May 9, 2021

Review: The Unspoken Name

The Unspoken Name The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a first novel with some of the usual first-novel problems (which I will get to) but it does several things right.

The first and foremost of these is the worldbuilding. The world is fascinating. It's fantasy, but due to the fact that the protagonists travel in airships with an "alchemical engine," it has a steampunk/SF feel. It has Gates between worlds (comparable to mini wormholes, I would imagine, though that term is never used) and an extradimensional space called the Maze where all those Gates are anchored. The characters spend a great deal of time hopping in and out of the Maze to reach their various worlds and destinations. Some of these worlds are living and inhabited; others are old and dying, and the Maze is gradually swallowing them up.

The magic the characters use comes not from themselves but from their patrons, their Gods. Some of these gods are alive, some are dead, and some (as in the case of Shuthmili) have been banished to another dimension and are trying to use their acolytes to find their way back. There is a great weight of history to this universe, of forgotten races that created great things--including the Gates and the Maze itself. We spend a lot of time on dying worlds, with the Maze eating away at whatever life is left, looking for a magical object known as the Reliquary. Our main character, Csorwe, was once promised as a teenage Bride to one of those dead gods, and rescued from that fate by the wizard Belthandros Sethennai to assist him on his search for the Reliquary. The story is Csorwe's search for that MacGuffin and what she learns along the way, and what the Reliquary ultimately turns out to be (hint: not what she originally thought).

The characters are also interesting as there doesn't seem to be any homo sapiens to be found. On the back jacket copy, Csorwe is described as an orc, but that doesn't seem quite right to me, as she (and many other characters) are spoken of as having "tusks." Maybe that would fall under a troll or an ogre? She has gray skin and yellow eyes. (Although that would qualify as an "orc" in some quarters. I'm thinking more of Tolkien's version of an orc, I suppose.) Other characters also have pointed, wiggling ears, and seem to be elves or equivalent. There's also the fact that in this universe, death is treated as little more than an inconvenience: the dead on various worlds regularly return to life as "revenants" (not quite vampires, not quite zombies). All this is far more dense and layered than my scanty summary, and one of the pleasures of reading this book is discovering the various layers.

The problems with this book lie mainly with the pacing: in contrast with a lot of overstuffed epic fantasies, this book at 482 pages doesn't seem to have enough plot to fill it up, and the last third drags as a result. Possibly this could have been overcome by a greater focus on the characters, especially the mage and Csorwe's love interest, Shuthmili. I think the book could have been strengthened greatly with more chapters from her point of view. A decision Shuthmili makes--choosing to abandon her upbringing, her training, and a calling she says she wants (or wanted, at one time) for someone she has known for only a week is the book's biggest problem. This is unfortunate, as it's also a pivotal plot point. Some more time in Shuthmili's head could have made this more believable.

But despite these flaws, this book is a promising debut, and the worldbuilding alone makes this author a writer to watch.

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