Buehlman had me at “stag-sized battle ravens.” That alone was enough to make me jump at an ARC of The Blacktongue Thief when offered one by the publisher. And we do indeed get a giant warbird (if not quite so much as we might hope or dream), but The Blacktongue Thief is so much more than that. There is epic fantasy-scale worldbuilding with pulp sensibilities, magic and mayhem, death and despair and hope. It is already on my short list for best books of the year, and would be even if I actually had time to properly keep up with my reading.
Kinch is a thief. Not just any thief, a guild-trained thief. Which has left him with many, many useful skills (including the ability to cast a few cantrips), but also with a mountain of debt. It is that debt that leads him to attempt to waylay the wrong woman on a remote road and to accompany her on her quest after. Galva is a knight who doesn’t have a horse, but she has something better—a giant warbird. She also has need to cross half the continent to a country that has been invaded by giants. They intentionally add the apprentice of a powerful sorcerous and unintentionally add a fearsome assassin with the oddest hiding spot along the way.
The story is told entirely in the first person from Kinch’s perspective. I love his voice. The choice by Buehlman is a canny one. Not only is he a fun character, he doesn’t know as much about what is going on as the other characters, helping shield the reader from details more impactfully revealed later. And his budding internal conflict nicely complements all the external conflict.
Kinch is a Galt. Along with his profession, his ethnicity provides the title of the book. Galts, with their rumored elvish heritage, are known for their literally black tongues. The Galts are very Irish.
I suppose unexpected trouble describes Galt generally, at least as we’ve been found by our conquerors from Holt. It took the Holtish fifty years to subjugate our lands, and they’ve spent the three centuries since regretting it. No good at taking orders, blacktongues, we’ll never be invading anybody—but we’re hell on our own soil. Galts are natural archers and good at throwing anything from a stone to a spear to a rotten squash. Fine musicians and riders, too, back when horses ran on the plains.
As a hillbilly with hundreds of years of frontier cultural heritage stretching from Appalachia in its backcountry days to the Scottish-English border region, I can’t help but like the Galts. Chesterton would too; their wars are merry and their songs are sad:
My five Upstart sons are all bloody and brave
I’ve got one on the gallows, and two in the grave
One is your prisoner, and none is your slave
I’ve got one in the hills that you never have met
And though he is young, he will murder you yet
For the hour is coming you’ll answer your debt
Buehlman is a horror writer, as I understand it, making his first foray into fantasy. What a foray it is! Not that Buehlman cannot still invoke some terror when the tale calls for it:
I would never forget it; not the sight of its rending suckers squeezing out water on the bottoms of its tree-thick tentacles, nor the sound of sailors yelling for their lovers and mothers while it stripped the skin off their backs or plunged them into the brine.
The Blacktongue Thief is Grimdark at its best. Very dark and very grim, horrific at times, but Buehlman understands that grimness is not mutually exclusive of wildly fun worldbuilding. There is magic and monsters a plenty. Goblins, giants, kraken, giant warbirds . . . the hits come early and often. It reminds me of old-school pulp worldbuilding, thick with “hey, look at this cool thing!” and efficient in its delivery, never suggesting the author is attempting to meet his quota of allusions to a much thicker, hidden, carefully indexed appendix. It is very effective and very fun.
Fun isn’t usually something I associate with the Grimdark subgenre. I have come to cast a wary eye on the subgenre, for all that many of fantasy’s most talented storytellers are working in the space. Too often it is fantasy less most of the magic and fun, all with an overly dour cast. The Blacktongue Thief has magic and fun aplenty. But make no mistake, the world is still really fucking grim. Remember the reference to horses above? The goblins cooked up a plague that killed almost every horse in the world. And people care. Galva, knight of a horse-loving people, bears readily apparent emotional scars from their loss. Not that physical scars are in short supply. Goblins are biters, see, so ten isn’t necessarily the most popular number of digits. And that is for the people who lived. Enough men died in the first goblin war to cause a noticeable dearth of men of a certain age. Enough women fought in the next one to cause a noticeable dearth of children of another age. Wandering the lands in which The Blacktongue Thief is set is like wandering Europe after World War I. The goblin wars cast a dark pall over everything.
Worth separate mention is the thieves’ guild Kinch is in hock to. I have been traditionally leery of thieves’ guilds in fantasy, inevitably finding them terribly unrealistic (dragons are terribly unrealistic too, but they are much cooler than thieves’ guilds). Buehlman gives us a believable, terrible guild that has its grubby fingers in just about every pot in the land. It topples thrones; thrones do not topple it. Living under the thumb of the guild in its assassins is positively dystopian, and it isn’t just guild-college educated, indebted thieves like Kinch or the legions of legbreakers it can call on by virtue of expensive-but-easy-to-finance colleges that are mostly a scam—it is kind of . . . everyone. And however awful you think the guild is, the truth is worse.
It is three-dimensional Grimdark, which makes it more palatable, but it is also Grimdark with heart (GrimHeart). I love it.
I have no complaints about The Blacktongue Thief. I could gush for a 1,000 more words. But expectations can bend the reality of how the reader enjoys a tale. This is a quest tale. It isn’t an epic fantasy, at least not yet, goblin wars, and giants and giant warbirds notwithstanding. And it isn’t a heist story, despite featuring a thief as the main character. It is also very much the first book in a series—satisfying in its own right, but not a standalone by any means. 5 of 5 Stars.