I went into this book pretty blind apart from the fact that it was about orc lesbians and necromancy – and I feel like that’s a damn good reason to pick something up!
Book: The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Tor Books. All opinions my own.
Okay, there’s a lot of good about this book. I enjoyed it while I was reading it – it’s very pacey – but when I came to write this review, I realised that overall, I felt kind of detached from it. I’m really not sure why, and I’m not 100% certain that it isn’t me being a bit reading-slumpy, but I found it hard to get invested in the characters. That being said, there are a lot of excellent and innovative elements, and I think this will be a huge hit with many people, especially if they liked the sardonic millennial style of Lord of Secrets or the rompishness of City of Lies.
While Csorwe’s people, the Oshaarun, aren’t labelled orcs on the page, their grey skin and tusks aligns them quite closely with the traditional orcish image. I thought that with Csorwe being labelled a bodyguard-cum-assassin, we’d get the violent side of the traditional orc too, but actually, although she is able to fight, she’s actually more intelligent, pragmatic and gentle than the stereotype had led me to believe. I really liked this subversion of what I was expecting from her as a character. In the first section of the book, when she is a teenager, I really enjoyed her character, and loved seeing her come to terms with the dark side of her destiny and then getting to explore the world outside of the cult. I was really engaged with her journey, and was excited to see her grow.
And then we jumped five years forward in time, and I completely lost the thread of her character. I feel like we missed out on some really crucial development in skipping her growing up – we’re presented with a fully-formed adult, with new opinions about her role and her colleagues that have clearly been formed over years of tension, but that we didn’t get to see. It’s hard to empathise with her rivalry with Tal, for example, when we’re just told that they have been thorns in each others’ sides, rather than getting to see them grow up with in this competitive sibling-esque battle. I struggled with Csorwe’s relationships with any of the main characters, to be honest – so much of it is told rather than shown that it left me feeling very disconnected from her, and therefore from the rest of the cast.
I also almost want to say that things happen to Csorwe, rather than her doing anything, but that’s not quite true; she is the instigator of about half of her actions, it’s just that they all sort of come out of the blue. I don’t know if it’s that we didn’t spend enough time in her head, but I never had a particularly clear picture of what she was up to, or what actions would be ‘in character’ for her to feel satisfied when they were revealed. Again, this comes down to my not making that connection with her – if you get on with her better, I think this could definitely be a five star read for you.
One thing I did love about this book was the casual but extensive queer inclusion. Csorwe is interested in women (though she also admits to an adolescent crush on a male tutor, who turns out to be gay), and the main romance is f/f (but the slowest of slow burns, with mostly pining). Tal, another main character, is gay; Belthandos Sethennai, her mentor/employer, is bi, and has on-page relationships with both men and women (although he slightly falls into the ‘bi people are manipulative’ trope, I think the extensive queerness of the world saves this from being a negative). In fact, I don’t know that a single side character is explicitly straight! This was so brilliant to read – I love when a fantasy writer just decides that as well as all the fantastical elements, the world will just be comfortably queer. It’s really heartwarming.
Overall, I’m really struggling for a score on this one! I thought it was going to be an instant favourite, and in the first section of the book I was genuinely prepared to write a rave review, but something about the rest of it didn’t quite click for me. I think it gets 3.5 cats from me (and will round up to 4 where half-stars aren’t a thing) – I still think it’s a really good read, and I would urge you to pick it up if you’re looking for queer fantasy, classic adventure fantasy, or an innovative look at destiny and chosen ones!