Monday, May 24, 2021

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

I was excited to get a chance to read The Blacktongue Thief, the opening of a new fantasy series by Christopher Buehlman, in advance. The description sounded good and I’m always a sucker for a thief as the hero trope. The opening sentence promised a great read.

Kinch is a thief educated by a Takers guild, for which he owes them money he hasn’t been able to pay back yet. They give him a chance to settle his debts by undertaking a mission for them in a faraway country. He isn’t given any details; only that he has to follow a knight, Galva, on a quest of her own. Out of options, he sets out to do so. The only obstacle is, he’s recently tried to rob her, and it didn’t go well.

Kinch and Galva make unlikely travelling companions. They don’t like each other much, and she doesn’t really need him for anything. But she knows where she’s going and why, so he keeps her company through all sorts of obstacles, like shipwrecks and attacks by goblins. At some point they’re joined by a witch’s apprentice Norrigal, with whom Kinch gets romantically involved. There’s also a cat, Bully Boy, who is uncannily able to follow Kinch despite being blind. That’s thanks to an assassin, Sensa, who has been sent by Kinch’s guild to make sure he obeys them, and who is also on a mission of her own.

It takes quite long before Kinch learns what Galva is looking for. The Infanta of her country has been married off to a king of a distant land that’s recently been invaded by giants, and she wants to rescue her, maybe even put her on the throne of their own country. He’s perfectly happy to let her dictate their journey, even if it means he’ll be late for his own deadline—which may well be a literal death, if he can’t get the assassin off his tail.

The book has all the elements for an exciting read. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations. There are several reasons. For one, the book is much too long. Adventures and obstacles are fine on a quest, but not in excess and definitely not when they don’t advance the plot or stem from it. Over a half of the book was spent on what were in essence filler scenes, no matter how much action they contained. Added to that were the mythologies and stories. Gods are interesting, but not when the book isn’t about them or they don’t influence the plot.

Kinch wasn’t interesting enough to carry a first-person narrative on his own. He didn’t get to do much thieving to show off his skills. He wasn’t hero material, and while an anti-hero would make a good protagonist, he was merely cowardly and looking for excuses to get out of the situation he found himself in. His infatuation with Norrigal was incomprehensible.

By far the worst, however, is that Kinch wasn’t the protagonist of his own story. He wasn’t the driving force of the quest and he never tried to make the quest his. The author knows that his and Galva’s quests are essentially the same and steers the plot accordingly, ignoring the fact that Kinch doesn’t know this. At no point was Kinch in charge. That means we’re following Galva’s quest, not Kinch’s, yet we never get any insight into her. He’s not even the hero of the endgame, though he does rise to the occasion. The reader is left wondering why they’ve followed him all this way.

The side characters aren’t much better. Galva had promise, but she remained a sketch of a war veteran determined to see her mission through no matter what it took. I actively disliked Norrigal who seemed to be Kinch’s enabler in avoiding his duties—mostly because she was on the same quest as Galva. Added to that was an odd collection of characters who joined the quest at various points but who had absolutely no reason to be there. They showed up, did nothing, and either died or went away. But many pages were wasted on them. I only liked the cat and even he was cleaned away for convenience.

What made me actively dislike the book, however, was its attitude to women. Most of the characters were women, all in prominent and important positions, which should’ve made this feel like a progressive book. Galva especially was a strong character. But women were consistently called with pejorative names. They’re girleens and dams, which stood out even more because men and boys weren’t called any differently. To make matters worse, knights like Galva, who serve the goddess of death, must remove their breasts to show that they’re not inclined to breed, as if that would make them weaker. It all made the women’s prominent positions seem like lip service to strong women in speculative fiction.

The story picks up at the end. While Kinch still isn’t in charge of the plot, he’s at least actively helping Galva with hers. A lot happens in a few chapters and I couldn’t help thinking that the book would’ve been much better if more time had been dedicated to that part of the story instead of wasting it on pointless side-quests. Especially when it comes to Kinch’s insight into his guild, which came kind of out of the blue. The ending sets the next book, but I won’t be continuing with the series.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


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