Another week, another column with reading recommendations to hide under a rock with!
But first, some bad news. We’re living through the kind of disaster that hits hard at the publishing and bookselling industry. For one thing, the supply chain for paper and books is pretty screwed up right now. I’m normally not a fan of promoting capitalistic responses to disaster mitigation, but right now, if you can afford to buy or preorder books (from independent booksellers, or as ebooks)… think seriously about not putting it off. A lot of books that would’ve come out this summer and autumn are probably going to be delayed or come out in ebook-first versions.
And I don’t know about you, but on a very personal level, I dread running out of new entertainment before I’m allowed to go more than 2km from my house again.
Belatedly, I want to tell you about A.K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name. I say belatedly, because I read it months since, and I meant to sit down to talk about its many excellences. It’s just as well I didn’t, though, because some books need space for reflection. (And right now, reflecting on it is a pleasing distraction.) And on reflection, I find The Unspoken Name to be an even better novel than I thought at first.
Not least because it’s stuck with me.
The Unspoken Name is world-spanning sword-and-sorcery glory with an awkward clever tank of a protagonist. (Csorwe is one of my favourite protagonists.) She’s loyal to a father-figure who doesn’t exactly deserve her affection—but more on that later. On a mission for him, she meets a sorceress, Shuthmili, who’s determined to sacrifice herself to the good of her fucked-up society. But Csorwe really likes Shuthmili, and Shuthmili starts opening up to the possibility of not allowing herself to be destroyed just because her society really doesn’t trust magic-users at all. Shenanigans ensure—including ones involving Csorwe’s father-figure and his quest for a magical object of great import.
They’re such entertaining shenanigans.
We first meet Csorwe in her childhood. She’s the oracle at the Shrine of the Unspoken One, where a religious order keeps the worship of a fairly dark and unforgiving god. (There is necromancy. It’s effective, creepy, and atmospheric.) When she comes of age, she’s supposed to die, sacrificed to the Unspoken One as his bride. Instead, ambitious exiled wizard-lord Belthandros Sethennai offers her a way out, and thus secures both her loyalty and her love. Manipulative father-figures seeking to regain their political power and find objects of magical power are surely the best father-figures, right? Wrong, whispers The Unspoken Name, inviting us to wait and see how long it takes for Csorwe to realise her dubious mentor is a charming but utterly selfish arse.
The journey is an interesting one, involving lost reliquaries, maybe-not-entirely-dead gods, major cultural differences, and falling heart-first (head-second) in love with another young woman who’s also got some serious Parent Issues. And it also involves Csorwe’s aggressive and near-mortal sibling-like rivalry for Sethennai’s attention (and his facsimile of affection) with Tal, a young man with a surpassing talent for being irritating. In its way, it’s a novel about families and the difference between healthy and unhealthy family relationships—but it’s also a novel about necromantic duels, dubious magical archaeology (*cough* looting *cough*), cultural encounters, action, romance, and ridiculous shenanigans.
I really love it, and I want to read another book about these people as soon as possible.
Let me—also belatedly—recommend to you Jenn Lyons’ The Name of All Things. The fantasy doorstopper tradition is one that frequently falls within familiar territory, and despite the inventive narrative conceits of Lyons’ debut, The Ruin of Kings, it seemed possible that its energetic promise should subside into a narrative of chosen young men and the people who helped them along the way. But The Name of all Things steps back from a focus on chosen young men (entertaining as those young men and their bizarre travails may be) and instead becomes a queerer, even more epic tale: complex and playful in its telling, full of action and betrayal, high stakes and high drama. It’s an amazingly accomplished book, and I’m highly looking forward to whatever Lyons does next.
I feel as if I should have maybe rationed out E.K. Johnston’s books, since I enjoy them so—and since I read A Thousand Nights, her generous, powerful retelling of the Sheherazade story, I have only Spindle left. (And Prairie Fire and her forthcoming Star Wars novel to look forward to, but the future is, as ever, an uncertain place.) A Thousand Nights has the outlines of a familiar story. But it is not that the protagonist softens the heart of a wicked king through her stories: rather, that the protagonist’s stories have a power of their own, a power she discovers she can direct. And that, in part, preserves her life in the face of the power of the demon (spirit) that has possessed the king for years and that maintains its power through draining the women the king takes to wed.
A Thousand Nights is a story about endurance, and the (often-overlooked) power of women. It’s quiet, and measured, and in many ways domestic—but it would be a mistake to believe that domestic and epic are in any way opposed. Especially here. As a reading experience, it turns out it’s an uplifting one—at least for me. Exactly the book I wanted to read at the moment I wanted to read it.
My ability to focus on enjoying a narrative is a little bit broken at the moment—as is the ability to analyse what I like—but we do the best work we can under current conditions, and then go scream at the sea. (The screaming at the sea isn’t universal, I expect.)
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.