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The Blacktongue Thief coverOn the High Fantasy Spectrum of Self-Seriousness, with Tolkien on one end and Pratchett on the other, Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief sits comfortably in the middle, though perhaps favoring the wry humor and deprecation of Discworld over the portent of Middle-earth. This is a novel with song lyrics like “He who leaps at the moon / Into cowshyte falls. / Glory unto cowshyte!”—to which the protagonist can only respond, “holy words, those” (p. 72). But it’s not all jokes. Because this is also a novel that sees Buehlman weave a compelling geopolitical tapestry that threads together issues of fantasy-capitalism, imperialism, and multiculturalism, all delivered through some of the most fun prose I have read in the genre. Part of the joy in reading the novel is how Buehlman makes all his worldbuilding seem so effortless (and breathless—this book moves). In only a few pages, The Blacktongue Thief will introduce an entire secondary world, establish the current cultural fallout in the wake of several goblin wars, and detail the varieties of a civilization’s coinage. Buehlman gives us tattoo magic, multiple languages, several songs, giant birds, assassins that can live in your skin, witches and krakens and pirates, and yet he keeps everything lean, the novel never feeling overstuffed or buckling under its own fantasy aspirations. And the real feat here is that none of this worldbuilding feels tedious or expositiony; it feels natural and compelling and inviting, to the point where I only wanted to read more, to return again to this world’s visceral pleasures and memorable characters.

The story is told through the first-person POV of Kinch Na Shannack, a thief who embodies words like rapscallion and rogue, and is perhaps the most relatable fantasy character I’ve ever read—because Kinch, like myself and millions of others, is shackled with an exorbitant amount of funds loaned to him by the Takers Guild (the corporate thieves, basically) so that he could attend their school and learn the ways of thievery in order to participate in polite society. In other words, Kinch has massive student loans. My own student loans will slowly kill me over several decades, but the Takers Guild is a bit more immediate, and Kinch’s life is soon on the line if he doesn’t go on their Big Important Quest. In a letter he receives near the novel’s opening, Kinch reads:

It is with great reluctance and no small disappointment that we, the bursars … inform you that the meat of your debt has outgrown the shell of your willingness to work and is at risk to crack your body … you are therefore commanded, on pain of unthumbing, to deliver yourself to the closest chartered Guildhouse for a look-over and a tongue-wag, the most likely outcome being a deed indenture of the greater sort. (p. 31)

This “deed indenture of the greater sort” involves accompanying a mysterious woman named Galva on her journey to Oustrim, where giants have invaded and piqued the Guild’s interest. So yes, this is a Quest/Adventure story, but Buehlman’s execution is what truly cements the novel as something unique and innovative. What starts as a fairly rote rehearsal of a classic fantasy trope almost immediately gets injected with engaging characters and changes in settings and tone (moving from just-having-fun-times to holy-crap-I’m-scared-now to all-the-emotional-feels as two characters find romance on the road)—and Kinch’s charming voice carries us through it all: every heartache, every bizarre encounter with a witch named Deadlegs, every thrilling action set piece as he and his companions fend off giants, goblins, and sea monsters.

Buehlman’s styling of Kinch’s voice is, for me, the real selling point of the novel. It’s through Kinch that we experience the world, and his approach to life is all delivered with a world-weary, roguish charm that both typifies and complicates the disaffected-vagabond archetype. Buehlman’s rendering here is pitch-perfect, each of Kinch’s observations or wry asides almost always giving me an inward smile. “My name is Kinch,” he tells Galva in their first meeting, “or Kinch Na Shannack, or fucking Kinch if you prefer. It won’t be the first time I’ve heard it” (p. 45). Conversely, Kinch’s voice might also be what turns someone off from the novel. There’s a fine line between disaffection and whiny edgelord, but I’d argue that Buehlman prevents Kinch from flattening out into Rogue Archetype by giving him things to care about: in other words, while Kinch certainly has an edge, it’s an earnest one. Kinch falls in love, he mourns when tragedy strikes his friends, and, most importantly, he befriends—and saves—a blind cat that he names Bully and carries around in his bag. How could you not love that?

Kinch is also our primary source of worldbuilding exposition, and the voice allows Buehlman to deliver this information with the kind of breathtaking whimsy that again recalls Pratchett at his best (and when was he not?). For example, here’s Kinch telling us about his people, the Galts:

They say Galts are what’s left of elves, with our gently pointy ears and small bones. My hair’s browny copper, more red in the light, and my beard comes in ginger, what little I can grow. Not that the question of elves had been decided—most university twats said no, some said mayhap, but every village near a peat bog had the legend of some old tuber-farmer hauling up a wee manlike thing with bog-blackened skin, sharp ears, and the finest jewelry you’ve ever seen. Not that anyone you knew personally had seen one, and the jewelry had always been stolen or sold. But what did I know? (p. 45)

If you find yourself cringing at Kinch’s sardonicism then this might not be the book for you; but I think Buehlman’s attention to the craft of characterization through language is undeniable. Not only do we learn that Kinch scoffs at various types of authority (both of his own heritage and of those “university twats”), but we also learn that this world is one of porous boundaries, where an “old tuber-farmer” can pull up a legendary creature from the swamp mud and pilfer its jewels, never mind what any scholars might say. We learn that, while this is a fantasy, Buehlman’s elves are not wispy tree-people but “wee” and “manlike,” a “thing” rather than a stately prince (if they even existed at all). In fact, the passage that details the nature of this world’s elves is paradigmatic of the book as a whole, and it’s moments like these that make The Blacktongue Thief such a pleasurable reading experience.

In another nod to Pratchett’s style of worldbuilding, this passage also demonstrates that Buehlman’s world is a world where you can feel the cobblestones under your feet, where you can get a sense that people actually live here, that they go to work and struggle and love and fight. While it might be hard to imagine Tolkien’s characters actually going to school across several years, Buehlman’s characters make scatological jokes, they steal jewelry from elves and farm potatoes, and they can tell you the sight, sound, and taste of its money. “My favorite coin is the Gallardian owlet,” Kinch tells us, “which isn’t even gold. Just silver” (p. 43). Now this is probably enough information about a specific type of coin—I mean, in the paragraph previous to this one, Buehlman went through the trouble of distinguishing between “Holtish shillings” and the “Gallardian lion.” Buehlman builds his worlds through a density of details, and it’s not enough to simply know there are different types of coins, especially since Kinch has “a love for coin that has little to do with commerce” (p. 42).

Speaking of his favorite coin, Kinch gushes over the little piece of stamped metal: “But whoever carved the stamp for that one must have loved owls, it looked just like one, you expected the bastard to hoo at you. And on the tails side, a tree with a crescent moon behind. I hate spending owlets when I get them” (p. 43). Kinch appreciates money for its form over its function, its aesthetic quality, which tells us a lot about him as a character, but it also gives us an insight into Buehlman’s approach to worldbuilding—it’s all in the details, yes, but those details cohere better when they’re observed by an authentic character who is invested in the minutiae. I care about Kinch not because he needs money to pay off his loans (which he totally does, so #relatable), but because he knows what that money tastes like.

I’ve said a lot about Buehlman’s prose and Kinch’s voice, and that’s because the experience of the novel is inseparable from those elements. The Blacktongue Thief feels like a book written by someone who loves playing with language, and if you love that as a reader then this is the book for you. And if you’re not going to a book for its style, Buehlman still tells an engaging story, one that deftly moves between romance, horror, and swashbuckling action all in the same beat. If you feel I’ve withheld plot details (and I totally have), it is only because this book is worth going into with as little knowledge as possible. But imagine a world where the simmering tension between the Takers (the guilds) and the Makers (the magic users) reaches its zenith. Imagine a world where you can tattoo a living animal onto your skin. Imagine a patriarchal world wracked by so much war that its male population was depleted so its women were sent to fight, where giant birds were cultivated to combat the goblin hordes, where ancient books might manifest a scuttling crab creature that tries to kill you. Imagine a world you think you know, and then let The Blacktongue Thief surprise you.

Matt currently teaches first-year composition and literature at Saint Louis University as a grad student. He lives in Fenton, Missouri, with his wife, Maggie, and their dog. You can follow him on Twitter @mattholder93.  
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