A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name is a stunning debut fantasy about a young priestess sentenced to die, who at the last minute escapes her fate; only to become an assassin for the wizard who saved her.
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.
“In the vein of Le Guin’s magnificent Tombs of Atuan—if Arha the Eaten One got to grow up to be a swordswoman mercenary in thrall to her dubious wizard mentor. I love this book so much.”—Arkady Martine, author of A Memory Called Empire
“I cannot recommend it enough.” — Tamsyn Muir, author of Gideon the NinthFrom Amazon
TLDR; a unique fantasy staring orcs, sorcery, and divinity-based magic in a shroud of mildly dark aesthetic with a pinch of sci-fi inspired features
Let’s begin with the intrigue of a young orc priestess sentenced to die. Fantasies involving mythical creatures / races are fascinating to begin with but the author’s choice to focus on orcs is especially exciting. There’s a very limited number of orc-centered books in my experience and it seems as though when the orc race is represented they’re weighted on the male side (probably due to typical characteristics such as “brutish, aggressive, ugly and malevolent”). Here we can enjoy a story with a female protagonist starting to break those traditional assignments, and that’s just the start.
Csorwe, our main character and female orc, is enjoyably complex. She starts out as the Chosen Bride of the Unspoken, one of the many powerful gods worshiped by different peoples in the book. Lacking free will and autonomy Csorwe is suddenly given the unexpected choice to escape on the day of her foretold death with a powerful wizard, Bethandros Sethennai. Against her upbringing and traditions in the House of Silence, she leaves the Shrine of the Unspoken Name and embarks with Sethennai. She’s formed into a formidable assassin training with his aid and takes up incredibly dangerous quests for the sorcerer, compelled from sense of obligation and a desire to be useful. This duty, however, is increasingly difficult to reconcile against her own growing desires and the knowledge she begins to gain. If these dynamics aren’t enough for you, even more interesting allies and enemies are acquired along the way including in no particular order a Warden, Adept, Inquisitor, a librarian, and “an unhappy young man” according to the front character list (love that).
Locations visited by the characters throughout the story are tied together through a gate system, which are traversed via some sort of flying vessel. The worlds themselves were well designed but the concepts of gates isn’t something I’m typically drawn to and amount to a neutral or negative for me. This is a matter of personal preference, I just find it can get a little confusing depending on the extent to which they’re used. Gate traversal can be jarring as a reader when characters jump between locations too frequently, but thankfully it wasn’t overused here. The ships used to navigate the system are left mostly to the imagination, which might be frustrating for sci-fi fans or detail oriented readers but was effective for reducing cognitive load with everything else going on.
Similarly the magic system was alright but not biggest selling point. It’s derived from the few powerful divinities previously mentioned which offer a source of power in exchange for things like fealty or sacrifice, but the magic itself wasn’t necessarily unique. On the other hand the gods were fascinating in their differences and the culture built up around them. Some bits of the magic lore were a bit creepy but nothing too grotesque to be off putting, in the end lending a slightly dark fantasy vibe to the story.
Finally this book also brings in good queer representation through Csorwe and Tal, each of whom lend a different experience to the story. Csorwe is on a journey of gradual self discovery throughout the book due to her past as a young sheltered priestess, whereas Tal presents himself as a confident young man who knows what he wants by the time we meet him. Both romantic underlying arcs were enjoyable to follow, and I’ll refrain from spoiling anything more about the love interests.
On whole The Unspoken Name was a fun read with unpredictable progression, and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy fantasy with a sprinkle of sci fi, divinities, and darkness.