Map of Blue Book Balloon

9 February 2020

Review - The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood

The Unspoken Name
Art by Billelis
AK Larkwood
Tor (Macmillan), 20 February 2020 HB, 4 February 2021 PB
HB 462pp, PB 576pp, audio, e

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Unspoken Name to consider for review.

There's an inevitable comparison (or perhaps reference point) to be made with The Unspoken Name and it seems best to address it right away: The Tombs of Atuan. In the second part of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea sequence (published in 1970) the young wizard Sparrowhawk comes to the eponymous Tombs seeking an ancient ring, for Reasons, and becomes trapped. The Tombs - an underground labyrinth - are holy to mysterious old gods, served by young priestess Tenar (dedicated to the Old Powers as a child) who eventually rescues Sparrowhawk and escapes with him. Or he rescues her, perhaps.

The setup at the start of Unspoken Name is very similar, with Csorwe, the fourteen year-old Chosen Bride of the Unspoken, a dedicated priestess due shortly to be sacrificed to her god in its underground temple. Close to its start, the book has one of the most arresting sentences I've ever seen: 'One month before the day of Csorwe's death, a stranger came to the House of Silence'. The stranger is wizard Balthandor Sethennai, who will be the one to tempt Csorwe into betraying her god.

Or perhaps to save her from it.

So, yes, there are parallels here which I spotted right away.

All that is, though, only in the first few pages. Once Csorwe has made off, the stage is set for the very interesting followup, the part of the story which Le Guin never wrote - What Happens Next. Even when Le Guin returned to Earthsea decades later, we saw only an older Tenar. Here, we get to see a young woman growing up, while living with crushing shame (she ran away from her life's purposes! She betrayed her god!) and wrestling with a sense of debt and obligation to an older man, who, yes, 'rescued' her - but who then controls and use her as his agent while acting with a complete... blankness? A lack of empathy? towards her.

And that is a fascinating, well-told and involving story.

Of course there's more, much more to it than that "What Happened Next". World-shaking events are going on, or might come about, around Csorwe and Sethennai. He seeks not a ring but a legendary reliquary, an object of great power which, in the wrong hands, could allow a god to be embodied - we're led to believe this would be a very bad thing indeed. There is, of course, another party after the Reliquary so we seem to have the makings of a conflict and there are some well-told, Indiana Jone style setpieces taking places in forsaken ruins on dying worlds.

But that's not where the heart of this book is, I think. What Larkwood is interested in - and this becomes increasingly clear - is the relationships between Csorwe and Sethennai but also with Tal (a young man Sethennai has scooped up in much the same way as Csorwe) and with others whose identities I won't give as they would be spoilers. The theme recurs, though, of how Sethennai uses people, how they feel they owe him, how they long for little moments of attention, for his parse and regard - and of how he can discard and turn away from them.

The highs and lows of Csorwe's life are driven by those relationships.

After her 'rescue' Sethennai has her trained in combat, as well as all the other skills required for skulking round ancient tombs and nicking stuff. She's Sethannai's agent, his operative, driven by a desire to please him and show gratitude - which leads her to great suffering, but never seems to make more impression on him than might say his dog learning a new trick.

Csorwe's relationship with Tal is characterised by jealousy on both their parts and by a desire from both to succeed in whatever task Sethannai sets and to bask in their master's favour.  It's notable that Sethennai does nothing to reassure them that, say, he values them both, rather there's something of a dysfunctional family thing going on here made only worse by the various machinations needed first to restore Sethennai to his ancestral throne and then to seek the Reliquary.

Larkwood continually wrongfoots her readers, setting up alliances and enmities that pressure this triangular relationship but which are then blurred and confused and the plot advances. There is a refreshing lack of moral certainty - absolutely no bright lines of good and evil (the closest to the latter being, perhaps, a certain Inquisitor who does some pretty terrible things but who still thinks that she's acting in the best interests of her state).

Look, for example, at Csorwe's position. She was raised by the House of Silence, fed, educated, sheltered and cared for. All she has to do at fourteen is to go to the Unspoken (and, presumably, die although nobody knows exactly how). The House of Silence is something of a death cult, yes, but it's not trying to take over the world - the Unspoken is one of many gods, or fragments of gods, whose main interaction with the world is through the wizards who channel them (some of these seem to be benign characters, other less so). Running away from all this scarred her and it does have its consequences, but the central facts of Csorwe's life are, really, something very close to being her family situation and, as she learns more of the world, her feelings for another young woman which she has as much difficulty understanding and processing as anyone else falling in love for the first time and having to weigh that against duty and position.

In exploring this, interior, side of life The Unspoken Name does something which I'm still not accustomed to seeing very often in fantasy, goes to places where we don't typically spend much time, and that makes for great reading - an exciting story on all levels, underpinned by emotional truth (especially, the need to plot one's own course, overcoming both manipulation and expectations) and featuring flawed, quirky and recognisable characters.

There's also great worldbuilding - I love Larkwood's idea of the Maze, a kind of extradimensional space of rocky valleys, lakes and islands within which are set gates leading into the various different worlds where the story takes place (including some that are dying: it's clear that the Maze in some sense a substrate for everything else as in the dying worlds it begins to show through). The gates are a key feature, attracting trading posts where Maze ships cluster to refuel and take on supplies, news and passengers.

It is great fun to read, very convincing, has wicked vein of humour (I laughed out loud at, especially, some of Tal's tart remarks) and can I have more please?

For more about The Unspoken Name, see the publisher's website here.

1 comment:

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