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The mesmerizing mayhem of ‘The Blacktongue Thief’

The ability to imbue a narrative with a personality, a definite taste to the text and world the author has dreamt up, is a skill that is as essential as it is illusive. It’s not enough for a story to be interesting — its world must have an identifiable texture, its characters a color and its text a bite. When a book fails to present a unique personality and style in its pages, it becomes a bargain brand recitation of events, knocked out of the reader’s memory by the next shiny object they spot. Having read “The Blacktongue Thief,” I can confidently say that author Christopher Buehlman has given his novel personality—an ocean of it—and that he has created the most refreshingly charming, easily engaging and ceaselessly energetic works of fantasy fiction I’ve had the pleasure of picking up in an agonizingly long time.

 

“The Blacktongue Thief” dropkicks the reader into a shell-shocked land of diverse kingdoms, all staggering back to their feet after a generation of magical war has left the realms of humankind drained of men, money, horses and hope. Picking about the ruins of this weary land is our self-proclaimed liar of a narrator, Kinch, a wisecracking, magnificent moron of a thief who is hopelessly in debt to the Taker’s Guild, the opportunistic and ruthless criminal organization that secretly controls the kingdoms of man. In order to pay what he owes, our antihero is forced to infiltrate a band of actual heroes, the ultra-violent brusk warrioress Galva, and the peppy witch-in-training Norrigal, and join them on their quest to save a distant land from a hoard of giants. Charged with his mysterious orders and armed only with his wit and sporadic luck, Kinch and his fair-weather friends set out on a rollicking table-top campaign of an epic adventure, full of monsters, magic and mayhem. Oh, so much mayhem.

 

Taking full and generous advantage of his unreliable first person narrator, Buehlman has captured the feelings of wonder that come from being told a fanciful tale by a strange and charismatic storyteller. There are nigh constant asides to Kinch’s favorite swear words, descriptions on how to play high stakes card games and snark filled musings on the sordid history of the book’s world. Page to page, there is always some new reference or joke by the narrator to keep the reader stimulated with shocks of electric creativity. It gives the genuine impression that the story is being told to us over a pipe and drink in one of the many seedy but warmly hospitable taverns that dot the world of “The Blacktongue Thief.” This said world is not the epic fair of high fantasy but an inglorious muddy cesspool, controlled by criminal cabals, managed by using violence and populated by crude fools. Fractiles of magnificent and hilarious detail ripple through the world of the book, making it pulse with imaginative life. There is a constant ebb of delicious new details about the setting, from the deadly intricacies of tattoo -based magic to the love-hate relationship they have with their strange local gods. It’s sweet creative candy, leaving the reader reluctant for the heroes to move on to some new location and expectant for the next quirky side story to be fed to us. And all of it is described in language so crude, colorful and clever that I find myself wishing I could reach through the spine of the book to shake Mr. Buehlman’s hand and then slap him out of creative jealousy.

 

Reading “The Blacktongue Thief” is a joyous cycle of being constantly ravenous for more. Each chapter offers a new setting, danger, monster, goal and piece to the greater puzzle behind the narrative, the story never letting itself fall into a lull of predictability. The energy of “The Blacktongue Thief” is electric and it is clear the book has hewn its influence more from Dungeons and Dragons than from self-serious sagas like “Lord of the Rings.” The book presents a riotous patchwork quest, our ragtag heroes stumbling from dire to humorous peril as they speed across the map, experiencing either incredible fortune or terrible luck depending on the time of day. However, the coy attitude and fast pace of the book don’t deprive it of depth. While the main cast stick to snarky banter and brusk insults throughout the text, to watch them grow closer as a found family is truly delightful, especially in the dehumanizing and excessively gory fantasy world the author sets up. The narrator himself, while never sitting down with the reader to pour out his soul, reveals himself in those rare moments where he omits detail, refusing to address or dive into his more ugly emotions of guilt and shame, though we can see them all the same.

 

Admittedly, as the first entry in an ongoing fantasy series, “The Blacktongue Thief” will live and die in the esteem of readers by the quality of its successors. However, with his delightful wit, gruesomely poetic verse, peerless imagination and mischievously charismatic characters, readers should expect nothing else but excellence going forward. As memorable as “The Blacktongue Thief” is, I want nothing more than to forget it, so I can savor its hyperactive majesty all over again.

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