Sometimes if it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it, but you pile on, and that’s how The Blacktongue Thief approaches classic high fantasy. Christopher Buehlman’s latest novel follows Kinch, a member of a thieves’ guild who tries to rob the wrong knight, Galva, and gets on the bad side of her fencing skills and deer-sized battle crow before he ends up assisting her on a quest to save a kingdom from an invasion of giants. Kinch lives in a world where weird is normal, every day finds him living by his wits, as one self-serving scheme piles onto to another as his misadventures roll into one quest.
There’s magic around every corner of Manreach, the world where Kinch and Galva live. Warriors, thieves, and scholars tattoo themselves with magic, resulting in not only in some pretty sick ink, but a grotesque world of characters. Giants and goblins complete with kynd with a y, as the humanoids call themselves, for dominance and grapple in a desperate struggle for survival.
Sure, it reinvents the goblin yet again, but these are easily the scariest goblins since the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit. And, hey, giants. I haven’t read a good book about giants in a while. The goblins and giants both get in the way of Galva and Kinch’s quest, but they behave in a savage way that follows it’s own logic. The goblins are carnivores. They eat people, which isn’t great, but they have a grudging respect for humans. Giants, too, have concepts like honor and loyalty, even though they’re determined to literally stomp out kynd. Each species reflects some of the grim qualities of people, but in Kinch’s world, it was an ugly face that stepped up the world in the first place.
Kinch’s black tongue might be genetic, but he still swears a blue streak, as do all the rough characters he meets. Almost nobody has qualms about soliciting sex, looting a corpse, backstabbing an ally, or slaughtering a whale for blubber. There’s simply no time in a world where a kraken or a minotaur could burst around the corner and murder you. While, thankfully not George R.R. Martin length, a fantasy this black can’t help but remind one of a certain mammoth series that mixed a heavy dose of bloodshed in with the magic. However, centuries of precedence question if a complicated society would really decide that sending an assassin around naked is best? A magical assassin albeit, but then why wouldn’t they just invent magical clothes?
In addition to being a thief, Kinch has a poetic streak in him that comes across in the clever dialogue and gallows humor with which he infuses his tale. He even throws in colloquialisms, such as the word “girleen,” which was not invented for this book, unless Wiktionary’s been hacked for the purposes of this novel expressly (which would be a lot of work). The border between overindulgence and genre fun lies at the word “girleen” and, close to the umpteenth character who just happens to be more magical than the last magic character. “Girleen” might be actually be a term for a young woman, but it’s obscurity chews the scenery. Similarly, Kinch and Galva belong to ethnic groups called the Galts and Spanths, respectively recalling old Roman terms like “Gaul” and “Hispania.” These obvious throwbacks lend credibility in small doses, but when piled on, start to feeling like beating a dead horse. And, surely, Kinch and Galva would object to that.
The story certainly continues on beyond this book, as Kinch leaves his quest with a book that is actively trying to kill him, and the title on Amazon had the number “1” appended thereon. I will certainly be preordering when the time comes.
Four out of five stars
Favorite quote: “I won’t be your dog, but if you’re half the wolf I think you are, you’ve found a fox to run with.”