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Posted on 28 Mar 2023 in Fiction, SFF |

AK LARKWOOD The Unspoken Name and The Thousand Eyes: Books 1 and 2 of The Serpent Gates. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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AK Larkwood’s debut fantasy series combines a death cult, magical artefacts, and an accomplished assassin.

‘Only I am without end, for desolation is my watchword. Yet nothing is to be forgotten that belongs to me. All things that are lost come into my keeping.’

AK Larkwood’s impressive debut novel, The Unspoken Name, introduces Csorwe, a girl raised by a death cult to be a human sacrifice, who decides she wants a life of her own. On the very threshold of the shrine where she is supposed to offer up her life to the Unspoken One, an enigmatic pilgrim, Belthandros Sethennai, offers to help her escape her fate. She accepts, promising to repay him for this kindness.

Over the years, she becomes one of his favoured assassins. When she is sent on a special mission to recover a legendary magical artefact, her worst fears are realised – the death cult she was raised by is looking for it too. More is at stake than Csorwe can know and the only way to stop the cult is to find the artefact first.

On the way she meets Tal, a washed-up young nobleman, and Shuthmili, a mage from another world, who both get caught up in it all. Saving Shuthmili is supposed to be just a kind distraction from the real mission, but to Csorwe, it feels more important than that.

The very start of the book is written in short, simple sentences that reflect the sadness and beauty of Csorwe’s early life as the Chosen Bride of the Unspoken One:

The summer would come. There would be another Chosen Bride. The novices would get their adult tusks and make their vows as acolytes. The world would continue, but she would be gone.

The language gradually becomes more eloquent as Csorwe grows from a young girl taught to wait meekly for her final day of service, to a woman with her own distinct personality. Her initial hero-worship of Sethennai is heartbreaking, as the reader can’t help but wonder how many times she will be expected – and worse, want – to risk her life to repay him for a casual act of kindness.

The plot is a delicate and satisfying balancing act of unexpected drama and surprisingly well-executed plans, so that it’s never obvious quite how things will turn out. Not every little thing goes melodramatically wrong but not everything goes suspiciously right either.

These books are also really funny:

‘And I’m not that type of girl, of course, but if I’m going to catch anyone’s eye, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be one of the general’s officers,’ said Taymiri …

‘Right,’ said Csorwe. Stranger things had certainly happened.

‘Maybe we can even find one for you …’ said Taymiri, becoming magnanimous … ‘What kind would you prefer?’

Csorwe did not know what to say. She considered what Taymiri wanted in a man. ‘Rich?’

In the sequel, The Thousand Eyes, Csorwe, Shuthmili and Tal run their own business scouting out ruins to record new discoveries and recover artefacts. When a routine job goes south and they awaken an Echentyri warrior of old, Csorwe vows to help this woman. Shuthmili can only watch on as Csorwe binds herself to a new cause that could well destroy them both.

Meanwhile a magical calamity befalls Tal’s home city and Sethennai, its ruler, goes missing. Tal doesn’t want to get involved, but he can’t just live quietly for long. Across the many worlds, linked by the magical and mysterious Echo Maze, the shattered pieces of an old goddess are stirring from their age-old slumber. They will stop at nothing to be made whole again, no matter what destruction is left in their wake. What can mere mortals do against that?

More than in the first book, here Csorwe shares the limelight, primarily with Shuthmili and Tal. It’s enjoyable getting to know these two characters better and watching them develop. One of Tal’s chapters contains my favourite summary of a fight ever – after all, there doesn’t need to be a long blow-by-blow commentary every single time. There’s something playful about Larkwood’s writing style, alongside the serious aspects, that really sets it apart:

Tal did his best, but he was outnumbered, and tired, and he didn’t have any shoes.

As in the first book, exactly how things turn out is mostly a surprise. Something that is further perfected in the sequel is the delicate dance of characters trying to manipulate someone who in turn is trying to manipulate them.

Both books also feature a range of engaging, three-dimensional characters with different backgrounds and orientations, including, in The Thousand Eyes, a character who is non-binary and asexual. It was also refreshing that none of the alien races were just carbon copies of existing cultures with different names.

In short, there’s a lot to appreciate in the Serpent Gates series. These books really examine how far someone could go in the name of both love and duty. It’s a beautiful story and it’s almost tempting to wish for more than two books. However, it’s perfect the way it is.

AK Larkwood The Unspoken Name: Book 1 of The Serpent Gates Pan Macmillan 2021 PB 576pp $22.99

AK Larkwood The Thousand Eyes: Book 2 of The Serpent Gates Pan Macmillan 2022 PB 496pp $32.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy The Unspoken from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can buy The Thousand Eyes from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if these books are available from Newtown Library.

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