This article is sponsored by Tor Books.
Fantasy maps, which have been a staple of fiction for decades, can tell the reader a lot about the book’s world, story, and even characters. Perhaps the most famous comes from The Hobbit, with its Dwarvish rune ciphers explained by the language-loving author in a brief translation guide on the next few pages. Or The Lord of the Rings, a version of which Peter Jackson used to create the fairytale atmosphere of his early 2000s adaptation of the journey from the Shire to Mordor. These maps give a reader their first taste of what the tone of the story might be like. What do the names sound like? What variety of languages and naming conventions exist in a fantastical world?
Some fantasy maps are present mostly for the reader’s convenience. They help the prospective reader navigate a journey that may switch back and forth through places with complicated names. Other fantasy books customize their maps to their characters. With typical J.R.R. Tolkein thoroughness, the map in The Hobbit includes careful calligraphy, delicately-drawn mountains, and the dwarven script clearly written over the rest afterward, with runes overlapping the inked mountains. (Depending on which edition you’re looking at, the effect is enhanced or reduced.) This is Thorin’s map, modified after the dwarves’ mountain was invaded by the dragon. In The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, the world map is studded with sociopolitical notes in the titular character’s voice (“stupid feudal marriage politics”).
A.K. Larkwood’s genre-bending fantasy The Unspoken Name, a new fantasy about an orc priestess turned wizard’s assassin, does something a bit different with its map, signalling the ways in which it is doing something a bit different with the fantasy genre altogether…
The first big difference to notice in Csorwe’s map in The Unspoken Name is that it is unmistakably Csorwe’s. (In the real world, the map was created by Tim Paul.) So who is Csorwe, and what exactly is her story? Csorwe started her life as an orphaned orc picked up by the priestesses of the Unspoken One, an eldritch god fond of child sacrifices and the undead. She’s offered an escape from its thrall by Belthandros Sethennai, the known worlds’ foremost wizard.
Fast forward several years and Csorwe is Sethennai’s right-hand sword, charged with finding a magical object that can bring unprecedented power. The novel is the sort of chase-after-a-magical-object structure that is very common in fantasy, but in and around that chase is a study in characters who are all in one way or another in service to Sethennai or the supernatural. Csorwe begins to suspect that there’s more to life than helping Sethennai, and her choices about who to ally herself with drive the story.
Csorwe herself is straightforward and tough. She knows how to take and give damage, and isn’t interested in finery or study. This isn’t the kind of fantasy where these are innate orcish traits. In the world of The Unspoken Name, people can be humans, elves, or orcs (or, rarely, giant snakes), and they’re all varied people. Another main orc character is a wizard librarian. No, these are Csorwe traits, and they’re evident on the book’s map.
The first parts to notice about the map are the thick lines, of both rivers and words. Many (but not all) place names are written in blocky capitals. Like Csowrwe, they’re loud and big and straightforward. The handwriting varies. The drawings are also varied and sometimes simple. They’re perfectly readable, but lines are askew, sketched in, ending before or after they are supposed to. This isn’t a map made by a scribe to be a beautiful advertisement to travelers coming to see a fair city. It’s a functional record of places visited and places suspected to be worth visiting for work.
Then there are the thumbtacks-and-string lines, most of them connecting round portals. These caught my eye immediately because they set the map apart in an important way: it isn’t contiguous. Most locations are by themselves on a scrap of paper connected by thumbtacks, and each area has a portal. This immediately makes the reader wonder about the world-building. What are these portals? How easy or difficult is it to get through them?
This is where the genre-bending comes in. In The Unspoken Name, there are roughly two kinds of magic: Wizards receive their magic from patron entities such as the Unspoken One. Magic can also be siphoned off into technological wonders, such as the portals and the ships that fly through them. The portals are used in various ways throughout the story, both as everyday conveyance and as magical weapons. Because of them, the physical distances between places don’t really matter. What matters is whether someone has made a portal between two cities.
Between the portals is the Maze, the space-between-spaces where worlds decay or collide. The book’s geography isn’t complicated; the story moves pretty linearly from one world to another. I was left sometimes wondering why these were different planar worlds at all rather than just different parts of one planet, but that turns out to be a world-building question the novel does eventually answer, thematically if not geographically. The way Csorwe gradually comes to understand more about the portals helps carry the reader along. And it is weird, with cities decaying into what look like weird works of art.
These separate places could have been conveyed on the map(s) as different pieces of paper and it would have been clever enough. The thumbtacks add a little more to really finish the effect. They’re really more nails than thumbtacks, stabbed into each paper with portal paths indicated by string like the PEPE SILVA conspiracy board. It gives the map a sense of life, with tacked-together urgency and piratical charm, as if it has all along been hanging on the wooden wall of a ship.
The tattered worlds of The Unspoken Name don’t need to be united, per se. They’re functioning well enough with the portal system. It’s the characters’ emotional connections to the world-building that makes the answers to the questions this map poses so interesting. By inviting questions the novel answers, The Unspoken Name’s map is a remarkable portal into the book.
The Unspoken Name is now available to purchase. Check out the full synopsis below…
A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name is a stunning debut fantasy about an orc priestess turned wizard’s assassin.
What if you knew how and when you will die?
Csorwe does—she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.
But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.
But Csorwe will soon learn—gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.