Note: This contains spoilers for Unsounded: Chapter 9, “Wherein Family Ties Chafe the Throat.”
In a way, the recurring theme of Ashley Cope’s Unsounded is breaking ties.
The most obvious example of this is the zombie Duane, who was ripped from his old human life when he and his daughter were murdered by an invading force. Now doomed to live his existence as one of the walking dead, he is bound to his young companion Sette because of his compassion for children. He is thrust from his noble position and his loving family, and becomes a shambling servant of a criminal family.
He’s not the only one. The amoral magician Quigley breaks his contract with the slaver Red Berry Boys when they insult his son. Heroic knight Toma must break his association with local law enforcement when he learns they’re in the pocket of the mob. They choose to defy powerful organizations out of a sense of pride and duty, respectively.
The biggest emotional gut-punch, however, may be the journey of Sette Frummagem, the daughter of a powerful crime lord. The first things we hear from her are how she’s going to do her father proud and how she’s going to one day be the head of the organization; family is first and foremost. The story begins with her setting off on a journey to collect money from a delinquent relative, Stockyard Frummagem, with Duane acting as her bodyguard.
The most recent chapter has Sette finally coming face to face with her cousin. In a comical scene, she asks Duane to make her look “tall and glorious” — and Duane uses some Green Lantern powers to put a box under her feet. She makes her demands known: Stockyard has been delinquent for three years, and the Frummagem family is due it payment. Stockyard makes his excuses: Money in his town is magically tracked (like some sort of ethereally powered bitcoin), and is nontransferable. However, Stockyard drops the bomb when he meets Sette in private: The whole thing has been a ruse, and her father was in on it.
Unbeknown to Sette, Stockyard has been in communication with Sette’s father; they’ve had a letter correspondence, which surprises Sette, as she assumed her dad was illiterate. Sette wasn’t here to collect. The real reason she traveled across the lands was because of Duane’s instinct to protect children. Unknowingly, Sette had delivered a zombie to her cousin — one who would be locked in a spiked harness to be trained to do his bidding.
Is Stockyard lying? It’s possible. Stockyard may be making the whole thing up to weasel out of his payment, and maybe Sette’s father was completely on the level. It certainly got me scrambling to see if there was any evidence that Sette’s father could indeed read.
However, everything in the story seems to be leading up to this moment. Nothing about Sette indicates she will be a mob boss; she’s too brash, too immature, too mouthy … and too compassionate. And it seems the Frummagems have a powerful reach. When Unsounded began, I assumed Sette’s family was a small-time organization, as it was sending the heir-apparent on a trivial collection mission. It turns out the Frummagems are quite powerful, with their fingers in politics and law enforcement. The betrayal feels real because it makes too much sense.
At least Sette seems to think so when she bolts from Stockyard’s room, perhaps breaking ties with her family … the only thing she’s ever cherished. Credit to Cope: The previous few chapters have done a fantastic job deepening the ties between Sette and Duane. Maybe when Unsounded started, it would’ve been hard to see Sette ever taking sides against the family. Now I can’t imagine her doing anything but.