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The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

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A.K. Larkwood © 27 February 2020.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Speculative Fiction ).

Like so many things, it began with my tonsils.

In the summer of 2015, I got the kind of tonsillitis where swallowing water feels like chugging a beaker of ground glass. I did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances: I went to my parents’ house to lie around in the spare room, eat ice cream and complain a lot.

Awake after midnight, distracted with thirst and unable to focus on a screen for very long (TV didn’t appeal much anyway – I had no time for these healthy people’s problems, when I was clearly going to be ill forever), it came to me that the spare room contained a bookshelf. I’d love to say that I drew back a dusty curtain and found all the Chalet School books of my childhood awaiting reactivation. Sadly, Mum and Dad had moved house several times since I left home and I have four younger siblings, so mostly there was a mad jumble of old textbooks, but what I did find was Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.

This was my favourite book of my childhood, perhaps my favourite book forever. If you haven’t read it, please stop immediately and locate it. Even if you’re not a fantasy reader – maybe especially if you’re not a fantasy reader. If you think all fantasy books are 600 pages long and full of lusty wenches, please try this one (and maybe some others! There are loads and you can usually tell pretty early on if a lusty wench is going to show up!) Like all of Le Guin’s work it is as cool, crisp and clear as a glass of cold water.

The Tombs of Atuan tells the story of a young woman who has grown up in the cult of certain dark deities, committed to the fate set down for her before her birth. She leads a curtailed existence, both revered and restricted by those around her. And one day (of course) a stranger turns up and she begins to realise there may be another path…

The plot turns on a single choice: will she stay or will she go? What will it cost her to make either choice? All the drama and intrigue of the plot plays out within the temple compound, and largely inside the protagonist’s head. But within this small span, Le Guin creates a sense of immense space and time, humanity and spiritual awe. It is an extraordinary book. What can you possibly do, confronted by a work of sublime beauty, grace and subtlety?

I know what I did. I thought: I bet I can do something like this.

Let me backtrack: I had spent the previous four years writing and rewriting a book about werewolves. The werewolf book had been my support and delight through some dark times and I was deeply attached to it. It was also an unpublishable disaster. For no reason, the plot hinged on a ten thousand word monologue where the main character’s father returned from the dead to explain why he had done so many crimes. Whenever I couldn’t decide what should happen next, somebody would turn into a werewolf. Clearly, I needed to give this book a rest and work on something new, but my creative faculties seemed to have dried up and shrivelled away. And then suddenly – here was the idea.

In The Tombs of Atuan, the stranger who arrives at the temple is a thoughtful person, whose help is offered selflessly and unconditionally. I thought – oh, but what might have happened if he was terrible?

I’m interested in gratitude and loyalty, and the way they can become chains. If somebody saves your life, what do you owe them? And what might they owe to you? It’s hard enough to reconsider the trajectory of your life once, with someone helping you through it – I wanted to make my protagonist struggle through the transformation again, on her own. That was the idea which eventually became my novel. The Unspoken Name begins with my protagonist’s decision to run from her own foretold fate, and explores what might follow.

It felt like a staggering arrogance to look at the work of an undisputed master of the genre and think “what can I use?”. I’d admired Le Guin’s work since before I registered that books were written by real people and didn’t just materialise spontaneously on the shelf.

Still, one of the things I’ve always loved about the fantasy genre is the great willingness to think “what if things were otherwise?”. Considering whether a writer should “write what she knows”, Le Guin herself wrote (in On Rules of Writing):  “I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.”

If you award yourself a licence to write about dragons and aliens, you also give yourself permission to challenge, reconstruct, and transmute. The stories that you love and admire are not engraved in stone to be admired at a distance. At any moment, things can go in a different direction.

(c) A.K. Larkwood

About The Unspoken Name:

Does she owe her life to those planning her death . . .

Csorwe was raised by a death cult steeped in old magic. And on her fourteenth birthday, she’ll be sacrificed to their god. But as she waits for the end, she’s offered a chance to escape her fate. A sorcerer wants her as his assistant, sword-hand and assassin. As this involves her not dying that day, she accepts.

Csorwe spends years living on a knife-edge, helping her master hunt an artefact which could change many worlds. Then comes the day she’s been dreading. They encounter Csorwe’s old cult – seeking the same magical object – and Csorwe is forced to reckon with her past. She also meets Shuthmili, the war-mage who’ll change her future.

If she’s to survive, Csorwe must evade her enemies, claim the artefact and stop the death cult once and for all. As she plunges from one danger to the next, the hunt is on . . .

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood is the incredible first book in The Unspoken Name duology.

Order your copy online here.


A K Larkwood studied English at St John's College, Cambridge. She has worked in higher education & media relations, and is now studying law. She lives in Oxford, England, with her wife and a cat. The Unspoken Name (Tor 2020) is her debut novel.