I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Blacktongue
Publisher: Tor (May 25, 2021)
Length: 416 pages
Author Information: Twitter
The Blacktongue Thief was one eccentric little fantasy novel, and I mean that in the best way possible! Now, I’ve followed Christopher Buehlman for a while, and I’m a big fan of his horror novels. This one is my fifth book by the author, his first fantasy, and like so many others I was curious to see what he could bring to the genre.
The story follows Kinch Na Shannack, a blacktongue thief who belongs to the Takers Guild in every sense of the word. They trained him, taught him everything he knew, and now he owes them for all that education, an obligation marked by a tattoo on his face where it will remain until his debt is repaid. Every day he gets closer to his goal, doing jobs for the Guild, until one day he picks the wrong mark and ends up being slapped down by Galva, a warrior and veteran of the goblin wars, sworn to the goddess of death. She is on a quest too, searching for her missing queen to restore to her rightful place on the throne.
Before long, Kinch finds himself embarking on a shared quest with Galva, instructed by the Guild to follow her and learn more about her mission. But there will be many dangers along the way, including mysterious forces that will want to stop or hinder them. Kinch himself is desperate to be rid of the Guild, but they are secretive about their motives and when our protagonist eventually finds out the truth, he is left at a crossroads on how to move forward, caught between his loyalties and his desire for freedom.
Without a doubt, your overall impression of The Blacktongue Thief will make or break with the question, “How do you feel about Kinch Na Shannack?” Our protagonist is a smooth-talking rogue with no filter. Not only is his very distinctive voice peppered with bawdy obscenities, lurid metaphors and other creatively crude insults, but his internal thoughts also run about a mile a minute, making the reading experience akin to listening to an overactive child talk about their day, i.e., with lots of tangents, the inability to get to the point any time fast and, of course, an exaggerated and sometimes unreliable narrative. While he’s spewing words like a broken watermain, he’s also prone to burst into song or randomly launch into funny anecdotes to make you laugh. Bottom line, I suppose, you’ll either want to throttle him or give him a fist bump.
Thankfully, I fell into the latter group. Despite some of his more exasperating traits, Kinch is also a clever, resourceful and persevering thief, and I enjoyed his smart-ass sense of humor. Eventually though, you must learn to appreciate some of his more admirable habits, or else getting through this novel with your patience intact will be a challenge. For you see, not only do you have to contend with the larger-than-life personality of the main character, the haphazard nature of his narration also prevents the plot of The Blacktongue Thief from following any kind of conventional structure or storytelling. At times, the story is little more than a string of action sequences punctuated by moments where the characters trade quick barbs and snarky one-liners, well executed as they may be. Other times, it can be a bit like watching all the episodes of a TV show out of order. The writing doesn’t do much handholding, leaving the reader to work certain things out for themselves, and while you may end up appreciating this in later parts of the book, the earlier sections might result in some frustration.
Like I said, this was a very eccentric novel, whose elements might not jive as well for those who prefer more traditional fantasy stories or a more structured narrative. Being a bit off-the-wall, though, does have its advantages. The world-building was impressive, straddling the line between quirky and gritty. The many different cultures, deities, traditions, and magic systems are unique and interesting, though it probably wouldn’t hurt if the author had provided just a bit more historical insight or explanation into some of these aspects, just to add some context.
Bottom line, being something of an oddball, The Blacktongue Thief might work for you or it might not, but I personally enjoyed it. I came to this book as a fan of Christopher Buehlman so I already knew he could tell a good story, but now I know he can also spin a bold and funny fantasy yarn that’s one of kind, and I’m sure this one will gain him even more followers.