The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman
The Blacktongue Thief (2021), by Christopher Buehlman, is a book that more than most will either win you over or not by virtue of its voice. More specifically, the bawdy, vulgar, romantic, scatological, jaded, at times lyrical (sometimes literally) voice of its thief narrator Kinch Na Shannack. For me, the voice was hit and miss, not in its execution, which was always consistent, but in my reaction to it. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I didn’t care for it, but it mostly carried me smoothly along in a book that throughout my reading and at the end I felt I should have enjoyed a lot more, even with its four-star ranking.
Thanks to being in debt to the Takers Guild (i.e. the usual thieves guild of fantasy works), Kinch finds himself tasked with joining a quest undertaken by Galva, a fierce women warrior from Ispanthia and a veteran of the devastating Goblin Wars. Kinch is aware of neither Galva’s purpose nor the Guild’s intentions nor motivation in setting Kinch as a spy. He does know, unfortunately, that their destination is a land recently overrun by an invasion of giants. As he and Galva travel, they pick up a few companions: a young apprentice witch named Norrigal that Kinch quickly falls for, an old acquaintance of Kinch’s who is also a veteran of the Goblin Wars and who has since turned whaler, and a very odd cat (yes, the cat is important). After a series of events that run from inconvenient to horrific to traumatic (many life-threatening), they arrive at their destination, where the truth of both Galva’s quest and the Guild’s plans are revealed, forcing Kinch to make a life-changing choice.
I’ve already noted the voice as a major aspect and its basic tone. It relies a lot on humor, which is so individualistic in terms of how one responds that there isn’t much to say beyond that if you like Kinch’s style of humor and don’t mind a sort of constant rambling narrator, you’ll most likely happily sail through The Blacktongue Thief, maybe even love it. I preferred wry Kinch to puerile Kinch, and lyrical Kinch to cursing Kinch, but wry and lyrical were greatly outnumbered by puerile and cursing. Your mileage may vary on that balance.
As befits the raconteur style of voice, the structure is heavily episodic, maybe a bit too much for me, especially as there isn’t a lot of breathing space between the sequential events. I think, too, the episodic nature suffered a bit from the lack of knowledge of what either Galva or Kinch were actually doing,
Characterization is a bit of a mix. Kinch is obviously quite fleshed out, privy as we are to all his thoughts. Galva is given short shrift, I thought, though she has her moments. Norrigal falls somewhat in between. That same mixed result occurs in the relationships. While the romance between Kinch and Norrigal eventually feels real, it happens too quickly (I’m never a fan of the insta-love plot), and the same is true of the trust between Galva and Kinch, especially given how they meet. The spiky relationship between Kinch and his old acquaintance, though, feels utterly real and its emotional ups and downs fully earned.
My favorite aspect of The Blacktongue Thief was the depth of world building here, in particular in the haunting legacy of the series of Goblin Wars, which had a massive impact psychologically, socially, emotionally, and economically in ways still playing out today, as when Kinch reflects on the oddity in one location of seeing so many men of a certain age, since one of the wars was known as the Daughter’s War because the last one had killed nearly all the young men. And in an added bit of complexity, one of the human nations declared itself neutral in the war and not only continues to trade with goblins, but has quarters in their cities where goblins live (leading to one of the more tense and horrific scenes in the book). There’s a true sense of history in The Blacktongue Thief. And not a checklist kind of history (“let’s see, I’ll come up with a cool ancient battle, name some ancient sites…”) but the kind of history that, like all real history, isn’t really history, just a less recent ongoing present.
I also liked the magic in the novel, with its mix of witchcraft and minor cantrips and magister guilds and independent mages, and magic tattoos, and giant ravens, and more. The magic feels original and wide ranging in terms of style, power, and the degree to which it is “tame” or “wild.” The magic goes hand in hand with the many scenes which could be classified as more horror than fantasy. Similarly, Buehlman does more with the Thieves Guild than simply roll out the usual fantasy trope with all its props and stock characters.
Honestly, I enjoyed my time reading The Blacktongue Thief through most of the story, despite a few quibbles here and there. But I also always felt there was a stronger story just out of sight, maybe one that was a bit tighter, a bit quieter in spots, one where the depth and originality and poignancy of the world building and magic permeated the rest of the book. But if I didn’t love the book, it’s certainly a good novel that bodes well for the sequel.