The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood (Review)
Rating: 4/5 - Gripping story, engaging world, marred by muddy character development and speedy resolution
Rating: 4/5 Link: Amazon
Call me a deranged individual with a blood thirsty mindset but I love assassin novels. There’s just something about the way they sneak about in the shadows, using the cover of darkness to hide their evil deeds, jumping from rooftop to rooftop as they stalk their targets before plunging their favourite dagger into their heart, snipping their aorta before melting away into the night — leaving the authorities bewildered as to who, what, why and how someone was killed.
Unfortunately, this isn’t that type of assassin novel, despite the subscript on the book cover seemingly promising it would be so. Maybe I had different expectations for what eventually panned out in ‘The Unspoken Name’, the first book in A.K. Larkwood’s new ‘The Serpent Gates’ series. That’s not to say the novel wasn’t any good! A fresh writing style, captivating characters, a gripping tale and an expansive world all saved me from the initial drop in interest when I realised the main character was more ‘enforcer’ or ‘henchman’ than sneaky assassin and thief. It was a brilliant story, told from the viewpoint of different characters and motivations, that ended on a suspenseful note and a couple of story threads that can be further explored in the second novel.
It was a fun journey, riding through the highs and lows that this novel introduces, as the main character struggles to save herself, before fighting to save others that she loves. The only gripe that I have with this novel is how short the ride lasted, and the ending came all too shortly, suddenly and sweetly for this long time lover of epic fantasy novels.
Protagonist with flawed characteristics
There’s no getting around this — the main strength of this novel is, ultimately, the initial weakness of its protagonist, who goes from strength to strength as the novel progresses. Starting off as essentially a bloody sacrifice for her God, she steers herself away from the train tracks of fate, becoming the acolyte of Belthandros Sethennai instead, a mysterious wizard with a hidden agenda.
Meek, weak and defeated, she epitomises the ‘death instinct’ that takes hold of an individual when they realise their fate is not in their hands, and that death is waiting around the corner with jaws unhinged with nothing you can do other than to just walk into its welcoming yawn. However, the journey that she embarks on, however, also epitomises the sheer determination and grit some people find themselves in when all hope is lost, the last throw of the dice that somehow lands them in a tight spot, albeit still alive. Readers can relate to the feeling of loss and hopelessness that hangs over Csorwe as a child but also cheer her on as she rejects the dark embrace of her God and turning towards a life (albeit a bloody and depressing one) under the watchful eye, manipulative mouth and scheming mind of Belthandros.
Her journey goes from one of despair and a quick end, to a future where she looks at her bloody hands and answers the question, “Do I prefer this over death?” Ultimately, the way she tackles the problems in her life, addressing the emotional scars she carries, and the absolute determination she has in fending off her enemies to save her friends, is something that readers can understand, relate and find strength from all the way to the conclusion of her enthralling tale.
Expansive universe hinting at greater things
The first commandment of fantasy novels goes as follows, “Thou shalt have an expansive universe”. And an expansive universe thou shalt have. Larkwood’s method of (what I like to call) the ‘slow burn’ in expanding this world is truly effective. What I mean by ‘slow burn’ is that the introduction of new places, concepts, locations and things are subtle, quietly woven into the fabric of the overarching story, that readers can find themselves suddenly and shockingly stumbling into a new location in the story without realising what took them there.
Although this threatens to be jarring, Larkwood manages to pull us into her way of introducing these placces through vivid descriptions, interesting characters, as well as a splash of history that firmly roots each village, city or mystical temple into the overall lore of the world, and hints at a much broader conflict that brilliantly ties in with the rest of the story. Each location has its own unique atmosphere that emphasizes or elevates the tone of the story, as well as influencing the emotions of the reader — such as the dark and broody atmosphere of The House of Silence, or the dreary yet lively nature of Grey Hook, or the power and magnificence of Tlaanthothe.
Locations in the story are surreptitiously given its own character, nature and place in the story that doesn’t feel like useless fillers but key milestones in Csorwe’s journey from weak character to a strong, fierce and independent warrior ready to take on the world’s woes.
Inconsequential secondary characters and quick end
Call me old fashioned but I love novels that really take their time in fleshing out the world, giving me boring old lore details that may or may not play a part in the current story, and just drawing out the end of the novel as much as possible. Something like a Game of Thrones or a Cry of the Icemark — both novel series included character development that operated at more of a snails pace but which, in the end, offered a more fulfilling ending to each novel in the series as you got to know the characters much more, at both a micro and macro level.
I found the pace of ‘The Unspoken Name’ to be just a little bit too fast for my liking. For example, there is a huge time jump between Belthandros and Csorwe retaking Tlaanthothe to the events that then follow for the rest of the novel. During this huge jump in time, every character I’ve been introduced to so far seemed to have gone through transformational and critical events in their lives that changed them from the individuals that we met in the first place. This was, unfortunately, a little bit too jarring for this reader and it disassociated me from their struggles for quite some time before that relationship was repaired later on in the novel after getting to know these ‘new’ characters from the ground up.
Ultimately, this shouldn’t detract readers from picking up this novel in the first place. My subjective view should be that these time jumps should instead be explored further as part of the existing story or, failing that, in shorter anthologies which really flesh out how the ‘missing’ events changed the characters from the ones we loved to the ones we barely know about near the middle of the novel.
An epic, gripping yet short tale with unnvervingly quick character development. This one’s for all the fantasy junkies looking for something different and fresh, a fantastical world with intriguing characters. The only problem — it all ends far too quickly for me. I’d still recommend it though.
Till next time!