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Month: May 2021

Review: The Blacktongue Thief

I think I am rare as a writer, in that I approach storytelling world-first. Whatever processes occur in my brain to create ideas, those usually begin with a setting. The characters come from there, and soon the story follows. As such, I thoroughly enjoy it when I encounter a secondary world that lives and breathes on the page.

Such was the case with Christopher Buehlman’s upcoming fantasy, The Blacktongue Thief. I was unfamiliar with the author when I received the galley. But I could tell that Tor was really pushing it, and there was already some decent buzz even months out. So I decided to give it a whirl. And I am incredibly happy that I did!

Kinch Na Shannack is a thief. A fairly competent one, taught in a school of the Takers Guild. He knows all the tricks, and some minor magics besides. But he also owes the guild for his education, and he has run behind on his debts. For someone in his situation, the outcomes may vary, but they are rarely pleasant. But then the guild offers him a solution. A mission to accompany Galva — a knight from the brutal goblin wars, handmaiden to the goddess of death, and all-around badass — on a journey to a distant land invaded by giants. Kinch jumps at the opportunity to clear up his debt, even if his companion is less than thrilled. However, they both soon discover there is more to the mission — and the Takers Guild — than meets the eye.

The Blacktongue Thief just oozes atmosphere. The worldbuilding is incredibly dense, brimming with different countries, peoples, customs, dialects, religions, music, and customs. It all lives and breathes, yet somehow never overwhelms the story. Or the voice of the quippy rascal that is Kinch. He easily makes it into the pantheon of rogues turned into unlikely heroes, and his awful sense of humor and klepto instincts are a constant delight. As an aside, the author himself reads the audio version, and the Irish accent only adds more flavor to the mix.

The structure of the book is old school adventure fantasy. Kinch and Galva’s journey is told through episodic adventures, each adding to the world and moving the story forward. It allows the reader to explore the lands of The Blacktongue Thief, and the weirdos that inhabit them. Of course, this also means that some of the stakes feel a bit small. Characters are introduced and deftly developed in a few short paragraphs, only to disappear in the next 50 pages. But while I would have enjoyed some more time with some of them, the ones who matter get more than their fair share of screen time.

There is a brash energy to The Blacktongue Thief that I did not know I was missing from my recent fantasy reading. While it touches on the traditions of books like The Lies of Locke Lamora, it does so with an abandon that makes it feel truly unique. That energy seeps into the worldbuilding as well. The lands of “kin” (humans) are surrounded by the terrifying goblins and the threatening giants. Magic infuses everything, and it can be both commonplace cantrips, or high spells granting mastery over life, death, and time. Everyone has some enchanted weapon or tattoo, or knows where to go pay for some. In a way, it feels almost a little Dungeons and Dragons, but the book never goes into RPG territory.

All in all, The Blacktongue Thief is the fantasy I did not know I needed, but can’t wait to read more of. Even though it is first in a series, the book has a complete arc that opens the world to more adventures to come. And I am excited to read more of Christopher Buehlman, now that he has tattooed his voice in my imagination.

Review: Black Sun

Award season is upon us, even if the award ceremonies themselves have been pushed back. But with more time to catch up on the nominees, I am trying to execute my plan of reading every novel and novella, nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. As it turns out, I had already gone through over half of them before they were even up for any awards, which only made my job easier. But some I had to go out of my way to check out.

One such title is Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun.

I haven’t had much luck with this author so far. Having never read her original work, my first introduction to her was through the utterly dismal Star Wars: Resistance Reborn. Ostensibly meant to bridge the controversial The Last Jedi to the catastrophically bad The Rise of Skywalker, that book did… nothing. It had no coherent plot, no actual connection to what came after, and overall — no observable reason to exist. At the time, I was angry on the author’s behalf. It was obvious that when it came to what story she could tell, her hands had been tied behind her back, broken, amputated, then waved at her in mockery by Disney.

But a bad first impression is a bad first impression. As much as I hate the modern Star Wars canon and the no-risk approach Disney has taken to it, it’s impossible not to attach the author to a mediocre work in my mind.

Enter Black Sun. A novel nominated for virtually every award you can name off the top of your head. A “pre-Columbian American” inspired secondary world certainly sounds fresh, and the Hugo and Nebula rarely go for epic fantasy. All signs of something special. Despite the bad taste Resistance Reborn left in my mouth, I was excited.

Black Sun is not something special.

In fact, I’d argue that if one fails to read any promotional material or the back blurb, and just jumps straight into the novel, they will have a hard time recognizing the pre-Columbian inspiration at all. It’s not that the book is bad, it is just… somewhat generic.

The story takes us to the continent of Meridian, where three great cities rule the land in an uneasy alliance. The city of Tova is the religious heart of the land, and a generation ago, a great massacre rooted out most of the followers of the Raven god. However, in a distant land, the thirst for vengeance survived. And now Serapio — a young man molded into an avatar of the God — comes back to bring retribution to the Sun Priest whose predecessor laid waste to his mother’s ancient cult.

Black Sun follows three main points of view. Two of those are Serapio and Xiala — a disgraced member of a reclusive people with a mystical connection to the ocean, who now captains a small trade ship. She is hired to bring Serapio to Tova, and their destinies become intertwined. In Tova itself, the new Sun Priest is a young woman named Naranpa. Originating from the poorest class of the city, she struggles for acceptance among the backstabbing politics of the priesthood.

Or… so we are told. Black Sun commits several major sins of the epic fantasy genre all at once. For one thing, it is not terribly epic. The entire book is a setup, leading to an extremely rushed “blink and you’ll miss it” climax. What’s more, entire storylines are simply pointless. Naranpa had the potential to be an interesting character in the heart of political intrigue. Instead, she is completely passive or inefficient, perpetually surprised by obvious plot turns and doing nothing to avoid them. Serapio himself is an interesting idea — a “chosen one” who has been born for one purpose and fully accepts that. So far great, except that purpose is muddied and unclear, morally confused and ultimately boring. Which leaves us with Xiala. She is a wise-cracking rogue with a troubled past. The end.

I don’t want to unduly hate on Black Sun, but I genuinely experienced nothing about it worth the praise it’s been getting. Yes, it is very inclusive. Kudos. So are a ton of other books these days. It has a unique setting… Except it doesn’t, not really. It has a generic bronze-age fantasy setting with some vaguely non-European themes. Nothing like the thick and all-encompassing South African vibes of a book like Evan Winter’s A Rage of Dragons for example.

The book certainly has its moments. The opening scene is truly impressive. The depictions of magic are often beautiful. But that is not enough. The worldbuilding is poor, the characterization is barely there, and the plotting requires you to probably go through two more of these bricks before paying off. All in all, I do not know what Black Sun is doing among some of the other nominees for major awards this year. And while I will likely force myself to read the sequel, I would really need a significant improvement in it to get me to pick up book 3.