I received this book on NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Tor books.
The Unspoken Name is the first book in The Serpent Gates series. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read and includes wonderful diverse characters. Though a predominantly high fantasy novel, there are elements of sci-fi and space opera, which I’ll touch on
First a little on the series. We do not yet know how many books there will be, though we know there will at least be a sequel (I’m already excited!)—a user on Goodreads asked A. K. Larkwood how many books there would be and she responded with ‘There will be a sequel featuring Csorwe and the gang. After that, I don’t know yet!’.
While this is the first time I have written Csorwe, it is a name that may confuse you when reading this review, so, in Larkwood’s words, this is how to pronounce it ‘Csorwe’s name is pronounced “ksor-way” to rhyme with “doorway”’.
Before discussing the book, I want to touch on the cover. I saw the cover on NetGalley and thought ‘wow!’ I know people say don’t just a book by its cover, but the packaging is important. Whether we want to admit it or not, it does attract us. This cover is beautiful: excellent colours, main image, font and text. The tusk intrigued me, and I did wonder the significance of it. I imagined elephants, like the Mûmakil (Oliphaunts) in LotR or other mysterious beasts. It turns out that one of the races, orcs, in the book have tusks, which are often decorated.
“Csorwe had spent a lifetime readying herself to die…”
Csorwe, a young orc who has lived at the House of Silence for most of her life, is known as the Chosen Bride, prophesied to be sacrificed to her God, The Unspoken One, at the age of 14. Shortly, before she is due to do her duty, and sacrifice herself, a powerful mage, Belthandros Sethennai, arrives to ask a boon of The Unspoken One. He asks whether the Reliquary of Pentravesse, a small box said to hold the knowledge of Pentravesse; knowledge that could unlock almost unimaginable power, is still intact. It is.
When Csorwe is to sacrifice herself, Sethennai instead offers her a choice, sacrifice herself or betray her duty and her God, and travel with him as he both searches for the Reliquary and a way to back his home, his city, Tlaanthothe.
The story is told in what I perceived to be four sections, each roughly 25% of the book, and therefore the pacing was very good. Though, I think the book would have benefited from a little more pace at sections. There are also two mage-on-mage fights in the first quarter of the book and I’d have like to have seen Larkwood take the opportunity to be a little more creative and descriptive in those—one especially. That said, the storytelling is sublime—this is a beautiful world and I really bought into most characters.
The world is, in fact, many worlds. All different. Some dead and deserted, others teeming with life, and they are wonderful to explore—I hope we visit more in the sequel. One example is Echentyr: a dead world which is home to the snake goddess Iriskavaal—yes, huge sentient snakes exist, so large in scale that Csorwe could fit in their eye socket of a smaller one. There is also a Precursor world which is barren and desolate but full of mystery. In contrast, there is Tlaanthothe, which is large, lavish and full of life and Grey Hook, a place somewhat unruly. There is also magic, including the dark art of necromancy, many races, a wide array of gods, whose presence is very much tangible, a multitude of cultures and religions (not all explored obviously) and much more. Larkwood has created something remarkable and wonderfully rich in creativity.
“People were like locks. All resistance, until you discovered the precise information of teeth that would open them up.”
I mentioned earlier that there is a touch a sci-fi in this book and, for me, it’s down to travel. To travel between worlds, one must navigate the Mazes and Gate, which they do on ships that fly and can also navigate the water. The Gates are not gates in the style of TV show Stargate, where you dial a gate and go directly from one world to another, you must navigate gates and worlds to reach your destination. None of this feels out of place at all, Larkwood has done a brilliant job of blending genres.
Regarding characters, I wrote earlier that I bought into most. Tal was the one character it took me until almost the end of the book to like—I don’t mean like in the sense I’m fond of him; I mean like in the sense I liked reading his interactions—there are plenty of characters in books I don’t like but still enjoy their interactions (a recent example would be Andross Guile in the Lightbringer series). I can’t pinpoint why, and Tal isn’t a badly written character by any means, and I didn’t not enjoy him, but there was something missing. I usually like a roguish character and Tal has some fun sarcastic comments, but something wasn’t there for me and I’m not sure why. The best I can come up with was that I didn’t understand why he was like he was. There was a part much later in the book where I felt I knew him more, understood him and bought in.
As for all the other main characters Csorwe, Sethennai, Shuthmili and Oranna I thought they were wonderfully written (there are a variety of side-characters in the book too who play a vital and meaningful role). Sethennai and Oranna are both self-centred mages yet have their charms. I particularly liked Sethennai early in the book, he’s an interesting character who you will ask a lot of questions about. However, Csorwe and Shuthmili are my two favourite characters. Csorwe has always been alone but had no emotional attachments, other than a feeling of owing Sethennai something until she meets Shuthmili, herself a loner, destined to fulfil a particular duty within her society and an extremely powerful mage who is somewhat feared. It was enjoyable watching the growth of both characters. The question of choice is a topic explored in The Unspoken Name. It is in this where we see the growth of both Csorwe and Shuthmili, as they become independent, make their own decisions, challenge authority and live with said decisions.