The Blacktongue Thief: Incredibly Delicious

The Blacktongue Thief by
Christopher Buehlman

Re: Christopher Buehlman’s new fantasy “hero-and-the-quest” novel, “The Blacktongue Thief”: I do not ordinarily read previous reviews or comments about a novel l am soon to review; I want to make sure that my thoughts and opinions about a given piece of fiction are entirely my own. In the case of Buehlman’s new piece, however, I make an exception because it’s frankly impossible for one reader to sum up all the fascinating elements of this most unusual novel.

So herewith are just some of the adjectives and descriptive noun phrases I’ve encountered, with all of which I heartily concur: “dazzling; damned good; fast and fun; filled with crazy magic; occasionally horrifying; sometimes incredibly poignant; bonafide instant classic; equal parts fairy tale, D&D adventure, and acid trip; evocative; a f*cked up world; a masterclass in voice and word design; masterfully woven, joyfully mischievous; tragic; lyrical and visceral; (filled with) charm, humor, intensity, music, and unrelenting fun.”

Enough? Not even close. Buelman’s seemingly limitless creativity and imagination are also expressed in the creation and construction of whole new lands and languages, innovative styles of magic and witchery; detailed and daring descriptions of previously unheard-of kinds of governments and king- and queenships, masterful metaphors and new vocabulary items, and more — on every single page. This literary marvel can quite accurately be labelled a page-turner, but not only in the traditional sense of our being anxious to get to the next page to see what happens to the protagonist and where the plot takes us. Here, we can’t wait to see what delicious new constructs, concepts, and ideas the author will throw at us. And so to the plot and characters:

Our narrator/protagonist is a 13th century male named Kinch Na Shannock, occupation: thief. Kinch is a low-ranking member of the Takers Guild, a kind of union which trains young people in the arts of thievery and mischief. The guild, as we might guess, is an evil organization that also owns and operates the Magickers Guild, the training ground, of course, for young “wannabe” magicians. Kinch had opted to join the guild in order to escape enforced participation in the ongoing war with the disgustingly evil, odorous, odious, deadly Goblins, who are short in stature but are also powerful and merciless warriors. Their ultra-sharp tiny teeth, their built-in sharp hooks on one hand, and their insatiable hunger for human flesh — they tear apart and devour their victims — persuade Kinch to decide that he’d much rather pick pockets and make magic than get slaughtered and eaten by the “biters.” He is, perhaps, a coward, but a gifted one. He can read and understand all languages; he’s excellent with a bow and arrow; his body naturally warms up as a warning to him when it senses danger or even potentially bad outcomes; he’s a decent fiddler, a good pickpocket, something of a poet, and a man of profound loves and deep hatreds.

The guild sends him on a mission to a faraway land which has been conquered and nearly destroyed by huge beings known, appropriately, simply as the Giants, but his masters refuse to tell him exactly the purpose of his mission. They’ll let him know, they inform him, sometime before he reaches his destination. Once he departs and proceeds on his journey, he is joined on the trek by several important characters, the most important of whom are named Galva and Norrigal. Galva is a warrior knight whose strength and intelligence are more than impressive. She is, much to our initial surprise, a female knight — almost all the physically strongest characters in the novel are women — and she, too, is coincidentally, on her way to the city that has been over-run by the Giants. But the two traveling companions, we eventually learn, have opposite goals. His will be to destroy a queen. Hers is to save that queen.The other constant companion is Norrigal, a young, beautiful witch with whom Kinch is desperately in love; she returns his affection.

Their journey, likely the strangest you will ever know, is “peopled” by monstrous villains of all shapes, sizes, and talents: a Kracken; a horde of Goblins; a ghoulish female assassin who hides in the body of Kinch’s blind pet cat; an assortment of powerful evil Magickers; and a series of heretofore unspeakably gory horrors and plagues. Death is always near but almost always conquered. Almost.

Still another rather important item we should briefly discuss is the tongue of the title. Kinch and all his native countrymen are the only people in his world whose tongues are black instead of pink. So their tongues serve as a neat and easy way to recognize those who share a common background and culture. Note that a black tongue, though it causes some folks to judge and revile Kinch, makes the essential character of him and his people absolutely no different from those with pink tongues. He is not inferior, not less intelligent, not wilder, not a better athlete….

Finally, the climax and denouement of the novel are so clever, so surprising, so satisfying that I shan’t offer any details. To do so would constitute an unforgivable spoiler. And to spoil anything about this magical fiction would be an injustice to its 314 pages full of wonder and their brilliant author. Just read, enjoy, absorb, appreciate, and reflect. Then repeat.

Review by Jack Kramer.

Please note: This review was first posted on