Fantasy Book Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Fantasy Book Review

The Blacktongue Thief
Christopher Buehlman
Publication Date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: Tor Books
Genres: Epic Fantasy

A few years back I coined the term maturesmirk for what I saw as a welcome pushback against the gloominess of grimdark. I'm talking about books that pay homage to everything that defined epic fantasy in the 80s and 90s, often with a wink-and-a-nod to their own tropes and clichés, but without descending into parody or mockery. They're fearless, almost manic, fantasies - edgy, violent, profane, amusing, and sometimes even a bit kinky.

The Blacktongue Thief is the latest book I'm happily tagging as maturesmirk, putting Christopher Buehlman on the shelf alongside the likes of Kel Kade, Nicholas Eames, Andy Remic, and Mark Smylie. From the first line - "I was about to die. Worse, I was about to die with bastards." - to the last, I smiled along with this, never knowing where it was headed, but enjoying the ride.

Kinch Na Shannack is our protagonist, a black-tongue thief with a tattoo marking his debt to the Takers Guild - one that invites everyone he meets to give him a good slap across the face. He's clever and sarcastic, not afraid to speak his mind, but he's also not above self-serving deeds and acts of self-preservation. He's not your typical hero, but he's a likable rogue who makes us want to root for him. He has a blind cat for a sidekick and an apprentice witch for a companion (and eventual love interest). They're all traveling in the company of Galva, a knight of the goblin wars, who has a magical battle-raven for a sidekick and an even more magical wooden horse for a mount.

This is a book about the journey and the characters on it. There's a vague sort of drive behind it, but we don't really understand the purpose or motivations of it all until the second half. All we really know is that the Takers Guild has tasked Kinch with accompanying Galva, but he'll have to wait until he's nearly at his destination before they'll explain more. Along the way they'll face pirates and goblins, giant krakens and . . . well, just giants, traversing wild seas, deserted islands, and undercity catacombs. The pacing is just about perfect, with equal doses of wonder, horror, humor, and heroism, carrying the reader through three 'big' moments that would be climax-worthy in any other book.

As narrator, Kinch not only tells the story, but he tells stories within the story, and that's a huge part of the book's charm. It's a deeply layered read, with world history and individual backstories interwoven into the tale. It has elements of foes-to-friends and friends-to-lovers tropes, but not in the ways you might expect, and the novelty of how and when they punctuate the story helps keep the story on pace. If I were to have one minor complaint, it would be that I'd liked to have gotten to know Galva better, to see a little more of her humanity, but her heart is on the page when it matters. 

The Blacktongue Thief is epic fantasy at its finest, full of magic and adventure, with as much gallows humor as horrific violence. The climax is fantastic, a perfect finale to the tale, with Buehlman leaving more than enough threads left hanging for the next two books.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ 1/2

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


  1. This sounds awesome! I'm so looking forward to reading it!

  2. My review will be up later this week, and I really loved it as well!


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