The Blacktongue Thief, by Christopher Buehlman, is the first book in the Blacktongue series and a book that left me with a profound sense of deja vu. It is a book that I both felt I had read before, yet is bursting to the seams with originality and authorial flare. It’s crammed full of some of the most fun and iconic tropes that many readers like to see in a fantasy novel, but all of them are distinctly off. Buehlman is a master of using your expectations to surprise and delight the reader, while also telling his own magical story set in a memorable world with a delightful cast of characters. Thief is also based on the fantastic premise of ‘what if student loans existed in a magical world’, so there is a lot going on here.
Right off the bat, one of the aforementioned combinations of trope and originality can be seen in the setup for the plot. Thief is told in the first person and completely centers on Kinch – a rogue-like thief who is up to his gill in student debt to the Taker’s Guild. Desperate to pay off his debt, Kinch finds himself part of a typical adventuring party on their way to war-torn lands with a quest that will either kill him or make him rich enough to pay off his debts. He is joined by a surly knight with living armor, a gorgeous witch who is still mastering her craft, an ancient swordswoman, a sailor hellbent on killing Kinch, and a blind housecat. They will travel through a dangerous world plagued by magical violence, hoping to locate a missing queen in a city besieged by giants.
So we have your typical ‘fantasy group goes on a quest’ set up but with a very atypical cast. Kinch is great. There is this very smooth sense of self-loathing, self-deprecation, and egotistical competence all mixed together in his head. Kinch reminded me of Batman, with his sleek escapes, clever witticisms, and keen observations. But, he’s also self-aware that he’s kinda a douchebag that makes him much more endearing than Batman’s elitism. Although you remain entirely in Kinch’s head, that doesn’t stop Buehlman from putting life into the greater cast – particularly the knight, Galva, and the witch, Norrigal. These two are the ones fueling the group, and Kinch spends a lot of his time playing off their orders.
The quest itself is fine, but it is the world that the party is questing in that adds flavor and excitement. Buehlman apparently comes from a horror background, and this is reflected in his worldbuilding. This world is not a bright one, and pretty much everything in it wants to kill you in fun and inventive ways. A large part of the worldbuilding revolves around historical wars with goblins, who released numerous plagues that still ravage humanity. But there are all sorts of different fantasy races that hate humanity in their own unique and fun ways. The prose is also a high point of the book, managing to reliably be both humorous and fast-paced at all times. Initially, I felt that the narrative style was jerking me around too much with abrupt transitions and scene changes, but I quickly got used to it.
If there was one thing about Thief to complain about, it might be Buehlman’s strange choices in emphasis through the storytelling. While none of it was immersion-breaking, Buehlman seemed to focus on some pieces of the story that didn’t feel completely relevant to the current narrative and felt more like personal passions than necessary world-building. Two examples of this are the passionate hatred with which Kinch talks about the goblins and the reverent love with which Kinch talks about horses. Kinch can’t go a few pages without talking about how much he hates goblins, but we only actually interact with the buggers for a short period. It is established throughout the novel that goblins did a lot of harm to humanity a while ago, but in Kinch’s mind, the worst thing that they did was kill all the horses. I was hoping that this might lead to a discussion of the importance of horses in a feudal fantasy society, where they are the primary source of transportation and pack animals, but it mostly manifests in Kinch saying things like ‘he misses the wondrous smell of horseflesh’ a lot. The ejaculations of passionate expositions on the wonders of horses didn’t really feel like it fit the character, tone, and context of the story at times and it could leave me feeling a bit bewildered.
Even with its intense horse girl personality, The Blacktongue Thief is one of the better books I have read this year. Its plot and characters sunk their little goblin teeth into me and wouldn’t let go, and now I am anxious for the sequel after its cliffhanger of an ending. The world is new and different, and I thought the book’s commentary on debt and what it does to people added a little depth to an entertaining story. The Quill to Live recommends you give this tale a whirl.
Rating: The Blacktongue Thief – 9.0/10