Insults, world-building and blind cats: an interview with Christopher Buehlman from the Black Tongue Thief
“My career as a professional insultor on the Renaissance festival circuit definitely influenced Kinch’s language,” Buehlman explains. “He’s always ready to swap beards, and he’s not afraid to work in blue.” The blue tongue is absolutely a highlight of the book; Kinch’s expletives are utterly inventive, and since he speaks multiple languages, the various curses reveal a lot about the cultures that created them. Kinch presents the Spanths, especially Galva, as too honorable and a bit strained, which is not only revealed in her lack of patience for Kinch conversing with a cat he rescues, but also in the way she supports the suitable conjugation of a particularly colorful expletive. . (You can read some dictionary style definitions of Kinch’s curse words at the Tor / Forge blog.)
There are linguistic connections between the curse words (and other vocabulary) in the novel and the real-world counterparts that provided the inspiration. “The Galts are reminiscent of the Celts; I didn’t see them as a direct analogue of the Welsh, Scots or Irish, but as a lost tribe, ”Buehlman shares. “There is something Gaelic about the poetic, artistically gifted and ruled homeland outside Kinch, and its language, its storytelling and, yes, its insults and doggerel, come from that. As for chodadu, it is based on Spanish jodido, and works similarly. Jilnaedu, on the other hand, is a more original Spanth term, meaning “vicious idiot”. As with Galtia and Ireland, Ispanthia is not Spain, but she and her language would nestle nicely between Spain, Portugal and Catalonia. I think the Spanish will recognize Galva but will also find a lot of new things to discover about her and her country.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Kinch’s world is the impact the Goblin Wars have had on the human population. The goblins came and fought in three waves; the first two were fought by men, but soon there were not enough men left to fight. “Women had to come under arms,” Buehlman describes. “In addition, they had to win. And they did. For the moment. The Girls’ War was not about fame or glory, or even power and wealth – it was a raw, muddy, and limitless struggle for survival between two competing species, one of which considers the other as a source of food. Victory has come, but at a very high price. Humans have suffered a huge blow, and the majority of humans are now women, which places women in positions of power in all human lands.
In fact, the book is populated by women who oppose Kinch’s narrative voice. As we get Kinch’s introspection and his assessment of his own character, we see him against a company of strong female characters. Galva is an honorable, dedicated warrior, the kind of knight Don Quixote dreamed of being. Norrigal is not yet an accomplished witch – this is her first assignment outside of her apprenticeship – but her raw power is amazing, and her willingness to do the dirty work when needed gives her a wonderfully practical advantage. Sesta, one of Kinch’s contacts with the Taker’s Guild, is a ruthless assassin-follower, gifted with both magic and murder, so confident that she treats Kinch more like a pest than a tool, even when insisting. so that he follows the terms of his mission. While there is a bit of romance, none of the women feel put in the narrative just to be Kinch’s love interest – in fact, they all feel like they would do just fine without him, if it boiled down to that, and he’s lucky they let him stay to tell the story.
The desire to represent so many women controlling the world and the narrative came from one of Buehlman’s world-building ideas: “I wanted to present a world that would show the reader how artificial the idea of patriarchy is”, he said, “and how it could be knocked down with a big enough catalyst.
Buehlman’s world is both beautiful and terrible – the aftermath of the Goblin Wars is present in every aspect of the book, including the appearance of real goblins. That impending sense of dread, which humans might not gain next time around if it boiled down to it, lends intensity to the world and may remind readers that Buehlman’s previous novels fell into the horror category. “Writing horror is a bit like writing poetry,” he describes. “With a sonnet, a villanelle or a pantoum, you have to respect a rhyme scheme, or a repetition scheme, and / or a number of syllables. With horror you have to set a certain tone and you have to check in with the reader’s amygdala every now and then. It is neither exact nor formulaic, as it can be in poetry, but it must have its own internal rhythm. You can have a long build-up, but you have to bake in a sense of dread – the reader will feel betrayed, and rightly so, if your premise foreshadows one type of story, and they get something else for 70%. reading. Horror, like comedy, is binary. He either succeeds or fails viscerally.