Ekon Adams has always had a special knack for languages. As a young boy, he wondered why no one else at his church seemed worried that one of the Sister’s warned of a coming darkness and spoke in tongues. As a college student, he admired one of his professor’s for her linguistic theory in which she argued language had the power to shape the brain of the speaker. And Ekon has experienced the language both the Sister and his professor spoke about. Maybe he can’t use it or understand it, but he recognizes it. Years later, Ekon puts his passion for language to work as a special agent for the FBI. Now, his boss has assigned him to a case that, for all intents and purposes, ought to be cold. But as Ekon watches the horrific video of the Farm and a cult sexually abusing children in the name of a higher power, he hears that old, familiar language once again. Ekon is hoping his uncanny ability to encounter that language and not go mad will help them get justice for what happened on the Farm.
The only known survivor from the Farm turns out to be an incredibly attractive and hyper sexualized B-list TV star named Chris. Despite all of Ekon’s training for the FBI and his supervisor’s specific guidance on interacting with survivors of child sexual abuse, Ekon is not quite prepared for Chris’s charm offensive. If Ekon wants to get to the bottom of what happened at the Farm, if he wants a crack at finding and saving more survivors, he is willing to risk getting up close and personal with Chris. After their rocky introduction, Ekon begins to see Chris as more than a survivor, more than a TV star. The man is a walking, talking riddle…one that gets under Ekon’s skin as the pair of them restart an investigation on the cult. For better or for worse, Ekon realizes that Chris experienced more than a cult… and it absolutely has ties to the eldritch language that has always been on the fringes of Ekon’s reality. But will knowledge of the truth keep Ekon and Chris safe as they go barreling into a horror only they can see?
Tongues is a terrific mix of contemporary procedural interrupted by urban horror shot through with a forbidden, fated mates kind of love story. It comes from author team Clancy Nacht and Thursday Euclid and is set partly in the American West, but the biggest events occur in Oklahoma. The story opens with a brief introduction to Ekon as a teenager and young adult, establishing his connection to a language that others seem able to ignore, but which threatens to alter Ekon’s own reality. Even though the prose is told in the third person, I felt like I was experiencing things from Ekon’s perspective. As a result, I became very sympathetic to Ekon. So when Chris splashed across the page and seemed to wield sex almost like a weapon against Ekon, I was immediately on guard. The authors did a fantastic job blending Ekon’s FBI expectations of working with a survivor like Chris with the grimmer, supernatural reality of what happened to Chris and why he survived.
One fun tropey surprise in the story was a road trip. Officially, Ekon was investigating the cult that had abused a bunch of kids years ago. Somewhat less officially, he was trying to find out why that mysterious language that he encountered throughout his life was being used, to find out what it meant. Strictly unofficially, the FBI tacitly wanted to harness the power of the language as a weapon. Between driving long, mindless stretches of road, Chris would talk about his experience. Here, we learned a lot more about Chris and the fact that his role in the story was more than just a survivor. Chris’s very words had a wild effect on Ekon. For example, when Chris was explaining some truths about the Farm while Ekon drove, Ekon experienced lost time. That night, reality seemed to bend again as Chris was talking about going to a gay bar. The next morning, Ekon was wondering if the wild threesome he had with Chris and another survivor from the Farm actually happened or if it had just been a dream. All of this helped shift Chris from suspicious-as-hell to maybe-a-force-of-good, especially the cryptic way Chris mentions that he wants to save Ekon from something bad, but Ekon isn’t ready to hear it.
Yet as Ekon clung to the normalcy of his FBI job by turning in evidence of a crash he’d witnessed involving another FBI agent, he began to accept there was something less mundane at work. He realized that his best chance at weathering the storm was the damaged TV star at his side. The slide from sympathetic FBI agent to ride-or-die lover was as subtle as it was satisfying. Even as Ekon’s trust in Chris grew to match the evergreen lust he’s felt for the attractive actor from the beginning, there was just as frequently a shadow of doubt that Chris was a good guy. I thought the theme of motivation–what motivated Chris, what motivated Ekon, what motivated the beings with the unknowable language–was an engrossing element of the story, and one that I thought was left delightfully open ended.
Overall, I loved the tone of this story. There was a satisfying combination of concrete themes and facts cut through with undeniable elements of the esoteric. I really enjoyed this idea of the power of language and how (at least until the very end) language acts as an avatar for an eldritch entity by whose benevolence the world actually exists. It sounds complicated…and it is, which I think would make this a great title for a queer book club. My only real criticism is that the big climax felt a bit diminished to be cause of how sex came into play when Ekon and Chris have a sort of showdown with the eldritch entities. Maybe the sex was supposed to tie more into the abuse perpetrated by the cult, but the connections didn’t seem clear to me and the on-page explanations seemed a bit strained. But then again, the whole idea is that this other entity is inscrutable, so who knows.