Title: A Rope of Thorns (The Hexslinger: Book Two)
Author: Gemma Files
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Length: 328 Pages
Category: Historical, Spec Fic, Fantasy
At a Glance: This series is a gold mine of dextrous storytelling and lush prose and brilliant characterization that I’m so thankful I unearthed.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: YOU MUST LET BLOOD TO GET BLOOD
New Mexico, 1867. As consort to resurrected Mayan goddess Ixchel, hexslinger Reverend Asher Rook has founded Hex City, the first place in all of human history where magicians can live and work together safely. But this tenuous peace is is threatened by the approach of Rook’s former lover, Chess Pargeter, bent on revenge over Rook’s betrayal, as he kills his way toward the very same spot, dragging Pinkerton agent-turned-outlaw Ed Morrow along with him. Because Chess, sacrificed in Ixchel’s name, has become far more than just a hex: his very presence has torn a crack in the world, remaking everything around him. And as the cycle of Chess’s power approaches its climax, Chess, Morrow, and a young spiritualist named Yancey Colder—caught up in Chess’s vendetta—will all have to shed yet more blood as they face down his mysterious patron demon, known only as the Enemy . . . along with every other enemy Chess has already made along the way.
Review: In the Dedication section of Gemma Files’ A Rope of Thorns, the author gives thanks to a man named Steve, “who is the absolute best support a writer of ‘repulsive trash’ could ask for.” Editor, publisher, agent, significant other? I have no idea who Steve is, but one can only assume the “repulsive trash” comment was pulled from a review of the first book in this series, A Book of Tongues. And I have just one thing to say about the commentary: Halle-freaking-lujah for repulsive trash, man. Because you know what they say about one man’s trash being another’s treasure? This series is a gold mine of dextrous storytelling and lush prose and brilliant characterization that I’m so thankful I unearthed.
The best way to describe The Hexslinger saga is to equate it thusly: it’s like waking up from a dream that you can’t quite recall all the details of, but there’s one thing you do recollect with perfect clarity upon waking—it was really, really weird. I don’t at all fault the author’s plot-weaving skills for this conundrum as much as I do my simple inability to process the unorthodoxy of the story in its entirety just yet, as well as the subtle intricacies of its foreshadowing and the fusion of mythologies. Set in a 19th Century Wild West that’s made wilder, not to mention otherworldly, by the magic that runs rife within its borders, the story of Chess Pargeter, the Reverend Asher Rook, and every other character who is directly or indirectly associated with them, is at once complex yet stunningly simple. The simplicity comes in the avaricious betrayal. The complexity comes in the gods and goddesses, the hexslinging, and the relationships forged between allies and enemies and those to whom each role player chooses to pledge their allegiance.
A Rope of Thorns picks up directly where A Book of Tongues left off. Asher Rook has brutally betrayed the man he professed to love, aligning himself with the goddess Ixchel in exchange for the power that comes with godhood. Whore’s beget and all around prickly sumbitch, Chess Pargeter, the man whose heart Rook stole—in the most literal sense—was resurrected into something “other” after being rescued from Hell—in the most literal sense—by ex Pinkerton agent cum straight but bi-for-Chess cum friend-with-benefits sidekick, Edward Morrow. Now Chess is out for revenge, and, as one might expect from someone like the flame-haired and sharp tongued hexslinger, he’s made more than enough enemies in his short life that he’s got some formidable foes out to wreak their own vengeance upon him. Where Chess goes, chaos follows in his wake. Fortunately, however, he’s managed to make some allies too, and it’s these relationships that are the highlight of this novel.
Sheriff Mesach Love, late of the former town of Bewelcome—I say “former” because the entire town and all its inhabitants were turned to salt in book one—was resurrected by the Enemy (with a capital E because he is the Enemy). Love is now bent upon exacting a price from Chess (and oh, how much do I love the layered nuances of that statement?). That price being Chess’s destruction. When Chess and Ed descend upon the town of Hoffstedt’s Hoard, bringing Love’s wrath down upon it, one of my now favorite characters in the series, Experiance “Yancey” Kloves (née Colder)—recently newlywed and just as quickly widowed—is introduced. I absolutely adored Yancey for her intelligence and pragmatism and courage. Not to mention that she carries a touch of magic all her own. As the storyline moves forward, she will remain an integral cog in the God Machine, not to mention an interesting part of Ed’s life. What remains to be seen is how, or if, Chess will play into this dynamic since he went and made a sacrifice of himself… I think my highlight notes sum things up best: “Ugh,” “Nope,” and “Oooooh shit! What???!!!” I may have even tried to shed a tear or two as well, so there you go.
In a climactic scene that reads like part Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and part Armageddon with a dash of blood magick thrown in, everything is madness and mayhem. Chinese mysticism, Native American Spiritualism, Christian…ish Ideology, Ancient Mayan and Aztec Mythology; this series is such a mixed bag of -ologies and -isms that it’s difficult to summarize them in a review, but they all meld together under the umbrella of hexslinging and the phenomenal world building Gemma Files is holding forth in this series. Her sentences and paragraphs are big and chunky and fecund with imagery—it’s scenes such as this that I just want to wallow in:
“And now, eking through that stinking yellow fog he’d thought was just his eyes, a whole city street arrived: buildings dilapidated and promiscuously overhung, jammed hugger-mugger as a junk fiend’s teeth. Half-glazed cataract windows staring down, where they hadn’t been shattered wholesale; stagnant gutters and hinge-fallen doors; a sketchy crush of humanity loitering or roaming, wreathed in grime, ignoring Chess in the grip of their squalor. Raggedy skeleton children ran free as roaches, relieving themselves indiscriminately.
‘I know this place,’ Chess realized, a slow hollow birthing itself in his gullet’s lower-most pit.”
And reading that scene, I felt I knew it too, if only in my imagination. And that whore I mentioned earlier? That’d be English Oona Pargeter, the woman who unhappily brought a misbegotten Chess into this world, and this is her world we’ve now entered. The great unknown is how it plays into the third and final novel in this trilogy.
I love everything about this series so far, all the way down to its freak-a-delic mindbending core. I love the existence of Allan Pinkerton and his detective agency—along with the fracturing of Pinkerton as character in the series, as well as discovering that Frank Geyer, an agent introduced in this installment, was an actual Pinkerton detective. Although I’m sure his real job was neither as interesting nor as dangerous as his association with Chess Pargeter has been in this fiction.
Just like the Western serials of old, you’ll have to tune in next time for the further adventures of the Rev and his hellspawn-goddess wife, Chess, Ed, Yancey and the rest of this vast cast of characters—both human and not. What happens next remains to be seen, but I can guarantee it won’t be any kind of normal.
You can buy A Rope of Thorns here: