them together. (A better solution would be to use ALL CAPS in emphatic dialogue. I have seen that done well, like in A Prayer for Owen Meany or Perdido Street Station, though has to be approached cautiously to work.)

Anyway, but I’m complaining too much. I drink this olive. I drink it up. I don’t think I can put better why you don’t like this, Karen, beyond your very smart perception that sometimes a book is an olive to a palate that doesn’t like olives. There are problems here that will not overcome the olive, if you don’t like them – not the least of which is an ending that dot-dot-dots to the sequel in a way that is seriously annoying. I still haven’t decided whether I’ll take on the next book. These characters – they are so fucking good – but these places they are in, where they are going – I don’t know if I care. Either way, once Files is done with this series, I’ll be reading the shit out of her next books. She’s good – she’s got something – and once this is over, I’m jazzed to see what she does next.

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