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Literature / The Hexslinger Series

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A horror-fantasy Weird West series by Canadian author Gemma Files, comprising the three books:

  • A Book of Tongues
  • A Rope of Thorns
  • A Tree of Bones

Set in the 1860s in the wake of The American Civil War, the series takes place in an Alternate History Earth where occasionally, ordinary men or women will manifest as powerful magicians (called "hexes" most often by the main characters) after either near-fatal injury (for men) or their first menstrual period (for women). These hexes are capable of great feats of magic individually, but have been footnotes in history for one key reason: hexes cannot spend any significant time in proximity, or work together on magical acts, because they will be driven by instinctive hunger to feed off each other's power until one or the other is dead. (The Catchphrase of this limitation is: "Mages don't meddle.") This fundamental stumbling block has kept hexes from ever cooperating to discover exactly how their powers work, or to establish any consistent group magical tradition beyond what is learned in short, dangerous and often fatal informal apprenticeships; as a result, every hexnote  is basically a self-taught magical island unto himself or herself, using individual tricks and techniques to work their feats.


Enter Reverend Asher Rook, the Big Badnote  of the series, a faith-lost preacher for the Confederates who survives his own hanging (for the murder of his commanding officer, a crime he didn't commit) by manifesting as one of the most powerful hexes ever seen, calling up a tornado to wipe out the Union soldiers who have captured him and his fellows. Considering himself thus damned, he yields to the seduction of gunslinger Chess Pargeter, a nigh-psychopathic killer and unrepentantly openly gay man, and embarks on a career of banditry with his fellow soldiers, using The Bible to work black miracles and render his gang unstoppable. This career of hex-driven crime leads Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to send one of his men, Agent Ed Morrow, in under cover to infiltrate Rook's gang; Morrow's task is to learn as much as he can about the gang, while using a new Magitek device to measure the objective strength of Rook's power.


However, unknown to Chess or Morrow's bosses, Rook has made contact with an ancient fallen power that may give him the capacity to break this hitherto absolute rule of hexation, overturning both natural and political order throughout — potentially — the entire world. And the only person Morrow can call on for help dealing with this is the person on whom Rook's whole scheme rests: Chess Pargeter himself.

The series contains examples of the following tropes:

  • A God Am I: Played perfectly straight (and reasonably justified) by Ixchel and Tezcatlipoca; defied by Chess Pargeter, who stridently refuses to go along with the behaviour expected of his role; and subverted by Reverend Rook, in that Rook gives out the most typically power-drunk speeches in the series while never actually expecting or intending to achieve "godhood" himself.
  • Alien Kudzu: The "Red Weed", an eldritch species of vine that grows in the wake of Chess's travels during Rope, and functions as a combination tool/signal flag for Tezcatlipoca. Subverts the trope in that, if fed human blood, it dies and enriches the land it has infested rather than devastating it; this also functions as a subtle Deal with the Devil of its own, to encourage blood sacrifice and worship among the inhabitants of the West and to feed more magical power to Chess.
  • Anti-Magic: Sheriff Love gains this power as part of his resurrection as a revenant. The entire township of Bewelcome, after being cursed into salt, is also described as a "magic-dead" zone, though it does not so much prevent magic working as prevent hexes recovering their power once expended.
  • Anti-Villain: Tezcatlipoca. Of the Ambiguously Evil sort; though he repeatedly emphasizes his own untrustworthiness and enemy status, likes to torment and play head-games with everybody else, and does not care at all how many people die as a side-effect of his plans (for example, he is the one who resurrected Sheriff Love as a Revenant Zombie, pretending to be God Himself so that Love would feel no guilt over killing anyone who stood between him and Chess), he ultimately seems to want to thwart Ixchel's plans as much as anyone else.
  • Ax-Crazy: Chess will pretty much shoot anyone for any reason
  • Aztec Mythology: Strongly drawn on in the person of Tezcatlipoca, though a lot of Maya myths are mixed in as well.
  • Badass Longcoat: Both Morrow and Rook wear one.
  • Badass Normal: Ed Morrow, whose only supernatural talent appears to be just hanging on and keeping on.
    • Chess Pargeter thinks of himself as one at first, though the truth is... more complex.
  • Badass Preacher: Asher Rook, though more in manner than substance; he uses the Bible in his magic, likes to quote it to people, argue theology, and still wears his cassock, but makes no real pretense of still being any kind of clergyman (this is also what keeps him just marginally out of Sinister Minister territory).
  • Beyond the Impossible: Ixchel creates a way for hexes to live and work together without wanting to devour each other's power and life, thus breaking one of the only known absolute rules of magic.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Some of the side characters are more-or-less decent sorts, but the strongest forces opposing Ixchel are hardly pure themselves.
  • Blood Magic: After Chess becomes an avatar of Tezcatlipoca, a lot of his magic depends on spilling and shedding blood in one way or another.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Songbird in Tree, following the climax of Rope. Semi-subverted in that she is not rendered completely powerless, but she is so much weaker than before that she behaves as if she might as well be.
  • Butch Lesbian: The warrior/shamaness Yiska, though more for behaviour than appearance — she fights and dresses as a man would in her tribe (the Kiowa), but is not described as making any particular attempt to minimize her femininity beyond that.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Between Rook, Chess, Yiska, Songbird, and (arguably) Morrow, much of the main cast is gay or bisexual. Even Tezcatlipoca gets in on the action, though more to seal a deal than for his own enjoyment.
  • Character Development: The entire raison d'etre of the series for Chess.
    • Yancey also changes significantly, going from mildly discontented lawman's fiancee to full-blown Seer and Action Girl.
  • Child Mage: The Chinese albino girl Songbird, as well as, later, Mesach and Sophy Love's son Gabriel — who is triggered into manifesting as a hex at less than a year of age.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Averted; where denomination is specified, the Christians are all Protestants.
    • As an Irish New Yorker from the Five Points, it can reasonably be assumed that Clodagh Killeen is at least culturally Catholic, but this is never established.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Present both overtly and possibly covertly; Physical God Ixchel is explicitly shown to draw power from the ritual blood sacrifice of her worshippers (as does Chess, later) , and a strong religious faith is also shown to have at least some power to resist hexation's effects, though it is never confirmed whether this is an innate ability of the believer or an actual divine miracle.
  • Crisis of Faith: The devoutly Protestant Sophy Love has one after she discovers that her infant son is a hex — which, she has been taught to believe, makes him almost certain to be damned.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Pretty much all the major characters at one point or another, although Chess and Yancey most regularly.
  • Deal with the Devil: On several levels.
    • In Book, Rook plays Faust to Ixchel's Mephistopheles, where the deal is: By sacrificing Chess to Ixchel, thus turning him into a hex and an avatar of Tezcatlipoca, Chess and Rook can both retain their power without being driven to kill each other; in return, Rook promises to serve Ixchel as her high priest and help her bring back the rest of her pantheon as well. Unfortunately, Rook neglects to consult Chess on any of this....
    • In Rope, the hexes of New Aztectlan ("Hex City") make a similar deal: By swearing an oath of service to Ixchel and the City, they are freed from the "hex-hunger" at the price of becoming completely subject to Ixchel; she can kill them or drain their power pretty much at will, and any violation of the Oath also costs the hex his power. They also become part of the "Blood Engine", the system of human sacrifice that helps power the Oath.
    • In Tree, Chess makes his own deal with Tezcatlipoca, allowing him to regain control of his body, which Tezcatlipoca is using as a vessel, at a crucial moment to confront Ixchel. Subverted in that unlike the other deals, Tezcatlipoca actually follows through on his end, and it has no hidden screw-the-Faust trap.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Morrow breaks up Rook's initial sacrifice ceremony in Mictlan-Xibalba by shooting Ixchel in the head. It doesn't seem to actually hurt much, but when Morrow and Chess re-emerge into the real world, they find Mexico City has been devastated by an earthquake.
  • The Dragon: Chess starts out as the Dragon to Rook; Rook later becomes the Dragon to Ixchel.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Several:
    • Ixchel herself, as well as Tezcatlipoca.
    • The patchwork corpse golem sicced on Chess by Dr. Currer Glossing.
    • The Red Weed, and the Parasite Zombies it creates.
    • The hueheuotl, and other creatures which come out of the Crack.
    • "Grandma", in her bone-golem revenant form.
    • The animated obsidian-glass ceiba-trees outside New Aztectlan.
    • The tzitzimihtl, the star-demon creature that Clodagh Killeen is transformed into, after dying in childbirth following an unsuccessful raid on Bewelcome.
  • Ethnic Magician: Quite a few, as hexes can manifest in any culture at any time. Examples include: Songbird and the Honorable Chu (China, though they subvert the Magical Asian trope by playing mentor to no one) and Grandma, Yiska and "The Shoshone" (also Magical Native Americans, though all three subvert this in turn by being estranged, in various ways, from their tribes).
    • In the series in general, hexes from outside the European-American cultures seem to have a more unified sense of magical tradition, perhaps due to being more accepting of magicians generally, but those traditions do not ultimately seem to lend more objective skill or power to their practitioners — they are merely cultural accretions rather than individually developed systems.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Despite the tremendous anti-gay prejudices of the time and place, Chess seems to have little problem scoring action when he wants to, in at least one instance from someone who had no attraction to men at all beforehand.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Subverted; though this is what Allan Pinkerton and the law believe Morrow to have done when he throws in with Chess at the end of Book and goes on the lam, Morrow only acts to save Chess, not to let him go back to his highwayman lifestyle or join him in it.
  • Functional Magic: While "hexation" initially appears almost to be pure Wild Magic as far as any non-hex can guess how it works or what a particular hex can do, it gradually turns throughout the series into a case of Magic A Is Magic A as characters begin to figure out some of the rules by which magic actually operates.
  • Giant Spider: There's a giant spider. Like, really giant. Followed by a whole bunch of smaller (but still giant) spiders.
  • The Gunslinger: Chess Pargeter is almostnote  supernaturally skilled with his pistols, at one point killing a man over his shoulder without looking and later shooting a would-be avenger, twice, while sitting down, before the challenger can even draw his gun.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Rook, as he comes to value his city New Aztectlan for its own sake, rather than as a mere means to an end.
    • Chess too, as below.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Chess, of all people, at the end of Rope.
    • The Dine shamaness "Grandma", in Tree.
  • Historical Domain Character: Allan Pinkerton, Frank Geyer, and George Thiel, as well as (briefly, via mediumistic projection) President Andrew Johnson.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: Morrow's attitude to Chess, eventually.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sophy Love verges on this, especially in how she deals with Pinkerton, the other town leaders of Bewelcome, Yancey, and Tezcatlipoca. Her Crisis of Faith (above) mitigates it somewhat, however.
  • Knight Templar: What Sheriff Mesach Love becomes after being brought back as a Revenant Zombie, though he starts out as a Knight in Shining Armor when first squaring off against Rook.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Joachim Asbury starts out as one of these, but rapidly becomes a Reluctant Mad Scientist after seeing what Allan Pinkerton and his men do with his arcanological discoveries.
  • Magical Negro: Subverted with Sal Followell; she is a Negro and a hex, but in no way fits the rest of the trope — she's no more "spiritual" than anybody else in Hex City and is nobody's mother-confessor.
  • Magically Binding Contract: Several versions, the working out of which is a key part of the plot:
    • The Oath to Ixchel, which allows hexes to live in proximity without feeling any urge to feed on each other's power — at the price of putting themselves completely under Ixchel's control, allowing her to kill them or suck them dry at her whim. A smaller-scope version of this is used by a Mexican shaman-mage who challenges Rook in Rope after getting a group of lesser hexes to swear to him first, letting him draw on their power willingly.
    • An oath described to Rook by "Grandma", the Dine shamaness, which allows two Hataalii (the Dine word for hex) to live together without feeding on each other by mutually and permanently neutralizing their power. Needless to say, Rook does not find this option appealing.
    • The oath worked out by Yancey, Sophy, Yiska, Grandma and Songbird in Tree, which allows hexes to merge their power into a single pool, losing the urge to feed on the other hexes in the oath at the price of having to share control over the pooled power.
  • Magitek: The arcanistric devices of Dr. Joachim Asbury, which begin with the mere measurement of magical energies and eventually culminate in spell-neutralizing gadgets, magic-piercing bullets and artillery shells, hex-powered trains and Verne-style Land Ironclads.
  • The Magocracy: "Hex City"; formally, the town of New Aztectlan.
  • Mayincatec: Played with in-universe; the entity that calls itself Ixchel turns out to be a bastardized gestalt collective mashup of multiple goddesses, both Maya and Aztec.
  • Mommy Issues: Chess's relationship with his mother "English" Oona is... troubled; she was an opium addict and prostitute, and in addition to savagely abusing Chess herself, she pimped him out to customers once he was old enough. Chess eventually allows Rook to use his magic to kill Oona (though she is dying anyway at the time, making this possibly more of a Mercy Kill than a cold-blooded revenge) — which makes it all the more difficult for Chess when in The Underworld, he meets up with Oona's ghost, "kills" her only to find her reforming in a squickily hot youthful form, and then finds out from her that she was a hex too... except her power was permanently stolen by the hex who was Chess's father, who had figured out that she would be vulnerable to such a theft during childbirth. Most of Oona's abuse is thus explained as a half-assed attempt to trigger Chess's manifestation as a hex without actually hurting him badly enough to kill him.
  • Mood Whiplash: Yancey pulls off a rather horrible one immediately after Mesach Love is reunited with his resurrected wife Sophy.
  • Nice Guy: Morrow, when you get right down to it. Rook actually lampshades this during a dream conversation with Morrow, where Morrow's bucolic childhood memories form a scenic backdrop.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: In case the rest of the page hasn't made this one obvious.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Played mostly straight, in that most things conjured or created by hexation have no true substance and tend to last only as long as their maker sustains them. Hexologically-wrought transformations, on the other hand, seem to last a lot longer (see Taken for Granite below).
    • Subverted later by the giant spider conjured by Grandma; the "arachnorses" created from it seem to be real, living creatures, and part of the epilogue in Tree suggests that cavalry units are being formed using them.
  • Parasite Zombie: The inhabitants of one town are turned into this by Sheriff Love, using the Red Weed, and drafted in the service of his Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • The Plan: Tezcatlipoca, when he offers to take on Ixchel in single combat during the climactic confrontation of Tree, advising Pinkerton and Dr. Asbury to use their own forces to destroy her once he has weakened her enough. What they do not know is that if Ixchel dies, the Oath that allows all the hexes in her city to cooperate will collapse, and hundreds of hexes will all turn upon each other more or less instantly — most likely creating a magical catastrophe that will kill everyone for miles.
  • Physical God: Ixchel and Tezcatlipoca, as well as, later, Chess himself. It is implied that most if not all "gods" in practice may simply have been hexes who grew powerful enough to transcend mortality.
  • Psychic Powers: Yancey Kloves, initially limited to the occasional precognitive vision but eventually growing to encompass full-blown telepathy and mediumship.
  • Read the Fine Print: Reverend Rook eventually exploits this trope as part of his Heel–Face Turn, finding a loophole that lets him subvert the Oath to Ixchel, both for himself and for the entire city of New Aztectlan.
  • Redemption Equals Death: And a very long — though, it is subtly implied, possibly not quite eternal — stay in purgatory for Reverend Asher Rook.
  • Revenant Zombie: What Sheriff Love spends most of Rope as.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: For multiple characters, including Chess, Yancey, and Sheriff Love.
  • Shout-Out / Take That!: Depending on your sense of humour: one hex who unsuccessfully challenges Ixchel for power in Hex City is described as a "white-bearded old English gaffer, strong as Rook and twice as crafty, who'd styled himself a true wizard". It doesn't end well for him.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Morrow's and Yancey's relationship, in the end.
  • Straight Gay: Both Rook and Chess qualify, although Rook turns out to be functionally bisexual as well.
  • Taken for Granite: The entire town of Bewelcome. They get better.
  • Token Good Teammate: Morrow, a Pinkerton agent who infiltrated Rook's gang to gather information on him. Rook quickly discovers Morrow's allegiances and uses hexation to dominate him, roping him to the gang and, by association, making him collide with the supernatural forces behind the story. Fortunately, Morrow might be kinder than Chess or Rook, but he still knows his way around a firearm.
  • The Underworld: First visited by Rook, Chess, Morrow and the bandits in Book, where Rook performs the sacrifice to Ixchel that transforms Chess into an avatar of Tezcatlipoca. Later, after his Heroic Sacrifice, Chess has to spend a goodly chunk of Tree fighting his way out. Though called Mictlan-Xibalba when first seen, it turns out to have multiple internal dimensions, with a strong implication that the dead who go there find more or less what they individually expect to find.
  • Up to Eleven: The visible, active level of magic and Magitek rises tremendously over the course of the series, though it's strongly implied that it will fall back somewhat afterwards.
  • Void Between the Worlds: The hole in the floor of the Moon Room most likely leads here, as well as the mystical Crack through which Ixchel and other horrors enter the world.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Morrow delivers one, semi-telepathically, to Chess near the end of Book.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Chess inflicts one of these, mostly unintentionally, during his escape from custody at the end of Book, and its victim (Allan Pinkerton) spends most of Rope suffering from it.
  • Young Gun: Yancey becomes this (as well as an example of A Girl With A Gun) when Chess teaches her to shoot, eventually passing on his guns to her after he manifests as a hex and doesn't need them any more.