Generally speaking, the supernatural western rests roughly at the heart of Joe Lansdale’s run on Jonah Hex. You can shift it a little toward Briscoe County here, a little toward the Deadlands RPG there, but really, the metaphor’s pretty solidly set.
Until, of course, something comes along like Gemma Files’ A Book of Tongues, which takes the traditional supernatural western, sizes it up, and then calmly shoots it in the back of the head.
The base story seems straightforward enough: Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow heads west to infiltrate an outlaw gang led by the Reverend Asher Rook and his right-hand man, a psychotic gunslinger named Chess Pargeter. Unfortunately for Morrow, this is more than a simple case of lawmen and outlaws. Pargeter is supernaturally good with his guns. And Rook is in fact a magician, able to transform the words of the Bible into supernatural weapons with which to smite his gang’s enemies. And Rook is part of something that dwarfs a few bank robberies into insignificance, a plot by a dead goddess to resurrect a dead world and drown the West in blood. It’s a degree of cosmicism that’s far outside the usual boundaries of the subgenre, and even if there were nothing else of note in the book, Files would deserve full credit for swinging for the fences
Fortunately, there’s a great deal of other meat in A Book of Tongues as well. Files gets the intrinsic quality of the Western – the lone man struggling against the immensity of the landscape he moves through – and sets that up against her cosmic backdrop so as to make the characters shine. The center of the book is the damaged, vulnerable, dangerous Pargeter – killer, son of a whore, lover to a preacher man and ultimately, lost child – who sweeps the other characters irresistibly into his orbit. He’s fascinating and terrifying, a magnetic presence whose failure to understand himself sets all around him onto dangerous courses. Rook’s a more ambitious but less complicated man, weak in all the ways a man with so much power shouldn’t be. And Murrow, who starts out as a square-jawed archetype, blossoms when he falls into Rook’s clutches and Pargeter’s arms. He’s the honorable man, clinging to the concept even as the question of what – or whom – he should be loyal to becomes more and more pressing.
If there’s a flaw to the book, it’s that for a novel about magical cowboys, much of the magic and/or horse opera takes place offstage. What we see of Rook turning loose his powers – most notably in a desert duel with a lawman of impeccable, conventional morals – is jaw-dropping. The same goes for the cowboy shoot-em-ups. But the focus on the characters is at times so tight, and the cosmic uberplot so immense, that it feels like there wasn’t quite room for some of the fun stuff.
That being said, A Book of Tongues is the first volume in a planned series, and it’s certainly a more than worthy introduction to the world. There’s much to admire here, and much to enjoy as well. Fortunately, there’s a great deal of other meat in A Book of Tongues as well.