2020’s The Unspoken Name is the first novel in A. K. Larkwood’s new series, The Serpent Gates.
Csorwe is the latest in a long line of Chosen Brides of the Unspoken One. Until she turns fourteen, she will serve as a prophetess in the House of Silence. When she turns fourteen, she will ascend to the Shrine of the Unspoken One, perform a religious rite, and then disappear into the Shrine, never to be seen again.
What exactly happens to the Brides is unknown — each Bride enters the Shrine alone — but hauntings by revenants of previous Brides suggests that it’s nothing good. Csorwe will soon discover for herself the fate of Brides, because her fourteenth birthday is imminent.
Then a stranger arrives.
Belthandros Sethennai wants to know where to find the legendary Reliquary of Pentravesse. The Reliquary has been most cunningly hidden and the Unspoken One cannot help Belthandros beyond assuring him that the Reliquary still exists. The visitor leaves with a consolation prize: Csorwe, whom he tempts away from almost certain death.
Belthandros is a wizard with a keen eye for people who might be useful. To that end he pays for Csorwe’s education in matters martial. The Bride of the Unspoken One is reinvented as a warrior and as a loyal servant to the wizard.
Belthandros was once Chancellor of fabled Tlaanthothe. He was deposed by his former friend, Olthaaros Charossa. Olthaaros foolishly allowed Belthandros to live, calculating that the wizard’s powers would be much reduced when he was far from his old seat of power. While this may be true, exile did nothing to diminish the wizard’s cunning.
Csorwe’s first mission: infiltrate Tlaanthothe in the guise of a lowly servant and spy out the city’s defenses. Alas, Csorwe’s talents do not include any particular skill at subterfuge. The consequences are unpleasant but she emerges from them more loyal than ever to the wizard. Nothing, it seems, can sever her ties to Belthandros.
Enter Qanwa Shuthmili, doomed sorceress of a vast interdimensional empire, fated to serve the empire or die horribly. Nothing good awaits Qanwa. Csorwe is immediately smitten with her new friend.…
This story harks back to Weird-Tales-style fantasies, in which there are many, many worlds that the knowledgeable may access and many, many routes to arcane power. Most of these routes will have lamentable consequences for the would-be mage.
So why chase power? In part it is because power is now but consequences are later. As long as one develops the talent of not thinking too far down the road, it’s easy to be satisfied with the immediate results without being too concerned with the cost. It is a setting that would well suit the Clark Ashton Smith visionary  who proclaimed
“I am now at work on an apparatus by means of which, when it is perfected, I hope to manifest in their essential purity the radiations of malign force.”
There is also the fact that many people have no choice about embracing magic. Csorwe was selected to be a Bride as a young orphan. The woman with whom she is smitten has an inborn talent for magic in a society that sees mages as cursed . Both are strongly encouraged to accept their place in the scheme of things.
Although many elements of the book are familiar, the author uses them with skill. As well, there are some nice, unexpected touches, such as the gradual reveal that Csorwe and her people are almost certainly what in other settings would be deemed orcs.
Grey skin, grey freckles, and yolk-yellow eyes were obscured by an overgrown mop of black hair. It turned out that her nose was slightly hooked, which she liked. The points of her milk-tusks poked out at the corners of her mouth.
They are, of course, as civilized as any other people or at least no less civilized.
Having for various reasons been immersed in Swedish roleplaying games of varying degrees of gloomy horror, this tale of personal relationships playing out against a backdrop of entropic cosmic horror came at the right time (for me; dunno about you).
There will be a sequel! But not until 2022….
1: 1933’s “The Devotee of Evil.” It does not end well.
2: Not really due to blind prejudice. There’s a common belief that wizards are the means by which a particular malevolent god will claw its way back into reality. Nothing in the book would suggest that this belief is incorrect.