Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review
The Unspoken Name is a beautifully written fantasy novel by A.K. Larkwood. She builds a very unique world populated with very unique characters. There are some excellent experiments with language in these imagined worlds. The author introduces us to cleverly constructed names of people and places along with a pronunciation guide. It feels a little like Tolkien’s studies in Elvish.
Unfortunately, the novel didn’t draw me in. I found myself struggling to care about the characters or their fates. This was due, in part, to the slower pacing. Our current world of fantasy feels like it is competing with streamed shows that are forced to deliver maximum impact in under an hour. Characterization is ruthlessly replaced with action masquerading as relationship building. Today’s stories have replaced the interesting elements of getting to know a character and how that character might react to others with a made for Netflix, Tinder-esque style of swiping right into relationships. I don’t like it, but it certainly colors everything else I read.
Why not spend a goddam minute investing in the characters themselves so that we care? Someone like Robert Jordan would never make it today. His towering epic comes in at the monumental sum of 4.4 million words. Reddit trolls love to bash his work as something that should have been cut down to a trilogy to satisfy today’s moth-like attention spans. Those of us that did read this once upon a time felt like we really knew those characters (despite many of their puritanical roots), and became friends with them. I don’t get that in a lot of fantasy I read today. Characters are far more disposable, mass produced paper plate Redshirts meant to impart the seriousness of a situation. They often succeed in that goal but their disposability also makes them entirely forgettable. Perhaps character development is yet another casualty of social media.
To be fair to Larkwood, she spends time on her characters. The problem I had was relatability. These characters were so fantastic, so alien, that I couldn’t imagine myself in their place. My only other character complaint was that two of the primary characters (Sethennai & Shuthmili) had similar enough names that I often confused them. This led to several – why the hell would he or she do that moments. This is a risk authors run when experimenting with language, the reader can get lost in those experiments.
The final critical thing I’ll share is that I spent a fair amount of time reading the book and I don’t really know what it was about. I believe it’s about the journey that ensues when one chooses not to follow the paths that have been laid down for them by others. This discovery of choice leads to a path to self actualization and awareness. I may be reading too much into it but I also think there are subtle undertones of deeper meaning that I’m not picking up on.
The novel starts with an introduction to our protagonist Csorwe, best identified by the tusks that jut from her lower jaw. She plays a critical role in the religious institution on her world. Before she is set to meet her fate, a mysterious stranger, Sethennai, sweeps in and offers her a different choice that gives her an out from her religion without anyone, but her god, being the wiser. She takes it and Sethennai becomes a mentor / father figure for her.
He has her trained in martial skills and she effectively becomes an agent for this erudite man of leisure. Sethennai is the master of playing it cool but he has his own ulterior motives. He is trying to claw his way back into power by getting his hands on the reliquary, an object of historical importance that will bring him some unknown, mysterious knowledge and capability.
Csorwe has a contemporary by the name of Talasseres Charossa (Tal), who was also taken in by Sethennai. The two met on one of Csorwe’s first mission where Tal proved himself to be talented but an incredibly self-serving jackwad. The two loathe each other. Tal is an unlovable rogue but he is my favorite character of the book. While he is narcissistic and filled with resentment and spite, he is also the most relatable and interesting character of the cast. Later in the book you find out that a large part of his shitty personally originates from the hurt of unrequited love, not of Csorwe but another member of the cast. This doesn’t excuse his behavior but certainly garners him some sympathy.
On another mission, Csorwe meets Shuthmili, another woman bound by her religion. Csorwe offers her a similar choice to the one Sethannai offered her. Shuthmili struggles with the choice which leads to some healthy introspection and a budding relationship with Csorwe. The first book ends with both Csorwe and Shuthmili forced to confront the religions and choices of their past to in a showdown battle for the reliquary.
It’s obvious that this book is the first in the series but the revelations at the end didn’t feel like enough of a conclusion for the story thus far, or a tease that had me wanting to come back for more. Larkwood’s mastery of the language is obvious and evident and I often found myself envious at the beauty of her prose. It was the narrative that I found lacking and because of that, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next installation of the story.