Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher BuehlmanThe Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue, #1) by Christopher Buehlman
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, grimdark, sword and sorcery
Series: Blacktongue #1
Pages: 416
Published by Tor Books on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.
But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.
Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.
Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva's. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.

My Review:

I just finished The Blacktongue Thief a couple of hours ago, and my first coherent thought was simply “WOW!” followed by a long string of “Wow”s and gibbering into squeeing incoherence after that.

Also leaving me with an epic book hangover that may not fade for days as my thoughts tumble over one another – and me without a Catfall ring to keep them from breaking when they all hit the ground.

A Catfall ring, like the one that Kinch Na Shannack pockets on his way through this story. Is a thief’s tool. A ring that has the right kind of magic to help him fall like a cat and land more-or-less unharmed if he has to fall from too great a height. Which he probably will, because Kinch is a thief.

A member in rather bad standing of the Takers’ Guild, as the thieves’ guild is known in his extremely messed up world.

Not just Kinch’s own situation, but the world itself is so FUBAR’d that I found myself thinking that this was really a kind of post-apocalyptic story. It’s just that Kinch’s world isn’t our world so their apocalypse doesn’t look like our apocalypse would look.

But it feels like a story about what happens after the end of the world all the same.

Kinch is a thief who has been set on the trail of a mercenary warrior in order to pay off some of his debt to his guild. The Takers Guild is clearly a racket and a con job from start to finish, and it’s equally clear that the very first people it steals from are its own members.

Not that it doesn’t steal from pretty much everyone else, everywhere, all the time. If there is one thing the Takers Guild is very talented at, it’s taking. After all, it’s in the name.

Kinch, at first, doesn’t know why he’s been set to get into the good graces, such as they are, of the Espanthian warrior Galva. He has no idea that his mission is going to turn into a quest that will shake the foundation of empires and change his worldview forever.

Nor that it will break his heart.

Escape Rating A++: At first, before we – or Kinch – really understand the stakes of his journey, it seems as if The Blacktongue Thief is going to be epic fantasy by way of sword and sorcery. And there is a lens through which the early parts of Kinch’s tale read like the best of that old school of magic and swashbuckling. Kinch is just the type of antihero who narrates the many of those old stories, and he’s following a warrior on a mad quest with the help of not a little magic and not a few mages.

Howsomever, in spite of the self-deprecating humor that Kinch can’t resist, his extremely jaundiced view of his world, his place in it and his utter inability not to make a terrible joke or snark about his surroundings and the people in them, this isn’t quite sword and sorcery after all.

Instead, as a friend pointed out in his own review, The Blacktongue Thief might be better described as “maturesmirk”, where the grimness of the world and much of the action in it reflects grimdark fantasy like Game of Thrones while viewing it through a scrim of snarktastic gallows humor rather than just looking at it through the opening of a noose.

(Be advised that a Google search for the term “maturesmirk” will bring up a surprising amount of “adult material” along with the books. Kinch would approve.)

The story is told by Kinch himself, clearly as a memoir narrated at a much later point. So about the only thing we know is that he survived. Everyone else – well, we’ll find out eventually. Probably. Hopefully.

But it’s both being inside Kinch’s head and experiencing his memory while also hearing his thoughts and asides and attempts to distract himself and commentary and it seems like every glimmer of an idea or a joke that flies around inside his head. If you like stories told in snarkcasm, hearing both the things the character says and all the things he does his best to keep behind his teeth, this one is awesome.

Speaking of being inside Kinch’s head, The Blacktongue Thief is the first time I picked up an “Advance Listening Copy” from NetGalley instead of just waiting to buy the audio on Audible after it came out. Going in, I had a certain amount of trepidation about the author reading his own work. When it works, as it does for Mary Robinette Kowal and Neil Gaiman, it really, really works. But when it doesn’t work, it can be pretty awful.

This, however, worked so well I felt like I was listening to Kinch rather than to the author. Which turns out to be not really surprising, as the author performs regularly at Renaissance Faires as ‘Christophe the Insultor’. It may be that there’s a lot of ‘Christophe’ in Kinch, or a lot of Kinch in ‘Christophe’, or just a lot of the author’s voice in both.

Listening to, for all intents and purposes Kinch telling his own story just made the whole book that much better. I did read the last couple of chapters in ebook because I just ran out of patience and time.

This is not a story that is good for heroes, to paraphrase Varric Tethras, but it is a story that is chock full of them. Not the kind of heroes that lead great armies into mighty battles against the nearly overwhelming forces of evil, but rather people who get the job that has to be done, done, by getting into the muck and the mire and coming out swinging.

It’s also a story where the forces of evil, such as they are, are not led by monstrous beings of great monstrousness, but rather this is a story about the evil that men and women – and people of all races and species – do to each other in order to get one up on everyone else.

These are characters to fall in love with, to cry over and to cheer for, frequently all at the same time. I can’t wait to travel with them again.

One last thing, because I just can’t stop. There’s a point in the story, a little past the half, where Kinch gives the most beautiful, most poignant, most bittersweet invocation to his lover’s memory that it brought tears to my eyes. It is so clear that he loved her, and so sad that it makes it obvious that whatever happened along their journey – which we don’t even know yet – their romance did not come to a happy ending – but come to an ending it certainly did. And from whatever point in his life that Kinch is at when he writes this memoir, he still mourns her.

It’s love, it’s poetry, it’s just beautiful words said absolutely perfectly. And it made me cry. Maybe it will make you cry too.

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