Yesterday we posted our first 2020 Dark Horse Initiative list, but you might have missed it because we put it out on an unusual day for us. The reason for this is I was dead set on getting my review of The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, out today, and it felt weird to review it before including it as part of our DHI. The Unspoken Name is a powerful, unusual, and extraordinary debut that will likely be the talk of the town for many months to come. The book is not at all what I expected from its back blurb, but I think that may be the point. This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.
The plot follows Csorwe, an orc priestess of the titular god of “The Unspoken Name.” Her job, for a short period, is to be a conduit for communication between the god and supplicants who come with offerings. She is supposed to serve this role for a number of years, starting as a young child, and eventually be sacrificed to the god at a certain age. She knows that her death is marked on the calendar from day one of her service, and she reacts accordingly, becoming a sullen, fatalistic, and incurious person. What is the point of exploration and discovery when you know you will die soon? This all changes when a supplicant, a Gandalf-esque wizard, comes to The Unspoken and whisks her away right before her death. He enlists her in a bodyguard for a quest to reclaim his homeland and they travel Larkwood’s multiverse (a series of worlds interconnected by a giant maze of portals) seeing all sorts of wonderful things – and that’s about all I am going to tell you.
The story of The Unspoken Name is surprising. It doesn’t follow a clear path and often takes unexpected turns and twists into wonderful new directions. For a large portion of the book, Csorwe doesn’t really have a goal. She thought she was going to die, it didn’t happen, and she doesn’t have a plan for what to do now. She has some ideas, but not many, and a huge part of the story is her just trying things out and learning about the world. It is a beautiful and unique narrative style that I really enjoyed and gave the book a very pervasive atmosphere of whimsy and wonder. This is helped enormously by the fact that the world is just absolutely wonderful to explore. he magic and multiverse are convoluted and complicated by design to keep everything mysterious. However, what you do learn about – such as the race of giant snake philosophers who built the foundation of civilization as they know it – is wonderful. I also particularly liked how there are a variety of different magical races, but race politics was a very minor footnote in the story. For example, Csorwe is an orc and while that carries through into a lot of her flavor and general identity, there is very little attention and time given to it by the other races or people. The entire book projects this idea of a universe where people come in all shapes and sizes and that is very normal and not worth commenting on.
I ate up every second of the world-building and constantly found myself desperate for more. However, the world is more of a vehicle for the journey of self-discovery that Csorwe and many other characters find themselves on and it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters. The characters are absolutely fantastic. The protagonists mostly share the theme of growth and self-discovery and the antagonists are mired in a refusal to change or grow. It is a powerful high-level idea that plays out wonderfully in the character stories and the individual journeys of the cast are extremely satisfying to boot. I really enjoyed Csorwe. She feels so real and relatable it hurts. Her joy at discovering new things and skills is so sweet, and her mistakes feel like important moments that she learns from and grows. I don’t want to talk too much about the supporting cast for spoiler reasons, but they also share the same arcs and moments.
Despite all my lavish praise, I do think the book struggled in a place or two. In particular, the book can have slightly uneven pacing and some trouble with telling versus showing. While it’s wonderful that the book wanders, Larkwood occasionally seems to feel scared the reader will get bored if she lingers too much in any particular place and jumps from set-piece to set-piece. In a book about stumbling and finding your way, I didn’t think there was enough breathing room to occasionally take in and process things. In addition, for someone who has sheltered her entire life and has “inexperience” as a cornerstone of her personality – Csorwe has a weird tendency to just announce everything there is to know about a person in her head the second she meets someone. Meeting new characters often has Csorwe take one look at them and think things like “he was a cruel man, who seemed like he had a troubled youth. He wasn’t respected by his peers and spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of his father. He didn’t call his mom enough.” I kept waiting to find out she secretly possessed psychic powers or some sort of keen insight, but by the end of the book, it seems like the story just suffers from a little too much telling.
The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first to the last page. A.K. Larkwood has crafted an absolutely stellar debut that only has a few minuscule issues. I cannot wait to see where the story goes next, though I have absolutely no idea where Larkwood will take us next.
Rating: The Unspoken Name – 8.5/10