A.K. Larkwood delivers her readers into a deliciously pulpy setting right from the start: “In the deep wilds of the north, there is a Shrine cut into the mountainside. The forest covers these hills like a shroud. This is a quiet country, but the Shrine of the Unspoken One is quieter still. Birds and insects keep away from the place.” (p. 3) The Shrine itself is untended, but down below there is a considerable temple complex ruled by a Prioeress. The temple, known as the House of Silence, holds sway over the surrounding villages, drawing many of its acolytes from the area and every fourteen years commanding one daughter who will grow up to be the Chosen Bride of the Unspoken One. In the spring of her fourteenth year she is at the head of a procession from the House of Silence up to the Shrine. She leads a calf; behind them on the path to the Shrine are the Prioress and the other devotees of the temple. The Chosen Bride sacrifices the calf on an altar outside of the Shrine, collecting some of its blood into a ritual vessel. “She takes the bowl of blood. She climbs the steps to the Shrine. She is never seen again.” (p. 4)
One month before her appointment with the Unspoken One, Csorwe (the book’s pronunciation guide says her name is not spoken in the Hungarian fashion — the first two letters are instead sounded as “ks” — but I did it anyway) receives a visitor, a pilgrim seeking the boon of prophecy from the Chosen Bride. She grants it, as she is obliged to do, and what follows allows Larkwood to show how real and present the gods of this setting are. “The presence of the Unspoken One crept in slowly at first, like the first reaching wavelets of the tide, rising gently, prying into the burrows of sand-creeping things. And then all at once it was impossible to ignore: a vast invisible pressure, a single focused curiosity that weighed her with impersonal hunger.” (p. 6) The pilgrim wishes to know about the Reliquary of Pentravesse. Possessed by her god, Csorwe gives information that is true but not immediately useful, as happens so often with prophecies. It is not immediately apparent to readers, but that encounter, and the events leading up to it, shape much of the rest of The Unspoken Name.
Csorwe enters the Shrine a month later, in accordance with custom. Quite out of accordance with custom, however, she is not alone there. Or rather, she and the Unspoken One are not the only presences in the Shrine. The pilgrim, a man named Belthandros Sethennai, has arrived ahead of her. She is appalled. He is amused. She struggles with the blasphemous idea of living beyond fourteen. He says she does not have to die.
“This was my honour,” she said. Tears of anger prickled in her eyes. “I was chosen for this.”
“Well,” said Sethennai. “Now you have been chosen for another occupation, unless you prefer to die in the dark rather than work for me. Do you imagine that you are the first Chosen Bride to doubt the fate assigned to her? Plenty of your predecessors ran away rather than face the Unspoken in its lair. Most of them froze to death in the woods, and their remains still lie where they fell.” …
“I can’t,” she said. “Where could I go? I would freeze to death, too.”
“It’s very difficult to run alone,” said Sethennai. “You would not be alone. You would be with me.” The laughter was gone from his face, his brows drawn together in concentration. … Deep in the mountain, the Unspoken One was beginning to notice him.
“The Prioress—” said Csorwe.
“She will never know you’re gone,” said Sethennai. “Make your choice, Csorwe. Stay here, or come with me. We are running out of time.”
“But the Unspoken One will know,” said Csorwe. She could feel the beginnings of its outrage already, building and crackling under the earth.
“Yes,” said Sethennai. “The secret of greatness is to know when you should risk the wrath of god.” (pp. 10–11)
Csorwe takes Sethennai’s offer; otherwise The Unspoken Name would be a very short or a very different book. What follows is an interdimensional romp, the sort of thing that Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock might write if they were updating their tales of swords and sorcery for the twenty-first century. What is the Reliquary of Pentravesse? Where is it? Who else is seeking it, and what might they do? Those are just a few of the questions that propel the story’s action.
Another set of questions concerns Sethennai. Why did he choose Csorwe? What does he want with the Reliquary? What, or who, is he willing to sacrifice to get it? How much more is he than he seems? (And he seems an exceptionally powerful magician.) Csorwe must face questions of her own. She has switched from serving one master to another, will she chart her own course? If she does, will it come too late, and what will it cost? Has she severed ties with the Unspoken One and the House of Silence? That one is not too difficult to answer, but its implications hang over Csorwe. What does she really want, and what is she willing to do to get it?
The Unspoken Name is set across a number of worlds, connected by sorcerous gates and accessed by flying ships that traverse the worlds, the gates, and the inter-world Maze that links them. Adventures with Csorwe and Sethennai give way to a larger cast of characters as readers find out that Csorwe is not his first close companion. She must find her place in a more complex situation, one that grows more fraught as she realizes that although Sethennai gave her a new life, she is the one who will have to live it. Her coming of age is part of the tale. Other parts are tense adventures in worlds old and new, facing enemies human and divine, with reversals from unexpected quarters.
If I had a complaint about The Unspoken Name, it’s that in the last third of the book, Larkwood is clearly setting up for future volumes in a series. The main conflict does get resolved, and not all characters make it through to the end, but some are definitely destined to come back in The Thousand Eyes, the forthcoming sequel. That lets some of the tension out of what is otherwise a skillfully crafted story of magic and prices paid.
A.K. Larkwood is a finalist for this year’s Astounding Award, a not-a-Hugo presented at the same ceremonies at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention in Washington, DC. This is the fifth bit of Hugo-related writing I have done this year. Many more are to come between now and November when balloting closes.