Title: A Tree of Bones (The Hexslinger: Vol. Three)
Author: Gemma Files
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Length: 380 Pages
Category: Alt History, Paranormal, Alt Western, Mythology
At a Glance: In the end, my mad respect for Gemma Files’ wordsmithing is intact, even if my reading experience with A Tree of Bones offered a fair share of lows mixed with the highs.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: New Mexico, 1867: Months have passed since hexslinger Chess Pargeter sacrificed himself to restore the town of Bewelcome, once cursed to salt by his former lover, “Reverend” Asher Rook. Now a coalition led by Allan Pinkerton’s Detective Agency lays siege to reborn Mayan goddess Ixchel’s notorious “Hex City,” the one place on earth where hexes can act in consort, and the desert just outside Bewelcome has become the front line in what threatens to become a new Civil War—one in which wild magic and black science clash headlong, producing carnage like nothing the world has ever seen.
Though reinstated with the Agency, Pinkerton-turned-outlaw Ed Morrow finds himself caught between factions, as Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca roams the battlefield wearing Chess’s face and body, promising aid while sowing dissent. Further into the wasteland, spiritualist Yancey Kloves and her allies struggle to stop an ever-widening, monster-spewing crack from breaching the wall between worlds, while Ixchel ruthlessly exploits the hexes gathered around her in order to resurrect the rest of her dead pantheon, kicking off an Apocalypse fed by shed human blood.
And in Hex City’s darkness, “Reverend” Rook—Ixchel’s consort, her key supporter up ’til now—plots a final, redemptive treachery of his own.
As ever, these gory, perverse, and world-wrenching schemes all hinge on “dead” Chess Pargeter’s participation, though the man himself is currently trapped in an underworld dimension based on London’s notorious Seven Dials slum, with only his oldest enemy—his similarly deceased mother, “English” Oona—for company. But Chess has fought his way out of hell before . . . .
Review: I loved the first two books in this series, loved them like a word baby conceived and birthed just for me to gather close and bask in its beatific abundance of perfection… Then, that word baby grew up. And where the storyline had once pleasantly gorged itself on Gemma Files imagination and mellifluous prose, that gift for inflated allusion and nuanced captivation took a wrong turn somewhere for me in A Tree of Bones, and has left me with that feeling so many of us devoted readers have experienced at one time or another—I think this book would’ve been twice as good if it’d been half as long. While I can’t say that the end to the Hexslinger Trilogy is a complete disappointment, not at all, I do find that I’m left somewhat underwhelmed by its conclusion given how deftly its author had crafted the story up to this point.
What had worked so beautifully for me in A Book of Tongues and A Rope of Thorns was Files’ gift for structure. Like an expository architect, she built this world from nothing but a band of outlaws and a post-Civil War untamed West; then she threw in some lust, greed, religion, magick, Pinks, a bit of a steampunk feel, and now, a creepy new species, and BOOM! She architected an alternate universe filled with some delicious imagery, a whole passel of conflict between some hell-borne Aztec gods, a collection of hexes of all ilk, a dead-talker, and the humans who fell into the line of fire—whether by design or by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This world is a glorious amalgamation of allegory and cautionary tale, all woven around an ex-Reverend whose fall from grace and ultimate betrayal had some seriously deadly complications for his lover, Chess Pargeter—gunslinger turned hexslinger turned god—a character who came full-circle, a character I loved so much and who ended up living up to his given name of Cheshire in a way Mr. Carroll might’ve been proud of. Until, in A Tree of Bones, he fell somewhat pale in comparison to his former self. Chess’s characterization as a prickly, contrary, ornery, sharp-tongued sumbitch was a thousand-and-one percent fabulous. I loved every single one of his heathen-ous and unapologetic ways—everything about him screamed antihero on steroids—but through a feat of exposition that evolved into a redemption story of sorts for our misbegotten hero, Chess softened and lost some of his mojo.
For the first two-thirds of A Tree of Bones, the narrative reads more cumbersome and meandering than did the psycho-cool-crazy of its predecessors. At one point, Chess remarks, “Feels like tryin’ to swim a tub of molasses,” and I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with him because that’s what reading this book felt like at times. When he was dropped into English Oona Pargeter’s version of hell at the end of A Rope of Thorns, a Seven Dials slum in 19th century London, I couldn’t wait to see what the author did with it. The scenery was pretty to “look” at, without a doubt, and it provided the opportunity for Chess to be confronted by his multitude of past sins, but overall, the pages and pages of narrative ended up reading like an unnecessary detour that slowed down the pace of the book and didn’t add much in the way of revelatory or relevant storyline. There were several such detours, in fact—point of view changes that I felt detracted from rather than added to the story—which is why I said at the outset that this novel could’ve been twice as good being half as long. The verbosity that elated and mesmerized me in the first two books acted as foil to the plot progression in this installment.
What did work in this novel, and truly, there’s a lot that did, were the characters who ended up Chess’s allies. Ex Pinkerton agent and Chess’s lover, for a time, Ed Morrow; Yancey Kloves; Songbird; Yiska, a two-spirited Navajo warrior; and Sophy Love, who’d begun an enemy but ended up, with her young son, becoming an integral cog in this brave new world. Their importance to Chess, to his death and resurrection, and to what would end up being a battle to save the country and its people from the goddess Ixchel, is undeniable and I’ll miss spending time with them in this diabolically brilliant wonderland.
While I’m on the subject of characters, one who didn’t get nearly enough page time by my count is the Rev, Asher Rook. As the narrative ambled off in directions that were, for me, unwelcome, Rook’s lack of presence was a glaring omission which left me wishing this novel had been limited to his and Chess’s points of view. While probably not the most complex of characters ever designed—Faustian bargains have been a staple of fiction for centuries; and mythology full of men who have traded their souls for a lot less that godhood; and history is full of characters who have done the wrong thing for convoluted but what they think are the right reasons—Rook is nevertheless such a slick and charming character that I found myself wishing we’d have got a closer look into his thought processes through what became his own redemption story. This was, overall, Rook and Chess’s story to tell, theirs an ill-fated romance wrapped in a much grander package in which Rook’s lust for his red-headed hexslinger couldn’t conquer his lust for power and immortality. While the culmination of Rook’s arc was bittersweet and emotionally effective, I wanted more of him leading up to it. Did I cry when his storyline reached its climax? You bet I did.
In the end, my mad respect for Gemma Files’ wordsmithing is intact, even if my reading experience with A Tree of Bones offered a fair share of lows mixed with the highs. Was this the case of a world that had grown to such an expansive state that its author had a difficult time corralling all of it together to form a linear and structured conclusion? I don’t know, but I do know I still love this trilogy enough that all three paperbacks will make their way to a place of honor on my bookshelf.
You can buy A Tree of Bones here: