ARC Review – ‘The Unspoken Name’ by A. K. Larkwood

Title: The Unspoken Name
Author: A. K. Larkwood
Genre: Fantasy, LGBT+
Word/Page Count: 464 (hardcover)
Publication Date: February 11th, 2020
RRP: $39.28 AUD (paperback)

The Unspoken Name

Blurb from Goodreads:

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does — she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.

But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.

But Csorwe will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

The Unspoken Name is an utterly captivating epic coming-of-age fantasy novel from a debut author who has immediately landed on my auto-buy list. The premise of an orc priestess destined to be her cult’s sacrifice who is instead swept away by a dashing ambitious wizard and trained to be his deadly right hand is bold and exciting, but I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly this would enthrall me. It’s an early contender for my favorite read of 2020 and highly likely to top many other’s lists as well!

A. K. Larkwood has crafted a refreshingly original story which is predominantly fantasy-inspired but also incorporates space opera elements in its immersive and evocative world-building. Csorwe is an Oshaaru (what pop culture would call ‘orcs’) who resides at the House of Silence with priestesses and acolytes who serve the Unspoken One, a bloodthirsty old god who provides power and knowledge for the price of a blood sacrifice every fourteen years. As Csorwe hovers on the precipice of the shrine where she is to give up her life, Belthandros Sethennai intercedes to give her the option of fleeing with him – and having doubts about the destiny she was groomed for, she accepts.

“Are you afraid?” said Sethennai.
She swallowed. She couldn’t bring herself to nod.
“Nothing in this world has earned the power to frighten you, Csorwe,” he said. “You have looked your foretold death in the face and turned from it in defiance. Nothing in this world or any other deserves your fear.”

Csorwe’s life dramatically changes from a quiet, peaceful temple existence to being embroiled in one madcap adventure after another in a series of different worlds connected by the Maze of Echoes, which one can access via Gates and journey through on foot or by mazeship. The author doles out enough information to ensure the reader understands what is happening, but leaves out the exact mechanics and allows us to fill in the blanks. The audience is genre-savvy enough that we don’t need to be bogged down in pages of theory and discussion on how exactly the Maze works or what the ships look like, we can simply accept that these concepts exist and move on. What’s more interesting are the myriad of new worlds that Csorwe explores from the frantic market town of Grey Hook, blessedly normal with its bustling trade, to the dead zone of Echentyr filled with ancient corpses of its original serpent inhabitants, to forbidding fortresses and luxurious awe-inspiring cities and wintry decaying worlds where the dead may rise. Each locale springs to mind vividly through the author’s effortless atmospheric writing, placing us alongside the characters in whatever new escapade they’re embarking on.

As unique and beautiful as the world-building is in this book, the characterization is on a whole other level. We witness Csorwe at the start as a scared fourteen-year old who is unworldly and helpless to fend for herself, then gathering her courage and hurtling herself into the unknown where she hones her skills, learning new languages, fighting and sword-craft to better serve Sethennai and aid him in retaking his city and locating a famed magical artifact. Finally she comes into her own as she begins to experience her own desires and conflicting motivations, where she must determine the strength of her loyalty and willingness to adhere to Sethennai’s agenda and measure it against her newfound goals and affections.

“I thought we were on the same side.”
That wasn’t how it worked, of course. She was on Sethennai’s side. His enemies were her enemies. It didn’t work the other way.

The author never takes the easy way out, which could’ve been done by making Sethennai turn out to be a corrupt wizard and freeing Csorwe of her duty to him. It’s a common enough trope that the Evil Mentor has dedicated TV Tropes page, but that would’ve robbed the story of its complicated character dynamics and emotional turmoil. In fact, there really isn’t a Big Bad villain in this book, which is a delightful choice because that so often truncates storytelling possibilities – instead The Unspoken Name has a few antagonists whom Csorwe may despise or clash with, but will end up reluctantly allying with if the circumstances warrant it! Nobody is plain evil here, they all just have different goals and cultural influences that dictate their actions and make their decisions seem acceptable, which may not be the case from Csorwe’s perspective.

Talasseres Charossa and Oranna are both complex characters who are given room and development to shine throughout this story; they constantly move in and out of Csorwe’s orbit, often rattling or undermining her, occasionally surprisingly aiding her, but while she is our protagonist, their worldviews are given equal weight and consideration instead of being mocked or dismissed. Some of the book’s most emotional and exciting moments come from these characters being honored with their own arc alongside our heroine. Besides which, they’re just plain fun to read about, never missing an opportunity to verbally joust with Csorwe when they appear on page.

“Look, we have to stay together,” she said.
“Wow, gross,” said Tal.
“I mean it. We shouldn’t lose sight of each other.”
“Oh, yeah, imagine if you got dragged off into some kind of skeleton murder hole, I’d hate that.”

I’ve saved the best for last, that being Shuthmili, a Qarsazhi mage indoctrinated into their Church with a sinister fate lying in wait once she passes her trials. While there isn’t an exact correlation between her and Csorwe’s positions in their respective cults, Csorwe feels a kinship with Shuthmili and yearns to offer her the same choice that she herself was once given – follow one’s faith despite the personal consequences or seize the chance for freedom with all the danger and hope that comes with it. There is a wonderful thematic elegance with Csorwe finding herself in this position!

Shuthmili is another compelling character whose thoughts and dreams are given prominence in a well-written arc and while she doesn’t appear til nearly halfway through the story, she makes an indelible impact. There are books with multiple protagonist POVs who aren’t served as well as the secondary characters here! Because of her upbringing in which she was taught to be composed and rational, lest her magical powers overwhelm and corrupt her, Shuthmili is quietly reserved and resigned to her fate as being for the greater good. Once she encounters Csorwe, who alternately challenges and supports her, Shuthmili begins to acknowledge her own wistfully suppressed ambitions and contemplate a life beyond being tethered to the Church if she only had the courage and conviction to break free.

Their slow-burn romance is the stuff of dreams, I’ve yearned for a good sapphic romance in speculative fiction and it feels like this has materialized into existence just for me. This is an #OwnVoices romance as well, which is even better! The dynamic between Csorwe and Shuthmili is beautifully developed as the young women awkwardly haltingly interact for the first time on separate missions at the Hollow Monument, then fight in battle by each other’s side and wind up joining forces for their mutual benefit. Their friendship teetering into eventual romance is wonderfully portrayed and will have readers holding their breath at each tender, vulnerable moment between them.

A highly recommended read, this will thrill all fantasy lovers with its combination of elaborate world-building, diverse compelling characters with brilliantly developed arcs and exciting action-packed storyline.

Personal Rating: 5 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.







Disclaimer: Digital copy provided by publisher via Netgalley free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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