THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF by Christopher Buehlman (BOOK REVIEW)
“I’ll watch you while you sleep. Sleep while you watch. I’ll lie to you, but I’ll also lie for you. If you let me do the talking, I’ll make sure you miss the pennycock with the pizzle-itch and get the best wine in the merchant’s barrel. You’ll never again meet a door you can’t get through, nor a wall you can’t get eyes over. I need your arms, yes, but you need my nose. If you do the worst of the fighting, I’ll make sure you know where your foes are coming from and cull the weak ones. I won’t be your dog but, if you’re half the wolf I think you are, you’ve found a fox to run with.”
The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman is a book I’ve had my eye on since early last year when it was recommended to me by Brian Naslund, author of The Dragons of Terra trilogy. To say I was hyped for this book would be a complete understatement, for several months I’ve been desperate to get my hands on an ARC to discover just what all the early furore was about. I’m thoroughly grateful to Gollancz for sending me an early copy because now I truly understand the hype. The Blacktongue Thief is one cleverly written, fantastical novel. I was charmed, often left dazed or horrified, but thoroughly entertained from the very beginning to the very end.
The story follows Kinch Na Shannack, a trained thief whose prestigious tutelage has earned him an immense debt to The Taker’s Guild. Think of it as a student loan, except once you owe The Taker’s Guild, they firmly hold you in their clutches, and paying them back is one hell of a deadly task. Which is why at the beginning of the novel, we find Kinch in a desperate state, hiding on the edge of a forest, waiting in hopes of stealing a fortune from the next passerby. Whether what follows after was the work of ill-luck, fate or forced by unseen hands is questionable, but our poor Kinch lands himself in more trouble than he ever bargained for. Unfortunately for Kinch, his next victim is Galva, an adept Knight from Ispanthia, who fought in the Goblin Wars and holds many secrets up her sleeve. Throughout the novel Kinch and Galva’s narratives entwine and they set forth on a chaotic, harrowing and often downright surreal journey together. A journey which held some scenes I don’t think I’ll ever forget!
“I was so scared I half wanted to piss myself, but the difference between the strong and the weak isn’t that the strong don’t piss themselves. It’s that they hitch their pissy pants up after and go through with it. I jerked the book open to a random page, towards the end, and focused, knowing I would either understand what I saw or die.”
The Blacktongue Thief is told in first person, with Kinch giving us an intimate account of all that happened to him from the day he met Galva. Buehlman immediately draws the reader in with Kinch’s distinctive narrative voice. It was a voice laced with subtle sarcasm, cynicism and a nonchalant tone, it had the effect of making me care for his character before I even truly began to know him. As I read on I adored his quirky traits – the way he obsessed over (even licked) money, his overly chatty nature, his awkwardness, they all made Kinch a delightfully fun character to follow. He isn’t exactly the hero in this tale – as the title of the book affirms, he’s not only a thief, but one with a black tongue, which is both literal as well as metaphorical, as more often than not his smart-mouth, and unreliability would cause him a heap of dilemmas.
Surprisingly for me, I don’t believe there were any characters which I didn’t like in this book. Buehlman had a fantastic way of making each character memorable, they were all eclectic enough to stand out, even those who only appeared for a brief scene or two. Some of my most favourite parts early on in the novel consisted of interactions between the Knight Galva, and Kinch. Galva, you could say, was quite a feisty snappish character, yet she had a charming sense of loyalty about her too. I loved the way Galva would insult Kinch in her Spanth mother-tongue, the way they bantered together, often never seeing eye to eye, but always helping each other nonetheless. It was an odd friendship but one I enjoyed watching grow. Another favourite of mine was the witch Deadlegs, who I can’t wait for everyone to meet because, well… you’ll see! Her scenes were strikingly surreal and I loved it. Then there was Norrigal, who Kinch affectionately labels his ‘witchlet’, her chaotic use of magic never failed to entertain. Honorary mention also goes to Bully-Boy, the blind cat who became both a friend and foe to Kinch, I deeply loved that little cat! ”Roa!”
“You’re a guild thief. You have training and magic. If I drop you, it won’t hurt will it?”
“If I say no, will you think of a different way to hurt me?”
“Then yes, it will hurt me very much. Please, brave Knight, do not drop me on my melon.”
She dropped me, but I don’t hold that against her.”
Much of the world-building, particularly the history of the world and the magic system, is told through Kinch’s inner monologues or through direct speech between characters. Often this can result in passages of dull info-dumping, but in my opinion the author avoids this because as I’ve mentioned – Kinch is our narrator. With every bit of information we get, Kinch provides us with a social commentary dripping in cynicism, he makes it light-hearted, even humorous, which in turn allows these passages to be amusing and fascinating to read. We learn about the Goblin Wars which caused the population of women to outweigh the population of men, as a lot of men died early on fighting. We learn why the world was without horses, and how The Taker’s Guild trained young students in the arts of thievery and magic, the hierarchy of both professions, and how the Guild wanted their hand in every pocket. This was a world full of rich culture too, from the Spanth, Norholter, and Galtish races each with their own distinct language, accent, beliefs, and Gods. The confusion between various languages caused some real laugh out loud moments, and the debates about different cultural beliefs were nice to see. All these little touches of details effectively built up a diverse and fully realised world.
“Monarchy is a bad system because, no matter how smart you are, you can still squirt a moron out of your genitives. Maybe you get lucky and your son or daughter is at least half as smart as you—what about your grandchild? Probably a knob, and when they inherit the throne everything you built falls to shyte.”
There’s nothing more I appreciate than a fantasy book which isn’t afraid to be inventive and well, highly fantastical. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy books with low-key subtle magic because I do, but on the other hand I love to see the fantasy genre celebrated for its fundamental use of magic and myth, to see it revel in it. The Blacktongue Thief features a world with murderous trees, mutant magical beasts, magicked tattoos, an upside down tower, krakens, goblins and giants. The world is also full of religion and superstitions surrounding the various gods, such as Fothannon, our Kinch’s fox god. Buehlman surprised me at every turn, even shocked me on occasion, the originality I found in this book was extremely gratifying to see. Then there was the humour, the cleverly written turn of phrase, the outright absurd scenes, and even one harrowing scene. Once again Buehlman really impressed me here too, there were so many clever layers of humour, from satirical to dark, to outright comedic. When you mix a fantastical surreal world, with multiple layers of humour and quirky characters, you’re onto a winning book for me.
Although this isn’t Christopher Buehlman’s first novel, it is the first novel I’ve read by him and I can firmly say I’m impressed. I’m not sure yet whether I dare read his horror novels, I may venture into them one Halloween month, but I can definitely say I’m looking forward to more instalments in this fantasy series. The Blacktongue Thief is just bursting with originality, sharp-witted prose, and the most compelling character, our beloved Kinch.
ARC provided by Will at Gollancz in exchange for an honest review. All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication. The Blacktongue Thief is released 27th May and you can preorder it from: