THE UNSPOKEN NAME by A.K. Larkwood (Book Review)
“Nothing in this world has earned the power to frighten you, Csorwe”
The Unspoken Name is the first book in The Serpent Gates series by A.K. Larkwood, and bloody hell folks, what a debut this is! Fast-paced, sophisticatedly written, genre-blending – I’m absolutely certain this is set to be well-loved amongst many SFF readers.
That’s all you need to know, right? That’s enough to make you add the book to your to-be-read list immediately, right? Well, it should be! But for those of you that want more details, here we go.
The Unspoken Name begins with our main protagonist, Csorwe, a young Orc known as The Chosen Bride, destined to be sacrificed to her God on her fourteenth birthday. When that day finally arrives, events take a drastic turn and Csorwe, who always believed she was born to die, is now faced with a choice. A mysterious Wizard, Belthandros Sethennai, promises to whisk her away from her terrible fate and offers her an alternative; to live, to be his assistant and ultimately to learn to be a deadly weapon. From then on the story revolves around Csorwe’s mission, which Sethennai sets upon her, to retrieve The Reliquary of Pentravesse, a fabled box that is said to hold immense knowledge. Whoever finds this Reliquary will inherit Pentravesse’ legacy, and will hold the key to unlocking unimaginable power.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again, I tend to love books which blend genres, and Larkwood is a prime example of how to skilfully deliver a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. Throughout the novel we explore many worlds, as Csorwe’s escapades lead her through various Gates and Mazes. I’ve found that I’m quite fond of sci-fi books which explore a new world and delve into its culture and religion. Well, in this book we start our journey in Oshaara – a place where The Unspoken One’s religion is so embedded it is almost cultish by nature. It begins with a human sacrifice ritual, a shrine, a lotus induced trance, and a crypt where the undead reside. From them on, oh, how delectably dark, Larkwood gets.
When Csorwe and Shuthmili entered the throne room it was bathed in a light like the end of the world. A curley-haired girl sat by the altar as if it were a dinner table. Her head rested on her folded arms. She might have been napping. You had to come a little closer to see the pool of blood, and realise she was dead. In this light, her yellow robes were the colour of roses.’
Then Larkwood enriches the world-building further, as we visit worlds such as Echentyr; home of the snake goddess, Iriskavaal, and a Precursor world, both of which were almost barren and lying in desolation. In contrast, during Csorwe visit to Grey Hook, and the more lavish city of Tlaanthothe, we see more striving locations, full of life. Along the way there are Air Ships, a giant snake, revenant Giants, an army of undead, and malevolent godly presences. It truly was remarkable to see such a rich level of world-building existing in this novel. In fact, it reminded me very much of The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams.
This was a world half swallowed by the Maze. In the basin before them, cracked obsidian stretched far into the distance, piled and shattered, like the vitrified ruin of a city. Haze swirled and banked as if moved by the wind, though the air was lifeless. Rising from the thicket of mists, still many miles away, was a coal-black tower, stark and static against the endless swirl of the sky.
Although I felt the ending was slightly longer than it needed to be, I still found the novel to be well balanced between plot and character development. The fast-paced narrative was highly addictive, and the diverse range of characters were all portrayed to be very human, even when they were Orcs or twitchy pointy-eared Wizards. Csorwe is the character who grows the most, as we journey with her from childhood to adulthood, from stoic and obedient, to gaining her self-awareness. Csorwe’s simmering attraction to, Shuthmili, a quiet, vulnerable female scholar, whom she becomes entwined with, was quite sweet to see blossom too.
What I particularly loved was the way Larkwood portrayed the theme of choices, of following your own path. The two characters that explored this the most was Shuthmili and Csorwe, as both were bound to preordained fates, which would ultimately destroy them. However, Larkwood portrays this in a realistic fashion, as she reflects how the choices we make in life never come easy, and how we always have to live with the consequences. For Shuthmili, the choice to set her own future course is the hardest; I don’t want to reveal too much about Shuthmili, but what I will say is, she was one of those wholesome characters that must be protected at all costs because she’s that adorable.
I also felt that Larkwood broadened the dynamics with her other characters such as Oranna, and Sethennai, both of which were self centred, manipulative mages, but they were kind of entertaining because of that! Then there was Tal, who in the second half of the book became a welcomed addition. He brought an abundance of sarcasm, and hilarious one liners, which made him such a loveable arsehole!
“If I pissed in the corner,” muttered Tal, “do you think all twelve thousand ghosts will haunt my dick forever?”
“Yes,” said Csorwe. “Hold it in.”
So, there you have it, folks; if you’re looking for a genre-blending, highly addictive fantasy debut, then look no further. The Unspoken Name is simply an elegant, intricate work of art.
ARC provided by Tor UK in exchange for an honest review. All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication. The Unspoken Name is out 20th February 2020.