Queering SFF: A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files


There’s a lot to be said for the narrative possibilities of the American west when it comes to speculative fiction, and surprisingly, not a lot of fiction actually takes advantage of it. I tend to be on the perpetual lookout for books that are set around this particular era (which is in and of itself commemorated by tall tales and strange stories) and when I read the back of Gemma Files’s Book of Tongues, I was sold. Not only is it a dark fantasy/horror novel set in the west post-Civil War, it’s a story with queer characters and relationships, from Chess to Morrow to the Reverend Rook. Sexuality is a fluid and often unpleasant thing in this book. It was certainly a breath of fresh air to read.

It’s not without the occasional flaw, but overall I think it’s an interesting way to spend a day reading. It bears more of a resemblance, out of the other books reviewed in this series so far, to Kiernan’s The Red Tree than anything else. While the story—being as it is about magic and “hexslingers”—may have touches and implications of fantasy, it strikes me as deeply informed by horror fiction and in debt to the traditions of semi-erotic horror.

The best part of this novel, hands down, is the language. Files has mastered the particular sound of southern speech, which hasn’t changed much since the era she’s writing about. Many writers feel that dropping a “y’all” here and there or cutting of the “g” at the end of a word is enough—it isn’t. There’s a particular pattern of word usage and inflection that’s unique to the dialect that requires a much defter touch. Files has that touch, make no mistake. The fact that she manages not just dialogue in the proper sense but also the entire text is something that wins her double-thumbs-up from me.


What do you think of this book? Would you read it?

Join us in the forum to discuss!