Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

So much for fantasy temples covered in snow: The Unspoken Name is a queer, world-hopping grimdark delight.
Image result for the unspoken name
Cover art by Billelis
Starting off 2020 with a bang, The Unspoken Name is an epic fantasy debut from A.K. Larkwood which centres queer relationships in a grim but compelling world. Though I'm not a big reader of the Grimdarks, I'd been intrigued by this one, since hearing about it, and I embarked on its journey with an open mind - and, of course, the promise of Orc warrior lesbians was far too intriguing to pass up.

Csorwe has been raised in a remote temple to the Unspoken One, a god which requires a sacrificial "bride" every fourteen years, raised from birth. As the chosen sacrifice, Csorwe has never really questioned her role in life until it comes close to the time of her ceremony - and its then, when a mysterious stranger from another land called Belthandros Sethennai shows up, asking questions of the senior priestesses about a particular relic that's been lost to time. Not just a relic but a reliquary - a box belonging to an ancient being which will give the bearer immense magical powers if found. Weeks before her scheduled sacrifice, Csorwe suddenly realises there's much more potential to her life then she's ever been allowed to imagine, and when Sethennai turns up at the moment she is entering the catacombs to face her doom, offering a position with him if she decides to escape, she takes the obvious choice to join his cause.

Based on that set-up, you're probably not expecting me to continue by saying that Csorwe and Sethennai use a ship to enter a portal and traverse a between-space called the Maze, re-emerging in another world. So much for fantasy temples covered in snow; this world-hopping turns out to define much of The Unspoken Name, embedded into the fabric of the world and not treated as a surprise or novelty beyond the excitement of a new method of travel for sheltered characters like Csorwe. It turns out that before our duo can recover the reliquary, they first need to take back Tlanthothe, the city (and/or world) that Sethennai used to rule. The opening quarter deals with this reclamation, taking us swiftly through various traumatic scenes and level-up montages in Csorwe's upbringing as she evolves, in an appropriately safe but edgy third location, from the determined but sheltered cult sacrifice into a bright, if worryingly unquestioning, right hand to an increasingly mysterious master. After training in swords, languages and other less savoury skills with Sethennai and a rotating group of tutors, Csorwe is ready to play her part in the recovery operation, although the infiltration she's required to undertake is a dangerous one, involving a brutal warlord and an even more terrifying giant snake. Ultimately - as you'd expect, as we're not yet a third of the way in - Csorwe proves her worth, though not without suffering some traumatic injuries, and confirms her position with Sethennai. Once all of this is set up, Csorwe's story gets a little less tortuously grim, though no less full of tough decisions and brutal moments, and this is also the point where I really started enjoying the twists of her episodic journey.

That's likely due to the narrative evolution around this quarter mark, when the third main culture in the book is introduced - the Qarsazhi empire, which protects its worlds and territories through a strict but powerful system of training mages. On visiting one of the "precursor" worlds in search of the reliquary, Csorwe and her on-and-off rival Talasseres come across a group of Qarsazhi conducting a survey on the dying planet, including Shuthmili, a young adept hoping to advance in service before long, current remote posting notwithstanding. Once Csorwe and Tal start investigating, they discover - to nobody's surprise - that Csorwe's old sect is also heavily involved in seeking out the same artefact, and the subsequent stand-off between themselves, the Qarsazhi, and rogue librarian Oranna, leads Csorwe into making a decision between maintaining total loyalty to Sethennai and his mission, and rescuing Shuthmili and making up for her failures at a later date. Naturally, the previously obedient Csorwe makes the narratively interesting choice of helping Shuthmili, bringing the two women into each others' orbits and starting a series of encounters, rescues, betrayals and reversals with their growing relationship, and its tension with Csorwe's hitherto unquestioned loyalty, at the heart of it all.

It's hard to go further into the plot of The Unspoken Name without giving some of its reveals away, but the theme underlying all of this is that of loyalty, when and how it can be earned, and how to be true to yourself in the face of much greater powers who only see you as a tool to be used. That choice is particularly obvious for both Csorwe and Shuthmili, who find themselves in situations where those in power are strongly pushing them towards a particular agenda, and learning to question that agenda turns out to be more complex than simply trusting people who allow you to escape it. It's a narrative that acknowledges how difficult these choices can be, and how hard it is to do anything other than go along with the least worst option (and, to be fair to Sethennai, despite his use of Csorwe and especially Tal he generally is more benign than most of the other power players in The Unspoken Name), and while this leads to an exhausting number of from-frying-pan-to-fire-then-back-to-frying-pan style reversals, the fundamental investment we develop in Csorwe, Shuthmili, and (though your mileage may vary) trash child Talassares, who goes through the most in The Unspoken Name, the majority of which is self-inflicted.

The action here is fast paced and unrelenting, and the narrative style switches effortlessly from formal dialogue, Csorwe's more or less polite internal narrative, well-described and brutal fight scenes and the delightfully irreverant sweary sass from characters like Tal. The language use extends to the different naming conventions for the three cultures depicted, each of which have distinct linguistic traditions and systems which, while not heavily developed, are distinct and fun. Of course, it's helpful to have a pronunciation guide (Csorwe like the "ks" in "books" plus "oorway" in "doorway") to demystify some of the more unusual consonants and the emphasis in particularly long names, but each one ends up rolling off the tongue once the pronunciation guide is deployed - Csorwe, for example, has the "cs" sound at the end of "books", and rhymes with "doorway" - and I ended up whispering a lot of them to myself to listen to the way that the sounds were being deployed.

The differences in the language are matched by physiological differences in the characters, which generally match up to known fantasy races but aren't labelled as such - so Csorwe and her kin are large and grey-skinned with tusks (i.e. orcs) and Sethennai and Talassares are dark-skinned with long, "leaf shaped" ears that move with their emotions (elves). The Qarsazhi are harder to pin down, but are described by the other races as short and angular (and, notably, no tusks). The narrative treats these differences matter-of-factly, addressing Csorwe's tusk growth and describing ear movements without making it into something that the characters define themselves by. It's a nice touch that sidesteps any weird fantasy racial essentialism, as well as avoiding any cross-species implications in any of the potential romantic pairings. The people of this world don't really think of themselves as different races, just as looking different based on where they come from, and given that we're talking about portal-hopping between worlds here, that all makes quite a bit more sense than the average high fantasy world.

All in all, The Unspoken Name is a great debut, one which overcame my worries about its grimdark content and offered a world with plenty of complexity and interest - and the hope for better things to come, for characters who definitely deserve them. If you're after a book that takes care to subvert and redefine the tropes of their genre, and offers a brilliant adventure into the bargain, A.K. Larkwood has your back - may it only be the beginning of some brilliant reading in 2020.

The Math

Baseline: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Lesbian orcs with moral dilemmas about hot ladies!

Penalties: -1 A bit of a montage-heavy first quarter to get the action where it needs to be

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy. 

Reference: Larkwood, A.K.. The Unspoken Name (Tor Books, 2020)