Book Review – ‘The Thousand Eyes’ by A.K. Larkwood

TITLE: The Thousand Eyes
AUTHOR: A.K. Larkwood
GENRE: Fantasy, LGBT+
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 385 pages (hardcover)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Macmillan Publishers on February 15th, 2022
RRP$39.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

The sequel to A. K. Larkwood’s stunning debut fantasy, The Unspoken NameThe Thousand Eyes continues The Serpent Gates series–perfect for fans of Jenn Lyons, Joe Abercrombie, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Two years ago, Csorwe and Shuthmili defied the wizard Belthandros Sethennai and stole his gauntlets. The gauntlets have made Shuthmili extraordinarily powerful, but they’re beginning to take a sinister toll on her. She and Csorwe travel to a distant world to discover how to use the gauntlets safely, but when an old enemy arrives on the scene, Shuthmili finds herself torn between clinging to her humanity and embracing eldritch power.

Meanwhile, Tal Charossa returns to Tlaanthothe to find that Sethennai has gone missing. As well as being a wizard of unimaginable power, Sethennai is Tal’s old boss and former lover, and Tal wants nothing to do with him. When a magical catastrophe befalls the city, Tal tries to run rather than face his past, but soon learns that something even worse may lurk in the future. Throughout the worlds of the Echo Maze, fragments of an undead goddess begin to awaken, and not all confrontations can be put off forever…

The Unspoken Name was a delightfully mesmerising 2020 debut that combined epic fantasy and space opera to offer an outstanding and original tale focused on an Orc priestess-turned-mercenary who is taken under the wing of a powerful sorcerer. It’s a densely packed tome of action-adventure, complex mythology and murky politics with ever-shifting dynamics as characters alternately ally with and betray one another. You won’t be able to pick up The Thousand Eyes without having read the first book!

While you might benefit from a re-read before delving into the sequel, I didn’t find it a hindrance to jump in unprepared—these beloved characters basically walk off the page with the familiarity of old friends and you’ll find yourself effortlessly sinking back into the lives of Csorwe, Shuthmili and Tal like the last two years passed in a mere instant. It really is an absolute joy to start the story off with the trio living together in peace and harmony—well, Csorwe and Shuthmili are sappily blissful together, but Csorwe and Tal get on best when they’re bickering and getting on each other’s nerves, which provides no end of entertainment. Of course this can’t last forever and after we’re caught up with the status quo, it’s not long before they’re getting into trouble and way in over their heads once more.

In the first book, the author chose to introduce time jumps which some readers found jarring and intrusive; in The Thousand Eyes, brace yourself once more for a shocking time jump that completely shreds the status quo beyond recognition and turns the story in a new and wholly unanticipated direction. You will not be prepared for this mind-blowing change of course—for fans of the trio, it’s a brutal sledgehammer to the heart, but kudos to the author for being willing to explore a darker plotline where there is no easy solution and no victory comes without significant sacrifice.

While Csorwe was the main protagonist of The Unspoken Name, in book two, it’s Shuthmili and Tal that take precedence and between the two, Tal undoubtedly steals the spotlight. His character arc is sheer perfection in how lovingly it highlights his flaws while making us sympathise with and root for him—Tal’s immaturity is softened by his hilarious banter with other characters, his self-absorption is born from pragmatism rather than malice or ego, and when push comes to shove, he overcomes his cowardice if it’s in aid of people he begrudgingly cares about. Tal would be the last person to call himself a hero (he’d double over laughing at the notion), but he follows a very unconventional and entertaining hero’s arc nonetheless and it’s enormously satisfying to witness his growth throughout this book.

Shuthmili’s journey is more tragic as we watch the dark path she chooses in her desperate desire to save Csorwe. You may find yourself screaming at her not to be such a fool, but Shuthmili’s coldly calculated actions arising from such overwhelming, irrational sentiment make her chapters all the more thrilling and emotionally wrenching.  How far would you go for love? Certainly not to the extremes that Shuthmili does, all the while knowing that by her actions, she’s forsaking a future with Csorwe in the unlikely event that her plan succeeds.

The undisputed highlight of The Thousand Eyes is reuniting with our old friends, but that isn’t to say that endearing new characters aren’t introduced! Tsereg is the latest Chosen Bride of the Unspoken and this non-binary character plays a very important role in Tal’s arc; you could almost see it in a similar light as Sethennai with Csorwe when they first met, except that Tsereg is a lot more powerful and self-sufficient, and Tal is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to making plans or trying to keep them safe. There is also Cherenthisse, an Echentyri soldier in service to the GodEmpress Iriskivaal, who provides a unique perspective into the serpent culture that continues to worship Iriskivaal despite her destroying their civilisation. And Zinandour, Dragon of Qarsazh, the flame who devours, an absolute riot of a character that steals every scene she’s in. Zinandour may be reduced to a voice whispering in the back of Shuthmili’s head trying to corrupt her whenever Shuthmili draws on her power, but she provides frequent bloodthirsty commentary, occasional pearls of wisdom and unexpected support when things are dire. Exploring Shuthmili’s relationship with her patron goddess is an inspired narrative choice that does wonders for her character, providing greater depth and nuance that invigorates Shuthmili in an arc that could have otherwise diminished her voice.

It’s bittersweet that The Thousand Eyes brings this brilliant duology to a close, but much better to be left wanting more than for the series to overstay its welcome.  There’s always the hope that we may be treated to a short story that fills in the gaps between the two books, but if this is truly the end, then it’s a satisfying conclusion that does justice to all the main players and wraps up the major plot threads while leaving the future open for us to imagine how their stories may continue.  A spectacular finale to a wildly imaginative and heartwarmingly diverse duology in which the world-shattering high stakes are matched by the most endearing, hilarious and enthralling characters.

Disclaimer: digital copy provided free from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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