Review: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of The Serpent Gates

Publisher: Hardcover: Tor | Audiobook: Macmillan Audio (February 11, 2020)

Length: Hardcover: 464 pages | Audiobook: 18 hrs and 37 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Audiobook Narrator: Avita Jay

A solid if unevenly paced fantasy epic by A.K. Larkwood, The Unspoken Name is a brilliant injection of new ideas into the genre and a stunning effort in world-building. Still, even though I enjoyed this novel very much and thought it was impressively well put together, the fact that it is a debut is apparent in almost every one of its aspects, especially in the areas of characterization and storytelling.

The Unspoken Name is the tale of an orc woman named Csorwe, following her journey from acquiescent priestess to ruthless mercenary after she turns her back on her god. As the book begins, our protagonist is a young girl sequestered within the House of Silence, destined to be an eventual sacrifice to the Unspoken One, whom her people worship. On the day she is fated to die, however, a mystery stranger named Belthandros Sethennai swoops in to her rescue, whisking her away from the temple to reveal so much more to life than the only one she’s ever known.

But of course, her savior has his own agenda. Sethennai informs Csorwe that he is a wizard in exile, cast out by his archnemesis. In order to reclaim his home, he must retrieve a legendary artifact known as the Reliquary of Pentravesse, which would bestow anyone who possessed it with extraordinary knowledge and power. To do so, he would need Csorwe’s help, thus beginning her training as a spy, thief, and killer—honed to become a wizard’s sword.

In her travels to fulfill her mission though, Csorwe discovers that her future is a lot more complicated than switching out one destiny for another, a realization made even more evident when she meets Shuthmili, a powerful mage living in her own version of captivity. As Csorwe was before, Shuthmili is bound to her duty and her handlers, prompting all hell to break lose when she escapes with our protagonist, the two of them becoming fugitives on the run. Meanwhile, Csorwe is still under pressure to find the Reliquary, especially when it turns out Sethannai’s rivals are also hunting for the powerful relic.

At its heart, The Unspoken Name features the classic fantasy quest narrative almost as old as the genre itself. But to Larkwood’s credit, her creative handling of familiar tropes makes this one an invigorating read with a lot of fresh takes. For one thing, character motivation and growth are prioritized over story structure, with emphasis on self-realization and building meaningful relationships. We also have outstanding originality in the world-building, with unlimited potential in the concept of multiple universes accessible via magical gates.

That said, the overall reading experience was somewhat undermined by the hollowness of these aspects. As in many first novels, the world-building was overburdened with too many ideas, too many fancy names and not enough substance. While some of these elements showed a great deal of imagination, few reached the point of being convincing or made me feel like they were integrated into a larger whole. Take the culture of the people, or the magical and theological systems of the world, for example. Details and descriptions were mostly surface-level and aren’t explored any further than necessary.

The novel is also divided into several sections, and the transitions are awkwardly executed with sudden time skips. I absolutely adored the intro, focusing on Csorwe’s life as a young girl at the temple and her rescue by Sethennai, but I was not made to feel as involved by the subsequent parts of her journey. This is mainly due to pacing, which is uneven and slow in places. To be fair, having read a lot of fantasy debuts, I don’t think these are issues unique to The Unspoken Name, but the book did struggle to hold my attention on and off throughout the middle sections.

Still, while this review might make it sound like the negatives outweigh the strengths, I assure you the opposite is true. Once you start reading The Unspoken Name, you’ll find that its components ultimately come together to form a compelling narrative, one worth your commitment and time. Despite the novel’s flawed execution, the overall themes in it shine through with their heartfelt messages of loyalty, friendships, and love. It’s also story of struggle and determination, of not accepting things as they are, but instead pushing to make your own choices and fulfill your own goals. That’s certainly a solid base to build a series on, which also helps the story overcome some of its weaknesses. I’ll be following A.K. Larkwood with interest to see what her next book will bring.

29 Comments on “Review: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood”

  1. That one is popping up everywhere Mogsy. I appreciate your detailed and honest review. So a first book with flaws but very promising!

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  2. For me, those negatives did outweigh the strengths, and once it lost my attention it never got it back, but glad you enjoyed it! Always happy to see a book click for somebody, even if it wasn’t me. LOL

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  3. Definitely a fair review, I wanted so much more with the worldbuilding as well. I seriously would have been happy with a story set completely in the world of the dead serpents/serpent god. So cool and interesting!

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  4. Agree with a lot of your thoughts! You put your finger on what’s been bugging me, that I didn’t really get to KNOW the places that Csorwe went. And I had a lot of trouble following the god-magic that seemed to drive everything. But that first section was So. Good. And really, Tal’s…entrance into a certain scene late in the story really made up for a lot lol.

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  5. The Unspoken Name caught my attention since its first appearance on the blogosphere, and I was very intrigued by its premise – unfortunately it’s not immune from some blemishes, as your review confirms, although they can be ascribed to its nature as a debut, and we can hope that the author gets better with the next ones. Knowing I have to keep my expectations under check, my own reading experience will certainly turn out positive.
    Thanks for sharing! 👍

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  6. Great review! I think I’ll pass this one, too many lukewarm reviews with very valid criticisms that would undoubtedly weigh on my own experience as well – thanks! 🙂

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    • I can understand that! With time in such short supply, I don’t blame you for wanting to skip lukewarm books. I think I will continue the series though, at least give the next book a try and hope the writing and pacing will become tighter, and I hope the world-building will also be beefed up!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I like the sound of the fresh takes on old tropes here, and of course magical gates always get my attention. I’m glad to hear that this mostly worked in spite of some of the pacing issues. Might have to give this a try…

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  8. Pingback: Bookshelf Roundup 02/29/20: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

  9. Pingback: ARC Review: The Unspoken Name – Foxes and Fairy Tales: Book Blog

  10. It sounds like the author has a lot of promise – but once again, I feel sad that the paucity of strong editing has badly let down this clearly talented writer. Congratulations on a very fair-minded review, Mogsy:)

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