I never thought I would be excited to see things like Orcs, gnomic utterings, old school fantasy maps that aren’t photo realistic, and complex, well thought out languages in a fantasy text. And yet, here I am, beyond excited for these things. Maybe grim dark has outstayed it’s welcome, I don’t know. Maybe we need a new tool for bringing things forward in high fantasy, I’m not sure. But I do know that reading The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood felt electric in a way I hadn’t felt in a long while.
It felt like coming home again, to see all these tools being put to use once again, after not seeing them this way in so long. So much fantasy these days are either obsessed with gritty realism, or complex “magic” systems that are just super hero abilities with names filed off or a stand in for science fiction. It was all interesting and revolutionary decades ago when this all first happened, but it’s tired now. About as tired as high and epic fantasy was in the later 80’s and early 90’s.
It’s the way of genre, I guess. To constantly evolve, shift itself, evolve some more, go back and find old dusty books and pull the still interesting bits, while leaving the annoying bits behind. And this book does it phenomenally. For example, there is no chosen ones to save the world in these pages. No handsome human farm boy out to go on some grand adventure with his party of four humanoids, all representative of the world around him.
Instead, we start with an orc priestess, about to be sacrificed to her god. Blammo! This is both delicious pulp sword and sorcery combined with so many classic high fantasy touches that it feels refreshing. This is not the safe world of so many other classic fantasy novels, it sparks of danger. She is saved from this fate (or rather, kidnapped) by an old wizard who plans on using her for his own ends. Assassin! Yes, this is roughly Robin Hobb meets Le Guin, but that feels like it’s slighting what she’s doing here. By pulling from all the different eras of epic and high fantasy, she creates a heady stew (hah, see what I did there?) that pushes it forward in a new direction.
There are some new aspects that are part of the common framework when talking about genre these days that will feel familiar to most people, and bring high fantasy into the new era. The idea of found family is one of them, even though it turns this inside and out and shows how even found family can be destructive. And when these new frameworks are combined with old, that’s when the story really sings.
But let’s get back to some of the older bits of high fantasy I feel still works and needed to be brought back with some new shine to it. The gnomic utterings is one, that’s the excerpts at the start of the chapters from old books. I always liked para and meta texts like these, where we are to believe that these texts exist within the framework of the world itself. It allows the setting to exist beyond the frame of the page.
Another is a map that is crude and hand drawn and looks like how any old map would look. That is, more representative and less realistic. So many maps in fantasy books these days look like photorealistic arial views that they break the suspension of disbelief and leave us a bit jarred. This calls back to the maps of Tolkien and Le Guin and feel like they could be discovered in the back edges of an old library.
The prose itself is also really interesting. So much of fantasy these days follows the Tolkien-Brooks-Jordan-GRRM lineage, in that they use a closer third person that gets you into the moment and the scene. This book borrows from Le Guin and Dunsany, and follows the lineage of distant third person, which gives it a more epic and stately feel. Some people might take a bit to get used to this way of reading, since it’s not as common as it used to be. It tells a lot more than it shows, but can work in a piece that is as zoomed out and epic as this one needs to be.
If you’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude or 2312, you’ll know the style of writing I’m talking about. It was also used in the first few Earthsea books to great effect, and was the preferred method for reading and writing fantasy for Le Guin (cf From Elfland to Poughkepsie). I really hope there will end up be more epic fantasies written in this style. It’s a very epic style, and gives the piece a sense of grandeur, like reading Homer, Virgil, or Dunsany.
When combined with the map I mentioned before and all the other epic fantasy flourishes, it gives the work a palpable sense of historical realism. You feel like this could be a text of mythology from a by gone era for that very reason, each and every choice created to subsume disbelief and give you a singular experience.
Here’s hoping other fantasy writers follow suit and continue to mine older works of epic and high fantasy, mythologies, and folklore for new ways to invigorate their stories.