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