Book Review : The Blacktongue Thief

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Blacktongue ThiefThe Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue, #1) by Christopher Buehlman
Published by Tor Books on May 25th 2021
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic, Grimdark fantasy
Pages: 416
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Source: NetGalley

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.

I was initially very intrigued by The Blacktongue Thief, with its wisecracking narrator thief and female warrior character who can summon a freaking battle raven. The story takes place in a world filled with goblins, giants, and is ruled by a a guild from the shadows. Where their reach starts and stops no one quite knows, all main character Kinch knows is that he owes them some serious debts, and is helpless to refuse a quest that could wipe them away. Though I really liked the premise, I found that for lack of a better term, The Blacktongue Thief was just not my cup of tea due to its dark humor, lack of a likeable protagonist, and what felt like a rambling storyline.


Though I was originally very interested in the story of The Blacktongue Thief, especially when Galva, a warrior who decimates Kinch’s band of thieves with a single summon of her battle corvid, I quickly began having trouble trouble wanting to read the novel. Though I was excited for Kinch and Galva to set off on their newly shared quest, I found that said quest was really more a chain of events that continually went wrong, ending up with characters injured, caged, eaten, or otherwise sidetracked. To me, it felt like The Blacktongue Thief was almost a series of misfortunate events happening one after the other, and though that might be how an epic quest actually goes in real life, I found it perpetually frustrating to read. It doesn’t really help that the reasons for the main quest aren’t clear until ¾ of the way through the book, as Kinch is simply concerned about following the Guild’s orders at first, and making jokes along the way.


“‘What’s your name?
‘I murdered it.’
‘What will I call you?’
‘Istrean for six?’
‘Aren’t you proud of yourself. It’s how old I was when I first killed.’
‘What, a bug?’
‘My sister.’
‘Must’ve been hard on your mom.’
‘I’m revisiting the idea of shaving your nose off. Have you got anything else to say?’”*


It didn’t help matters that Kinch’s narration really reads like a rambling stream of consciousness to me. Though others may delight in his wit and dark humor, I quickly wished he would be less talkative and would keep the blathering to a minimum. At times, I found his narration difficult to follow, especially when magic is involved. Sometimes, Kinch thinks something happens, and then we are told it actually didn’t, only to later be told it did! I felt like I was being yanked back and forth in different directions during those times, and eventually just gave up rereading and trying to figure out what was going on in favor of continuing on in the story until another, more reliable character actually flat out told me what happened.


“‘I can’t think of many people I’d rather have on my side in a pinch than you. And that big, mean magnificent war corvid. Where is he, by the way?’
‘She. Do not ask me about the bird.’”


And these more reliable narrators were Kinch’s female travelling companions, Galva and Norrigal. I really liked these two ladies, the former being a force to be reckoned with in battle, and the latter being a powerful sorceress. Even better, neither of them put up with Kinch’s shit, shutting down his banter easily and bluntly. Thank god for these powerful women, who also have very unique backstories, though I won’t spoil them here. I think I would have much preferred reading a book narrated by either of these two side characters than one told by Kinch, who to me, doesn’t have many, if any, redeeming qualities.


“Your mouth is like an old man’s bladder.”


Many of his jokes are incredibly dark, that is if they’re not bawdy. Though Kinch saves a blind cat from death from its tormentors, he continually makes jokes about harming or killing it. When it is thrown overboard, Kinch doesn’t really care. There are some extenuating circumstances to why he treats the poor cat like that, but as an animal lover, I really didn’t appreciate the constant casual cruelty. These types of jokes really didn’t help Kinch to grow on me, nor did the fact that he felt incredibly self-absorbed to me. Even though his life is at stake on this quest from the guild, and literally threatened by an assassin, he enters into a “moon-marriage” with another traveler, the witch, Norrigal, obviously making her a great target to get Kinch to follow orders. But does this fact make him stop out of concern for the woman he has supposedly come to care for and to love? No, not for a second. Due to his selfish nature, I didn’t really find his change of heart at the end of the novel believable either.


“If honor decided to attend our adventures, I only hoped I’d recognize her; she’d been pointed out to me a few times, but we’d never really gotten acquainted.”


The whole moon-marriage thing didn’t work for me at all either. The Blacktongue Thief does not explain where this cultural practice of a one month temporary marriage comes from or why it’s beneficial to anyone. Yes, Norrigal refuses to have carnal relations with Kinch until they enter a moon marriage, but I don’t really see any other benefit per se, or why a woman especially would want to bother with this practice when she could potentially become pregnant. Norrigal has her magic to protect her from pregnancy, but what about the non-magical women in this world?


The moon-marriage practice just seems like a realization of the male-gaze or male fantasy due to the lack of explanation surrounding it. I do believe the novel tries to imply that this practice allows the woman to “shop” for a good man or marriage, so to speak, but why bother with a marriage at all? Why not just date or have characters consummate their relationship without this nonsensical practice? Is this moon marriage practiced in order to connect to some Moon Goddess or to prevent potential offspring from being denounced as bastards? Without further explanation, this term just felt like an excuse for the characters to have sex rather than a realistic cultural practice or part of the world-building. And why not just have characters have sex if the book isn’t going to explain the reasoning behind the “moon-marriage.” Instead, it just felt like a shallow attempt at fantasy world-building.


“What you call happiness is just the breeze you feel falling off a cliff. I’m here to catch you.This is the Guild’s business now. You’ve endangered that girl with your love-oaths, and I’d hoped you’d know better.”


Though this part of the novel felt weak, others of The Blacktongue Thief were well fleshed out. The standouts of the world-building were everything involving the goblin wars. I could completely believe that war with goblins decimated the population, and Kinch’s encounter with the actual creatures in the novel was very intense. Even more interesting was despite the toll the goblin wars have taken on the world, they find to their horror, that one country, Molrova, lets the goblins live among them in a “goblin town.” The travelers, many of whom fought in at least one of the goblin wars, have very strong and believable reactions to this environment.


Similarly, as The Blacktongue Thief progresses Kinch and the readers find that the shadow of the Guild reaches further than they ever imagined. I think the novel does a really good job setting up for this reveal, dropping clues at how far the Guild will go to further its goals along the way. I also think it was fascinating how many different branches of the guild there were, and how they treated its students. For instance, Kinch has a brand on his cheek that designates that he owes the Guild a great debt, and it allows others to inexplicably slap him for a free drink. I don’t really get how this sends a message to the Guild’s debtors, but I imagine it gets pretty annoying after awhile, and I was more than okay with anyone slapping Kinch. I also really enjoyed reading about the Guild’s underhanded manner of discovering ciphers, those who can read and understand any language despite never being taught, and putting them to use. I also was extremely intrigued by the rumors that ciphers could read the guild’s Murder Alphabet.


I also really enjoyed reading about the cultures of the giants, goblins, and a human one named Molrovan. The Molrovans consider the truth rude, so always state everything as a lie, which makes it sometimes impossible to decipher the true nature of what is being said. Similarly interesting was the method of the gruesome bone magic that created the battle corvids. There are plenty of exciting fantasy elements there, and even political strife on the horizon, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t the focus of this tale. Despite the more interesting fantasy elements, I can’t help but feel that most of those that were included weren’t anything new. Kinch is a thief who is favored by a trickster god and can feel his own luck. Galva, is a warrior who worships and celebrates death. Later on, they encounter a hermit witch in the woods. They encounter a recluse sorcerer who creates and disposes abominations with the excuse of saving the world. An evil guild with more power than anyone knows. Many of these characters  feel like archetypes more than anything else.


“Galva was smiling. This angered me at first until I remembered that she was really a believer–she believed life was a kind of virginity, to be defended until the wedding day, then joyfully given over.”


Though The Blacktongue Thief didn’t work for me personally, and I could never like the main character or his dark and rambling journey, I think a lot of fantasy readers will enjoy the novel. And honestly from looking at reviews, many of them already have. I think if you really like grimdark fantasy and don’t mind non-linear journeys or prattling main characters, then you will really like this novel. Despite the fact that The Blacktongue Thief sets up for the next entry in the series, I will be passing on future installments.


*All quotes taken from ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

Book Review : The Blacktongue Thief - Blogging with Dragons

Posted May 10, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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