The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
The Unspoken Name (2020) is the first in A.K. Larkwood’s SERPENT’S GATE series, and it’s an intriguing opener that creates a fascinating world and introduces more than a few interesting characters, though the book had a few pacing issues and overall didn’t quite fulfill I’d say its full potential. That said, having read book two, I can say that those issues disappear in the sequel, so readers should feel fine jumping in and knowing the journey is worth it.
The main character, Cswore, is the chosen one of a cult that worships a nameless god (the Shrine of the Unspoken Name). While Chosen One often means the hero of a tale, here, unfortunately for Cswore, it means she’s been selected as a child to be sacrificed to the god when she comes of age (at 14). The story has a bit of a Tombs of Atuan feel to it as we prepare for Cswore to meet her god, but then is, at the last minute, taken away from the cult’s remote location by a visiting wizard (Sethennai) who has come to ask the god for an answer to a question regarding an artifact Sethennai is seeking as part of a plan to retake the city (Tlaanthothe) he once ruled.
The first part of the story introduces these characters, Cswore’s escape, and then we jump ahead some years with Cswore now working as Sethenaii’s assassin/Fixer/aide and in bitter, bickering competition with Sethennai’s sort-of-apprentice Talasseres. The two acting as both rivals and colleagues are looking for the Reliquary of Pentravesse for Sethennai and are opposed in this by Oranna, who is just as ruthless and single-minded as Sethennai in her quest for the powerful artifact. On one of their missions to find more information about the relic, Cswore meets and falls for Qanwa Shuthmili, a young magician-in-training from a very order-obsessed and highly religious land.
The worldbuilding is an interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction, as journeys are done by traveling (usually by ship) through a great Maze and then through one of the many Gates in the Maze which lead to particular destinations. I love the concept, but felt it was at times a bit muddy, and I also wished we had seen more of the many lands/cultures (something we do in the next book). What we do see, though, is wonderfully original and evocative, and vividly presented.
Characterization is mostly strong throughout, though again, characters and relationships deepen more satisfactorily in book two. And the themes of choice, agency, and responsibility carry strongly throughout both books. My biggest issue was, as noted, with the pacing, with story feeling more than a little meandering and over-long, with several sections where it felt the story was bogging down, though it does end well. And sometimes the jumps or gaps feel like shorthand means of arriving at character development that wasn’t fully earned, or at least fully felt, but was necessary for the plot.
In the end, while slow in spots and with its issues, The Unspoken Name was both an enjoyable read and one that left me desirous of seeing what happened with these characters. And as noted, the sequel, The Thousand Eyes, more than satisfied that desire, improving on its predecessor and leaving me looking forward to seeing what else Larkwood does.
This sounds like a worthwhile series.
I have had this audiobook on my phone for over a year. Just haven’t managed to get to it.