Grimdark Fantasy With Heart: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

There are books that have voice and then there is Kinch Na Shannack, the narrator in Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief. Kinch has a lot of voice—you can easily picture him in a tavern somewhere relaying his tale to a group of pleasantly soused patrons.

What does his tale entail? Kinch, a blacktongued thief indebted to the Taker’s Guild, starts his story when he and a group of fellow thieves try to rob the wrong Ispanthian warrior. The story moves on from there, with the Guild strongly encouraging Kinch to travel with the same warrior as she goes off to Oustrim, a good eight-week journey away by land.

The Blacktongue Thief is Kinch telling us about that journey. And just like how some late-night tavern talk might go, Kinch’s descriptions aren’t for the pearl-clutching or faint of heart. Take, for example, how Kinch describes the qualities of iron: “Iron is to free magic what cold water and laughter are to male arousal.” Another example later in the book involves him explaining how to know if someone is weak or strong: “I was so scared, I half wanted to piss myself, but the difference between the strong and the weak isn’t that the strong don’t piss themselves. It’s that they hitch their pissy pants up after and go through with it.”

These are pretty mild examples but they’re enough, I think, for you to get the gist.

Kinch’s NSFW recounting of his story, however, doesn’t take too much away from the gravity of the horrors he goes through. And even though he does his best to be vulgar, you can see that he’s got a soft spot in his heart, and not just for the blind cat he saves early on in the novel. He finds love on the way (at least for a moon cycle or so), and also ends up not murdering and befriending (sort of) someone who wanted to kill him.

It’s these moments where he reveals this kinder side that make him relatable and more than a crass criminal who desperately wants to get out of his debt to the Taker’s Guild. Kinch, though he’d likely hem and haw about it if you asked him, cares about other people (and cats). That’s not to say that Kinch isn’t above killing someone who has done him wrong, but it’s his moments of mercy that may make readers care about him as well, making the novel more than just a fun, swear-laden read (not that there’s anything wrong with fun, swear-laden reads).

Buehlman also weaves in an impressive amount of worldbuilding throughout the book. Through Kinch, we find out about the goblin wars that wrecked a generation of kynd (non-goblin folk), the intricacies of the Trader’s Guild, the world’s religions and magic system, and more. It’s clear that Buehlman spent time creating Kinch’s world, and each location and several characters feel like they have an untold, detailed backstory bubbling in between the pages. Those looking for an expansive fantasy world conveyed through a foul-mouthed narrator need look no further.

The Blacktongue Thief also treats fantasy fans to a plethora of magical beasts and creatures. Looking for ravens the size of a horse? This book has it (though most horses, alas, have died from a mysterious disease a couple of decades before). In addition to huge killer ravens, Kinch also has run-ins with krakens, giants, goblins, assassins, and witches—it’s enough to make any Dungeons & Dragons player squeal with glee.

Along with those creatures, there is also a lot of violence—more than a couple of folks meet horrific ends as Kinch shares his story, and even his tongue-in-cheek retelling can’t wash away the savageness that pervades this world.

Given the everyday brutality Kinch and everyone else he knows lives with, The Blacktongue Thief has an appropriately satisfying ending. It’s also an ending that has enough closure to make it feel like a standalone book, something that can be hard to find in the first of a trilogy. There’s still enough unresolved, however, to warrant another tale or two from Kinch, and I’m sure there will be readers aplenty waiting and ready for it.

The Blacktongue Thief is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here.

Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.

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