Book Review: The Unspoken Name

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: The Unspoken NameThe Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates, #1) by A.K. Larkwood
Published by Tor Books on February 11th 2020
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic, Romance
Pages: 464
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Source: NetGalley

What if you knew how and when you will die?
Csorwe does — she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.
But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard's loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.
But Csorwe will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

The Unspoken Name is a promising debut fantasy novel, which excels at lore, world-building, relationships, and its themes. I was immediately sucked into this novel by its dark depiction of the Shrine of the Unspoken One and its Chosen Bride, main character, Csorwe. 


“The girl leads the calf to the altar and they cut its throat. The blood runs black in the dim spring light. It splashes on the frozen stone and flows into the vessel. She takes the bowl of blood. She climbs the steps to the Shrine. She is never seen again.”


I was invested in Csorwe, an orc priestess, from the get go. As the Chosen Bride and vessel to the Unspoken One, she has been marked for death her whole life. I was floored when she bravely decided to cast aside the indoctrinations of the Unspoken One that called for her to become a sacrifice and bravely set out into the world to live her stolen life. Leaving behind the Unspoken One, Csorwe finds herself a new god in the mysterious wizard of Belthandros Sethennai. He trains her to become his assassin and spy as he seeks to not only reclaim his city from an usurper, but also to locate a mythical item known as the Reliquary of Pentravesse. 


“The secret of greatness is to know when you should risk the wrath of god.”


Disappointingly, we do not see much of Csorwe’s growth as a character during these years of training. The Unspoken Name is regrettably filled with time-skips and whole years go by with only mentions of what Cswore endured to become Sethennai’s feared right hand man and shadow. The author tells us she joined a band of mercenaries and found belonging and strength there, but we are sadly not invited along for this or other moments of Csorwe’s growth as not only as an assassin, but also as a character. 


“From the old crooks and soldiers who were her tutors, she learned about the hungers that live in the heart of every city, and was educated in the threat, the promise, and the scientific accomplishment of violence.”


But worst of all, when the novel final reaches the present day, I felt like I didn’t really know Csorwe or any of the characters. It was like Csorwe was my child that grew up somewhere else and when she returned I was met with a stranger and with nothing but tales of her fearsome reputation and very little of the actual person who committed those deeds.  The Unspoken Name grossly underestimates Csorwe’s value as an actual character and does her and the readers an injustice by developing her “off-screen,” rendering her a pale imitation of her fully-fleshed contemporaries such as Throne of Glass’s Celaena Sardothien. 


The Unspoken Name fails to realize that I would have happily read an entire novel on Csorwe’s training and her transformation from priestess marked for death to an actual agent of death in control of her own future Then, I would have loved to see her in action in a sequel dedicated to her search for the mysterious Reliquary of Pentravesse. Instead, the Csorwe we are given is little more than a plot device, and an empty shell. It was disheartening to see a character who had the bravery to cast aside the meaning of her life to become nothing more than the literal tool of the man who spurred her into taking this action. Her quest for the Reliquary and every thing else is just at the behest of Sethennai, so it is hard to feel invested in anything Csorwe does. 


“If a man breaks his sword on something it was not made to be cut he can only blame himself….Csorwe, you are my sharpest edge. We will repair you.”


That is until she meets Shuthmilii, Qarsazhi mage, who is an absolute boss. Author Larkwood does a great job of creating a natural feeling relationship, which started as nothing more than kindred spirits and sparks into something more. It is this relationship that spurs Csorwe to make her own choices for the first time, finally breathes some much needed life into an otherwise emotionless character–and most importantly–teaches her that there is more to life than death. Csorwe is simply at her best and most lifelike when she is with Shuthmili or doing something for her sake. This is the best representation of LGBT+ romance I have read, perhaps ever, let alone in a high fantasy novel. 


‘No, but my life is mine,’ said Shuthmilli. ‘Mine to spend, mine to burn, mine to waste. Mine to give away.’ 


It does not feel like the LGBT+ romances were thrown into The Unspoken Name simply for the sake of representation or to sell books to an underrepresented audience, but rather these romances enrich not only the characters and our understanding of them, but also the events of the entire novel. These romances just feel authentic. I absolutely loved how Larkwood presented the romances of all of her characters, whether LGBT+ or straight, as completely commonplace and not as an awakening that needed to be explained or justified to either the readers or the rest of the characters–the feelings of all the characters are simply accepted at face value and that’s beautiful. 


The author also excels at setting a scene. Throughout the Unspoken Name, I often got chills picturing what she described. Whether Larkwaood was describing the labyrinthian Maze that connected the worlds, the undead that walked the earth again due to the necromancers, magical battles, or the remnants of a world struck by the wrath of a God–it is a striking tableau. All magical battles should read like Larkwood’s:


“Csorwe had seen and committed enough violence that she no longer expected to be impressive or exciting, but the two wizards in combat were like nothing she had ever witnessed. Each man moved like a spark, and raised dust in terrible shapes around him: waves and claws and kites of dust, great beasts of dust that warred in the upper air. The whole room crackled, filling with the smell of hot metal. Csorwe’s surviving teeth buzzed in her skull, and blood seeped from the root of the gold tusk.”


Similarly, Larkwood manages to weave coherent themes throughout The Unspoken Name. Her characters consistently face their own mortality and their recognition that they are okay with it–they recognize that there are things much worse than death, such as not having a choice. This realization that there are fates much worse than death is a very interesting technique to bond together unlikely characters, creating believable alliances rooted in the singular belief that life, no matter how short, is worth living. 


And The Unspoken Name, even with its lacking character development and iffy pacing, is worth reading for not only these beautiful themes, but also its vibrant descriptions of its world and the  magic romances within it. I would happily return to this world again and await the next entry in the series. 

Book Review : The Unspoken Name - Blogging with Dragons

Posted January 31, 2020 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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