Fiction Reviews

The Blacktongue Thief

(2021) Christopher Buehlman, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 480pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23115-3


The first in the 'Blacktongue' trilogy, The Blacktongue Thief follows Kinch Na Shannack as he tries to repay the deadly Takers Guild for the exorbitant cost in his education as a thief and minor magic user, an education going somewhat to waste as he lurks in a forest to rob passers-by. Little does he know, when his next target turns out not just to be a knight, but one with a dangerous quest, that his path and hers are going to be wound together and heading into the unknown. Kinch must decide how much loyalty he owes to the thieves who trained him, whom he rightly fears, and who have agents all across the civilised world, and how much he might come to owe to his new companions on his strange quest.

The Blacktongue Thief is a novel of a band of adventurers on a mysterious journey, exploring a fantasy world of magic and danger, with the stakes for failure increasing at every turn.

The novel expends a lot of energy creating the backdrop for a soft-hearted thief and his quest, but that backdrop is one that seems very familiar to readers of fantasy, as a pseudo-medieval sprawl of European-history inspired countries. There are occasional glimmers of originality, particularly in the people of the main character, but for the most part, the world-building never strays far from the well-worn tropes.

Less energy has gone into the characters and their inter-relationships, which becomes clear in the lack of chemistry between them as the novel progresses, even in those cases where that chemistry is intended to be there. Kinch himself particularly suffers, inconsistently varying between charming rogue, unwilling thief, rebellious pawn and animal-lover, but never reconciling those traits into a coherent, real-feeling person. We get next to no insight into the character too of Galva, the knight he meets early on, and whose quest he is pressed into joining, despite the amount of page-time she gets in the book. Most other characters are reduced to a single defining trait, and are easy to forget once you turn the page away from them.

The plot, too, has its issues, and the pacing particularly suffers – the beginning and build-up is slow and stodgy, with a rushed burst of action at the end to resolve the various plot threads, some of which are not actually rounded off to any level of satisfaction. There are also several diversions to the main thread which seem to add very little to the action, other than to introduce additional world-building elements. However, the main problem with the pacing comes down simply to the author’s clear enjoyment of the (many) fight scenes in the book – they often take up multiple pages, and go into excruciating detail of blow by blow from each fighter on each side of each conflict. The lack of brevity in each case and the overwhelming frequency both slow the narrative to a crawl, without adding much to the actual plot progression or character development. The fights are also often similar in description, and that repetition left me somewhat frustrated and bored by the end of the story.

All in all, the book does little to grab the reader early on, and so it’s very slow going, through uninspiring world, prose and characters, to get to a somewhat rushed and unsatisfying ending. There’s little to enthuse me to want to continue reading the series, but I hold out hope that as it progresses, perhaps the author will be able to flesh out the main characters a little more, and so give a greater depth than is on show in this volume.

Roseanna Pendlebury


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