The Blacktongue Thief
By Christopher Buehlman
I received an ARC of The Blacktongue Thief from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.
If you follow speculative fiction in the online book community, The Blacktongue Thief has likely been appearing over and over in your feed; it’s probably the most-buzzed-about release of 2021. This is often, for me, a red flag—I’ve been burned too many times by hype and misaligned, too-high expectations. But that mindset came around to bite me in 2019 when I put off what would become one of my favorite books of that year, Gideon the Ninth, for months and months. You can’t win! So I decided to give The Blacktongue Thief a try in the hopes of avoiding another Gideon scenario.
And…it’s fine. It’s fine? It’s fine.
The Blacktongue Thief is a book reminiscent of The Name of the Wind in that it relies entirely on the strength of its first-person narrator, a thief named Kinch, to carry the story and engage the reader. Kinch, unfortunately, didn’t quite work for me. I never found him particularly compelling or humorous (Buehlman leans heavily on the latter), and a novel can only go so far for you when its core conceit doesn’t click. This is likely a classic case of “it’s me, not you”; we all know how subjective humor is, and other readers seem to have responded positively to it, so I don’t feel comfortable claiming The Blacktongue Thief failed in what it is trying to do.
Kinch finds himself in debt and on an unanticipated journey across a fantastical world. He is accompanied by Galva, a knight who is handmaiden to the goddess of death (cool!), and various other characters, including a witch and a show-stealing assassin. Most of these characters are more interesting than Kinch himself, and I found their travels to be largely enjoyable. The Blacktongue Thief is fast-paced and borderline episodic, as if afraid even a brief pause might result in the reader losing interest, and although I was craving more downtime between action sequences so I could get to know the characters, I still enjoyed the inventiveness of the setpieces.
These sequences shine because the world Buehlman has created is, to put it bluntly, wild—in the best possible way. I’ve consumed a lot of fantasy in my life, and I was consistently impressed by how absolutely bonkers The Blacktongue Thief is; certain elements of its worldbuilding, and how those elements interact, are truly novel. It is all the more disappointing, then, that most of said worldbuilding is deposited via un- or loosely-prompted infodumps from Kinch. “That’s so cool!” I frequently found myself thinking as Kinch explained a bit of history or some aspect of magic, even as my eyes glazed over because the information was presented in a fashion more suitable for a fan wiki than an actual book.
I was rarely bored by The Blacktongue Thief, and I don’t regret my time with it. Will I read the sequel? Probably, if only to find out what else Buehlman has up his sleeve—there’s a lot of potential here that I hope will be realized in future installments. But for me, this was another case in which hype obscured nothing more than a perfectly competent and readable novel.
The Blacktongue Thief will be published May 25th, 2021.
Review by Erin Larson