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The Blacktongue Thief


The Blacktongue Thief

I do not ordinarily read reviews or comments about a novel that l am about to review. I want to make sure that my thoughts and opinions about a given piece of fiction are entirely my own. However, in the case of Christopher Buehlman's THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF, I made an exception because it's frankly impossible for one reader to sum up all the fascinating elements of this most unusual novel.

So here are just some of the adjectives and descriptive noun phrases I've encountered, all of which I heartily concur with: "dazzling”; “damned good”; “fast and fun”; “filled with crazy magic”; “occasionally horrifying”; “sometimes incredibly poignant”; “bonafide instant classic”; “equal parts fairy tale, D&D adventure, and acid trip”; “evocative”; “a f*cked up world”; “a masterclass in voice and word design”; “masterfully woven, joyfully mischievous”; “tragic”; “lyrical and visceral”; “(filled with) charm, humor, intensity, music, and unrelenting fun.”

Enough? Not even close. Buelman's seemingly limitless creativity and imagination are also expressed in the creation and construction of whole new lands and languages, innovative styles of magic and witchery, detailed and daring descriptions of previously unheard-of kinds of governments and king- and queenships, masterful metaphors and new vocabulary items. This literary marvel quite accurately can be labeled a page-turner, but not only in the traditional sense of our being anxious to get to the next page to see what happens to the protagonist and where the plot takes us. Here, we can't wait to see what delicious new constructs, concepts and ideas the author will throw at us.

"[T]o spoil anything about this magical work of fiction would be an injustice to its 314 pages of wonder and their brilliant author. Just read, enjoy, absorb, appreciate and reflect. Then repeat."

Our narrator/protagonist is Kinch Na Shannack, a 13th-century male whose occupation is a thief. Kinch is a low-ranking member of the Takers Guild, a kind of union that trains young people in the arts of thievery and mischief. It is an evil organization that also owns and operates the Magickers Guild, the training ground for young "wannabe" magicians. Kinch had opted to join the guild in order to escape enforced participation in the ongoing war with the disgustingly evil, odorous, odious, deadly goblins, who are short in stature while being powerful and merciless warriors. Their ultra-sharp tiny teeth, their built-in hooks on one hand, and their insatiable hunger for human flesh --- they tear apart and devour their victims --- persuade Kinch that he'd much rather pick pockets and make magic than get slaughtered and eaten by the "biters." He is, perhaps, a coward but a gifted one. He can read and understand all languages; he's excellent with a bow and arrow; his body naturally warms up as a warning to him when it senses danger or even potentially bad outcomes; he's a decent fiddler, a good pickpocket, something of a poet, and a man of profound loves and deep hatreds.

The guild sends him on a mission to a faraway land that has been conquered and nearly destroyed by huge beings known simply as the Giants, but his masters refuse to tell him the exact purpose of his mission. They'll let him know sometime before he reaches his destination. Once he departs and proceeds on his journey, he is joined on the trek by several characters, the most important of whom are Galva and Norrigal. Galva is a warrior knight whose strength and intelligence are more than impressive. Much to our initial surprise, she is a female knight --- almost all the physically strongest characters in the novel are women --- and she, too, is coincidentally on her way to the city that has been overrun by the Giants. But the two traveling companions have opposite goals: his is to destroy a queen, hers is to save that queen. Norrigal is a young, beautiful witch with whom Kinch is desperately in love. She returns his affection.

Their journey, likely the strangest you will ever know, is "peopled" by monstrous villains of all shapes, sizes and talents: a kraken, a horde of goblins, a ghoulish female assassin who hides in the body of Kinch's blind pet cat, an assortment of powerful evil Magickers, and a series of unspeakably gory horrors and plagues. Death is always near but almost always conquered. Almost.

I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly talk about the “tongue” of the title. Kinch and his native countrymen are the only people in his world whose tongues are black instead of pink. So they serve as a neat and easy way to recognize those who share a common background and culture. Note that a black tongue, though it causes some folks to judge and revile Kinch, makes the essential character of him and his people absolutely no different from those with pink tongues.

Finally, the climax and denouement of the novel are so clever, surprising and satisfying that I won’t offer any details. To do so would constitute an unforgivable spoiler. And to spoil anything about this magical work of fiction would be an injustice to its 314 pages of wonder and their brilliant author. Just read, enjoy, absorb, appreciate and reflect. Then repeat.

Reviewed by Jack Kramer on June 18, 2021

The Blacktongue Thief
by Christopher Buehlman

  • Publication Date: May 10, 2022
  • Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • ISBN-10: 125079997X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250799975