The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman (Tor Books, May 2021)
Christopher Buehlman has accumulated an impressive rep with some powerful horror novels over the past decade. Those Across the River was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, The Lesser Dead won the American Library Association’s award, and The Suicide Motor Club made The Best Horror Books of 2016 list at the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.
His latest is an interesting departure — the kick-off for an epic fantasy series. One thing it has in common with his previous books? The critics love it. Here’s an excerpt from Paul Di Filippo and Adrienne Martini’s joint review at Locus Online.
It’s a rollicking ride from start to finish (a finish which is fully satisfying, but open-ended towards sequels), and it’s all contoured, colored and made tangible by the unique narrative voice of our anti-hero, Kinch… We meet Kinch on page one when he’s part of a raggle-taggle band of highwaymen… Unfortunately, Kinch & Company make the mistake of attacking a female warrior who dispatches them all without even breathing hard. She is aided, I might add, by a giant battle crow, which is summoned magically from a kind of interdimensional waiting room whenever needed.
Kinch survives the fray, but then receives a surprising assignment when he reports to his Guild masters: he must accompany this scary, humorless and deadly woman, Galva, to the far province of Wostrim, where she intends to rescue a captured princess of her homeland, Ispanthia. The Takers want a part of the action resulting from this mission… Kinch’s personality — somewhat reminiscent to me of Marvel Comics’s Pip the Troll — is the engine behind the narrative and our enjoyment thereof. He freely admits to all his bad qualities, while often doing things only a better person would do. He’s horny, scabrous, irreverent — yet oftentimes philosophical, wistful and intellectually inquisitive. Paired with the sober and determined Galva, he assumes a parodic stature based on the classic mistress and liege relationship, as in C.J. Cherryh’s debut, Gate of Ivrel…
Along with all the great dialogue, character relationships and action comes some fine worldbuilding. Some 1,200 years before Kinch’s day, there was “The Knock,” some indescribable catastrophe that upended the whole world. (Little tidbits, such as the identification of the name Sesta with the literal word for “six,” incline us to suspect that this might be the far future of our own timeline, a nice frisson.) Kinch’s frequent citation of other languages, of mythic figures from history, of the quaint customs of different regions, all add up to some nicely solid venues and cultures and backstory that contribute to our enjoyment. Likewise, Buehlman’s various systems of magic, one of which revolves heavily around living tattoos, are well constructed.
Any fan of the work of K.J. Parker or Robert Redick, or of Walter Jon Williams’s Quillifer books, will find in The Blacktongue Thief a book as audacious and lively as the city of Pigdenay, “city of rain and ashes, city of whores and rashes, capital of kidnaps and ambergris, cradle of half the world’s soot… where the whale blubber and the kraken’s tentacle are grilled and sold across from the hall of lost sailors….”
The Blacktongue Thief was published by Tor Books on May 25, 2021. It is 416 pages, priced at $25.99 in hardcover, $13.99 in digital formats, and $$25.51 for the audiobook edition. The cover is uncredited. Read an excerpt at the Tor/Forge blog.
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