A thief, a knight, and a witch’s apprentice head west to save a princess and maybe steal some things to pay back a debt. It sounds like a simple enough plot, but The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buellman is anything but. Besides putting his stamps in all the right categories for a fantasy book of this caliber–fun story, interesting characters, and action that hypes me up as I read it–it’s the delivery that makes the perception of this book as such a fun, easy read.
Kinch Na Shannack owes the Taker’s Guild a lot of money. They taught him the skills to be a thief, how to do a bit of magic, and they kept him from being enlisted into a war with the goblins–and now they want a return on their investments. When they tell him to travel with Galva, an Ispanthian soldier he just tried to rob, west to a city ravaged by giants by a specific date, his debt is so high that he does so without question. They’re soon joined by Bully Boy, the blind cat, and Norrigal, the witch’s apprentice on a journey that could have been ripped from the most fun D&D campaigns I’ve participated in.
How Kinch, our narrator, tells the story makes this novel so exceptional. It’s as if you’ve run into the thief at a tavern in this world, after the events of a series, and become drinking buddies with Kinch. Now, he’s telling you the whole story of how he ended up here in the first place as you pick up the next rounds of ale. All the world-building is told in such a nonchalant manner as if Kinch is reminding you of information you already know, a place you’ve heard of in conversation before, some slang from a town you may have heard in passing, and before you know it, you know it. The story continues as told by a rogue with a heart of gold and a mouth that swears up a storm with good metaphors, too.
The barbs that Kinch delivers throughout the book are part of what makes it so delightful. Kinch is Galtish, and you can clearly read the Galts as the equivalent of the Celts. Galva, or as Kinch often refers to her, the Spanth as Kinch often refers her to, is the foil to Kinch’s foul mouth and antics. She is stoic, strict, and honorable almost to a fault, but is not humorless. Besides being badass with her mace, sword, and shield, she has a war corvid, a giant raven the size of a stag, as an ally. If Galitia is like Ireland then Ispanthian is Spain, though both feel as if they’re influenced by the Welsh, Scottish, and Portuguese.
The key difference from those influences is Kinch, Galva, and Norrigal’s land has been ravaged by wars with the goblins. Multiple wars have wiped out a generation of men, which led women to take up arms, but horses have been driven to extinction by the goblins. So often fantasy takes our world, typically European empires of the Middle Ages, and adds something like magic and mythological creatures. Eliminating something vital to the development of our world, such as horses, gives Kinch’s world an entirely different perspective. Through Kinch, Christopher Buehlman performs magic of his own by having well-done pacing and exposition simultaneously. I don’t want to undersell how much of an accomplishment this is for fantasy. To me, this book is the 2021 fantasy novel embodiment of Marge Simpson holding a potato meme: I just think it’s neat. Big-time fantasy novels with big-time stakes and characters with big-time baggage are all well and good, but fantasy novels should be allowed to be fun. So even when the chips were down for the characters, I smiled all the way through.
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