Queer Orc Assasins and Magical Intrigue: The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

On rare occasions you pick up a book that gives you everything you want and leaves you wide-eyed, searching for more. It’s a delightful feeling, to be surprised over and over again throughout the course of a novel and still want to read more at the end of it. I didn’t close The Unspoken Name feeling like I had missed something, instead, I felt like I had just found my newest fantasy fixation.

The book covers two major time periods over the course of our main character’s life. Csorwe, raised in the Shrine of the Unspoken Name, was destined to be sacrificed to the god. She’s saved from martyrdom by a mysterious wizard named Belthandros Sethennai, and raised to be his right-hand sword. The next phase of her journey is continuing her search for the mysterious Reliquary of Pentravesse, which has been Sethennai’s quarry for as long as Csorwe has known him.

Csorwe, throughout the novel, is Sethennai’s sworn sword (say “a sworn sword, Csorwe” five times fast), sent out on missions and assassinations as he follows leads, pulls strings, and writes dispatches to the furthest ends of the world. She’s accompanied by her competitor for Sethennai’s attention, Talasseres Charossa, a young man with a bad attitude, a fondness for fit, older gentleman, and absolutely zero fucks to give. Csorwe and Tal have an intense sibling rivalry relationship that occasionally borders on hatred, and the one thing they can depend on is their each other’s unenviable ability to know exactly what to say in order to start a fight.

Csorwe’s life changes when she meets a young magician-in-training named Qanwa Shuthmili during one of her ventures on Sethennai’s orders. Like any repressed, gym-obsessed lesbian orc with father-figure hangups, Csorwe falls in love with the first woman who smiles at her and shares similar life experiences. She practically offers to pack a U-Haul within five minutes. Csorwe and Shuthmili’s later adventures are tense and action-packed, and the romance, the heartbreak, the betrayal, it’s all…very, very real.

The characters, sharply polished in all their conflicted, multifaceted glory, shine a light on the swift prose. Not a moment is wasted, and for an epic fantasy novel that can often be a challenge. Larkwood uses every chapter to the fullest extent, creating a book that recalls a fully formed history, a world of overlapping gods, cults, magic, cultures, and peoples..

Because of this, there’s also a lot of mystery to the world; the way things work is often left unexplained. Without going into too much detail about the mechanics of traveling across great distances or the exact nature of magic, The Unspoken Name creates a fully-realized world without explaining every aspect of its nature. It makes sense; if you have characters who exist in the real world, you don’t need to explain what a subway system is and how to find it. There are flying ships of various degrees and designs, propelled by an engine, but that’s the most we learn about it. More to the point – that’s all we need to know! This expert balance of restraint and diegetic detail allows for an uninterrupted, immersive narrative. The novel is never broken by extended explanations or detailed information dumps. And while I’m sure that Larkwood knows exactly what’s going on in said engine, they have expertly crafted a story that explains what it needs to, when it needs to be said.

Within the world, there are still clear boundaries between the cultures, cities, and people that occupy the novel. The three main places are Oshaar, inhabited by orc-like creatures, where The Unspoken One, a death-god, is worshiped through ritual sacrifice. Tlaanthothe, where magic is utilized like science to further the empire, and Qarsazh, a devout region where magical aptitude is considered deviant. The other empire is Echentyri, a dead land that was destroyed by its patron goddess, where magic divides the world and creates strange in-between places. The way these regions intersect and interact creates a nuanced and distinct feel to the novel. There is a distance in between Oshaar and Qarsazh, but the distance can be traveled easily. The time it takes for a Tlaanthothe warship to fly to the outer reaches of the Dead Maze isn’t certain, but it’s not long, and it doesn’t take up time in the book. Travel is condensed and efficient, the boundaries between cultures distinctly separate because of it.

The magic in this novel is derived from different deities. Magicians have a patron who bestows power on them. Each god has a different aspect, and while each person’s abilities vary depending on their connections and their benefactor, it’s made clear that using magic in any form takes a toll on the mortal body. While never fully explained, the common thread between all the magicians is well-defined. Having a loose system of magic with real, immediate, and threatening consequences for each mage makes the magic-wielding characters in The Unspoken Name easier to understand. There are different ways to channel and control magic, but knowing the basics of what it costs is a huge strength of the book.

One of the reasons I loved this book, besides all of the above, is how explicitly, inherently, unquestionably queer the characters are. Both Csorwe and Tal, among others, are queer. Csorwe falls in love with another woman; Tal flirts with any man who’s tall, broad, handsome, and self-assured. Various other characters are shown to be in queer relationships without explanation or justification. The absolute certainty of each character’s attractions and attachments is rendered in the exact same prose as the rest of the novel.

To just exist as a queer character without any compunctions or hang-ups, or a need for heirs, inheritors, or lineages, is uncommon and underutilized in fantasy novels. The trend is changing, and as gender politics and queer narratives are becoming more mainstream, and more understood, more authors will engage with those stories and more publishers will print them. The Unspoken Name is not a novel about being queer, but it is about queer love. That’s important, and it should be recognized and appreciated for that.

The Unspoken Name is solid. It’s a very good book. The story is direct, but not so simple that it doesn’t surprise you, the characters are both familiar and delightfully new, and the prose is absolutely devastating. Moments of action are intercut by pauses and reflections, and the introspection that each character goes through during the novel left me reeling. No character is flat, unrealized, or without a deep history; and it’s delicious. Csorwe is a disaster, but she’s competent, tender, brutal, unrelenting, strong as hell, and above all, someone who wants love in return for love. The realization of her story and her love is an absolute triumph, and with this book Larkwood, without a doubt, swept me off my feet.

The Unspoken Name is available from Tor Books.
Read the first six chapters from the novel here.

Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.

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