The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman (book review).

Kinch’s career as a highwayman ends abruptly when a single foreign fighter defeats his whole band. He’s not all that disappointed. A fully trained member of the Taker’s Guild, Kinch has been taught thievery, spells and other useful skills and simply bashing travellers on the head and taking their stuff lacks elegance. It did, however, pay and the Guild charges for lessons and his bill has come due.

One small task for the Guild and Kinch could be debt free. Just make friends with that fighter that you met while they were defeating your gang and go with her on her travels. Why? He doesn’t need to know why. One chance encounter pushes Kinch into the path of goblins, giants, magic and politics. He can’t help but get a little curious.

‘The Blacktongue Thief’ is an epic journey in the traditional fantasy style. Kinch is our first person narrator and is a thief with just enough levels of bard just to get the spells and be entertaining around a campfire. Galva is a horseless knight, a fighter who is serious enough about it to worship the goddess of death. She has a noble quest to save a princess from distress. Together, they make a good chunk of an adventuring party together with some others met along the way.

I like ‘Dungeons And Dragons’ and ‘Pathfinder’, all those classic fantasy tropes of muddy hikes to find secretive mage towers, the saving of kingdoms from goblins and giants. ‘The Blacktongue Thief’ is a balm to my trope-loving soul because while the classic fantasy world tropes are front and centre, they are made nuanced by a great world and some excellent social history. ‘Lord Of The Rings’ is built on history. Barely a meal goes by without the fellowship picnicking amid the ruins of ancient civilisations. ‘The Blacktongue Thief’ is more concerned with recent history, perhaps several hundred years at most, and that history is of the common people rather than the mighty epics of a bygone age. Through Kinch’s eyes we are shown the details that build the story of how this world has come to be what it is.

Wars are difficult and awful things and are the basis of how Kinch’s world operates. His adult life began as a choice between two forms of servitude, either a forced conscription to the front lines of a goblin war or selling himself to the Taker’s Guild. That choice shaped his character and how others interact with him. During a war, you get the blood and the killing and the dying and conscription and the threat of the enemy butchering everyone, the threat of butchering being literal when the enemy are goblins but, this is not a novel of the front lines, it is a novel of the aftermath. After a war, you are short a large chunk of the population. After a series of wars, the age gap is even more glaring as it includes both men and women.

Women are more equal in an all-encompassing across the board way because of this which is rare for fantasy despite roleplaying game rules saying females have the same rights as the male. In the world of ‘The Blacktongue Thief’, not every tavern server is a wench and not every prostitute is a girl. This gender equality is across all walks of life, straight across the social strata. Buehlman does this so well that I stopped populating the background with white men by default. It’s sad that this is only possible due to generations of people being slaughtered. This loss darkens the thoughts of all people in ‘The Blacktongue Thief’ book.

‘The Blacktongue Thief’ is dirty and gritty. Every surface has a layer of grime clinging to it, both physically and psychically. Every choice is murky and every heart of gold might be brass. Kinch is the kind of character you love but quite often really want to slap. He’s a smug, talented, smart alec who never knows when to shut his mouth but, as a narrator, he gives himself as little credit as he does everyone else. He has a heart of gold that would swim through coins like Scrooge McDuck if he could. No god or dragon wanders by to give him magic armour. This is human scale good and evil without gods and monsters using humans as pawns for interdimensional chess.

Not many fantasy novels can avoid being compared to ‘Lord Of The Rings’ and ‘The Blacktongue Thief’ definitely rises from that tradition. It even has poetry and songs, though none in a bespoke language. Buehlman has taken the pseudo-medieval tropes of class fantasy novels like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Feist’s ‘Magician’ but taken them out the back and thrown them in a muddy puddle with a razor wielding editor ready to trim back the prose. What’s left is a novel that won’t hold open a door but does bring the reader along for the ride instead of watching the hero sally forth.

There is an epic quest just beginning in ‘The Blacktongue Thief’ and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens, as will, I think, fans of the ‘Lies Of Locke Lamora’ by Scott Lynch and V. E. Schwab’s ‘A Darker Shade Of Magic.’

LR Richardson

March 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 416 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $34.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-25062-119-1)

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