REVIEW: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

4.5/5 stars — snark and self-transformation feature in a richly built fantasy epic The Unspoken Name traverses decaying worlds and a decade of the main character’s life. The blurb is simultaneously accurate and a drastic understatement of the story’s scope. Yes, Csorwe does flee her destiny as a sacrifice to a god; yes, she does end up in the employ of the wizard who saved her. However, the most compelling narrative is harder to define, because it’s one of Csorwe’s inner struggle. She escaped one form of servitude only to fall into another, and the only way out is to break the shackles of routine and misguided loyalty and seek the dreams she’s all but forgotten. Csorwe is an unreliable narrator whose view of the world and those around her adds further flavor to a cast of characters scattered all over the spectrum of moral grayness. (Maybe not all over. I don’t know if there’s anybody in this book I’d consider lawful good.) Then there’s Shuthmili, the initially shy magic adept who blossoms over the course of the book into a nuanced love interest doing some soul searching of her own alongside Csorwe’s. Shuthmili also has a few moments of delightfully surprising humor (“What if I ask you really nicely to give back the sword”) that won me over long before Csorwe started to think she might’ve caught a case of Feelings. The Unspoken Name executes a very smart twist on the kind of insta-love situation readers love to hate. Csorwe is fascinated by Shuthmili, and although it takes a while for her to realize that fascination is really attraction, she’s already made some major sacrifices that prioritize Shuthmili over her other duties. That’s exactly the kind of behavior I and other readers have critiqued as unrealistic in other stories; why it’s so brilliant here is that Csorwe recognizes and analyzes her willingness to betray her loyalties and values for a woman she’s just met. Her conclusion, when it finally develops, is that she’s deeply dissatisfied with her current life, and has been for a long time. The world is a mix of fantasy and sci-fi. The sci-fi element mostly comes in because there’s travel between worlds. It’s not interplanetary travel so much as travel across dimensions, but the effect is the same. Travel takes place in the Maze and requires special “mazeships.” From what I could tell, the Maze is an entropic void that exists between world but also twists and consumes them. “Sometimes when a world died quickly, it began to decay, and all kinds of nasty things could happen. On previous assignments Malkhaya had seen the dead rise and mouths open in the ground. He had seen the teeth of the Maze beginning to bite through the sky.” Aside from Maze travel, the world feels more like fantasy, featuring sacrifices to gods, swordfights, magic users, etc. I love the prose in this book. I’d describe a lot of it as “blunt,” which I mean in the nicest way—it’s gives Csorwe the perfect voice, showing that her brilliance lies in observation instead of wordplay. We get clever figurative language (“Chatting over coffee always made her feel like she was trying to cut a cake with a hammer.”) without getting bogged down in writing too involved with its own cleverness. That said, there are a few other points of view, less central than Csorwe’s where the prose is a bit more dressed up. As usual, some miscellany I really enjoyed

  • absolutely the best character descriptions (and descriptive language in general): “He was white as a ghost, one-eyed, and handsome in the style of a shark. He was dressed in blackened chain mail, and wore his sword strapped to his back. His only ornament was a lump of jet on a chain around his neck. His tusks were sharpened to dagger points and his eye gleamed like cut diamond. All this was not enough to convey the sheer force of his presence.”

  • fascinating magic. A lot of it revolves around necromancy and/or sacrifice to a very present set of gods. The costs of magic are high and the ways those costs can be offset are often worse than simply paying the price yourself. And then there are cool details like this curse-ward: “…there was a red, fist-sized globe of something like wax, plastered to the rock just below head height. There was a sign stamped into the wax, a quintuple curlicue too unpleasant to look at it could only have been magical. The whole thing looked not just dangerous but disgusting, as though the wall had sprouted a purulent boil” and this seal: “The door is not locked. The three wards prevent what is within from escaping. The goddess at the heart of my city is not to be underestimated. If we had time I should have preferred thrice thee wards—brine and blood and gold, myrrh and camphor and balsam, bone and ash and dust—but this will serve.”

  • the gods. From The Unspoken One, to whom Csorwe was intended as a sacrifice, to Zinandour, who comes closer to entering the world every time Shuthmili does magic, the gods are present enough to affect the world but rare and powerful enough to be awesome in the truest sense of the world when we encounter them. The Unspoken Name is a stunning debut and a killer kickoff to the Serpent Gates series. If you’re looking for a character-driven fantasy with elements of sci-fi, you should definitely pick this up. It’ll likely be a hit with fans of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Madeline Miller’s Circe.