Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Genre: Dragon fantasy, YA, coming-of-age

Age Range: 14+

Synopsis: Tess Dombegh is tired of being the family “spank magnet.” Though she’s set on getting her angelic twin sister, Jeanne, married off to a suitable nobleman, Tess can’t help messing up again…and punching the groom’s brother after getting accidentally-on-purpose drunk means that she might wind up trapped in a nunnery as her final punishment. So, when Tess meets up with an old friend, the quigutl-dragon Pathka, she runs away from the life she’s known. But Tess is running away from more than her family’s disapproval. She’s running away from secrets and memories she can’t stand to think about.  Meanwhile, Pathka has a mission of his own, one that Tess hopes will give her a new sense of purpose. As she falls in with bandits, geologists, monks, and poets, Tess learns that Pathka’s search might have dire consequences…and might provide the challenge she needs to heal herself.

With an engaging heroine, witty, earthy, funny language, and original worldbuilding, this companion novel to Seraphina (2012) and Shadow Scale (2015) can be read independently…but should definitely be read. NOW!

Analysis:

A Quick Thought Re: Dragons and Girls (versus Unicorns and Girls)

Reading Tess of the Road makes me wonder about dragons versus unicorns as companion species for female heroines.

Whereas unicorns are limited by their association with “goodness,” a term that unimaginatively gets real banal real fast, dragons are “bad.” Dragons are famously grouchy, aggressive, violent…and intelligent. So, pairing girls with dragons is an easy way to telegraph a rejection of traditional femininity. Hartman is, of course, AMAZING, so she goes several leagues beyond “girl likes dragon, therefore girl not boring/naïve/constrained.” Because…

Here be – OMG ORIGINAL – dragons.

In Tess of the Road’s fantasy world, most dragons take human form and function as doctors, academicians, and inventors. If their emotional register tends towards the logical, they can still function within human society. But not all. Tess’s friend Pathka is a quigutl, a type of dragon that resembles a cross between a chameleon and an iguana. The quigutls are unique (and disliked by other dragons) in looking and behaving un-human.

In much dragon literature, hyperintelligent dragons not only master, but speak human language (Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, Tolkien’s Smaug). In Hartman’s universe, the quigutls don’t have the biological capacity to mimic human noises. They rely on mechanical contraptions to translate for them…or, more rarely, for people like Tess Dombegh to take the initiative and learn to understand their language.

Hartman masterfully presents us with a language that is grammatically – and philosophically – different than English (or Goreddi, etc).

Their language includes a grammatical case that encapsulates something and it’s opposite at the same time. So, a word can refer to being/unbeing at the same time. This refusal of opposites, or rather, the ability for something to be both/and instead of either/or is essential to Pathka’s take on life…and is essential to helping Tess recover from the repressive rhetorics of womanhood that her mother has forced upon her.

In shades of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the quigutl switch their biological sex several times throughout their life-cycle. Tess first encounters Pathka when the dragon is trying to lay her eggs; when they meet again, Pathka is male. The normalization of this switching forces you to think through human constructions of gender versus biological sex, especially when Tess dons male clothes. The quigutl’s gender-neutral pronoun, “ko,” provides a way to move beyond human binaries and Tess’s eagerness to engage with quigutl language and culture is paralleled by Tess’s need to as a way of first protecting herself and second reconsidering the biological and social violence enacted on her female body and third, coming to a point where she feels like can make her own identity independent of the constricting gender roles of Goreddi society.

Hartman is masterful in handling Tess’s spiritual and emotional recovery from an abusive relationship. Tess is allowed to tell her story without victimizing herself and she’s allowed to have new friendships and new sexual partners without these other people “saving” her.

Pathka’s sex-switches and non-human culture don’t make him “better” to humans and human culture. Rather, they provide space for Tess to think through individual choices and their consequences. For example, Pathka has a complicated relationship with his daughter, Kikuyu. Tess’s childhood adoration of Pathka makes room for a more nuanced view of how Pathka has failed as a parent…allowing Tess to reassess her own mother and…well, I’m not going to say more here.

Spoiler alert/mom-feelz warning: This book made me ugly-cry in its depiction of pregnancy, infant-loss, and eldercare (yes, they are connected.) Hartman uses earthy, grounded language that emphasizes certain embodied aspects of female experience that reminded me of Margo Lanagan’s prose. (But with a redemptive, eventual sense of humour.) This book is heartbreaking AND FUNNY. If you like having your heart ripped out and stomped on with no laughs, check out Lanagan’s stuff.

https://www.amazon.com/Marrow-Thieves-Cherie-Dimaline/dp/1770864865/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+marrow+thieves&qid=1579456935&sr=8-1

Genre: Dystopian fantasy, YA Indigenous lit

Age Range: 14+

Synopsis: Teenage French is on the run. If he ends up in School, he’ll lose his dreams…and his life. When global warming nearly destroys all of mankind, most survivors are faced with an insidious plague: the inability to dream. In North America, only Indigenous people like French (who is Métis) retain this mysterious power of dreaming, which scientists believe can be extracted from their bone marrow. Evil Recruiters prowl abandoned cities and track through forests, hunting down people of Indigenous heritage and take them to factory-like Schools, from where no one returns alive. When French teams up with a small party of survivors – middle-aged hunter Miig, elder Minerva, and a rag-tag group of kids – he must learn when and who to trust. Dreams unlock the past and might just provide the key to the future…if French and his friends can manage to survive.

Analysis:

There is nothing about unicorns here (though there is a werewolf-type being). BUT, if you’re looking for a gripping YA fantasy that’s thought provoking and also well written, The Marrow Thieves is for you!

The language is amazing. Here’s a sample from the first page, as French’s brother opens a bag of Doritos and the “cheese-scented fireworks, that loud release of air and processed dust cheered us up.” Most of us aren’t eating Doritos during the apocalypse, but who hasn’t felt their brain light up at the smell and sound of powdery fake-flavoured deliciousness?

While there’s very little delicious food for French and the other characters to eat in the climate-devastated Canada of the novel, powerful language propels the narrative forward, literally and thematically. I could talk about the awesome way Dimaline describes French’s desire for his friend Rosie or French’s heartbreaking longing for his lost family and his grief when tragedy strikes the group, or the embedded story of the Rogarou (who’s like a kind of sexy werewolf???), but I’m going to talk about language as the thing that saves your life!

French thinks Minerva is a near-mute old crazy-lady whom the group carts around out of a sense of cultural respect for elders. But his almost-girlfriend, Rose, reveals that amongst the other girls and women of the group, Minerva opens up as a storyteller, a teacher of Cree and of culture.  Rather than being a dead-weight, Minerva and her selective choice of when and how to share her voice becomes the key to the group’s survival. She offers them an alternative story to the dehumanizing rhetoric used to isolate and destroy Indigenous bodies and culture.

Here, it’s important to note that this is dystopian fantasy…the science of how dreams and bone marrow are connected isn’t actually important. It’s rather the metaphor, that a mainstream society believes that people must be cracked open and their inner core stolen, that a marginalized culture must be eradicated for the mainstream to survive. The antiseptic language of “Recruiters” and “Schools” hides hideous violence and connects to Canada’s history of cultural genocide.

The secret of resistance is not simply dreams, but language. This is important, because language is something that might be inherited, but that must be actively learned, not passively inherited in the blood – or bone marrow. Language is a way to draw circles of community, to invite people in, to confirm knowledge…and to exclude outsiders. Ultimately, it’s not what you look like, but how you express yourself that counts. Language decenters the racist history of blood-quotas-as-identity from the “essence” or marrow of identity…but language brings up new complications when we’re talking about cultural transmission.

(Random thoughts on language acquisition here: Continue reading

Today’s post has nothing to do with unicorns, but I figure that people who like unicorns will enjoy this book.

Genre: Dragon fantasy, alternate history, Napoleonic, friendship story

Age Range: 12+

Synopsis: For fans of dragons, Jane Austen, the sea-faring novels of Patrick O’Brien, buddy-comedies and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, this book will hit all of your sweet spots.

When Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship, he’s not pleased to find a hatching dragon egg in its cargo. Though incredibly valuable to the war effort against Napoleon, the dragon hatchling’s attachment to Laurence means the end of his Naval career. But as Laurence and the dragon, Temeraire, join the mysterious Aerial Corps, he must relearn everything he thought he knew about dragons and warfare. Can Laurence’s Naval training and Temeraire’s ferocious intelligence stop Napoleon from invading Britain?

Analysis:

This book is excellent, exciting, and deeply imagined, but its most interesting qualities have not much to do with world-building or Napoleonic alternate histories.  While cleaving closely to the conventions of Napoleonic adventure and sailing stories, Novik manages to capture the complexity of friendship and reimagine traditional masculinity. WITH DRAGONS!

Novik provides some rip-roaring battlescenes and a climactic set-piece of dragon-duelling over the English channel. I gasped with suspense.  I teared up at scenes of the war casualties. The alternate history of a world where dragons have been part of warfare since the Egyptians and Romans is indicated with a light touch, never weighing readers down with info-dumps when they want to be soaring through the clouds.

At the same time, for most of the novel, my overwhelming impression was that of comfort. Instead of rugged individualism, the hero of this novel gets emotional intimacy. And a dragon.

In sea stories, naval captains are figures of great power – and isolation. Captain Ahab is nobody’s friend…if you want to cuddle with Queequeg, get thee to the forecastle. Long John Silver (not technically a captain) is dangerous because he seems to offer friendship while he is securing his own dominance among the mutineers and pirates. Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic Aubrey-Maturin series (and Master and Commander, the Russell Crowe film based off of them) works so well because it examines the tension between Captain Jack Aubrey’s absolute authority and his friendship with the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin.

Similarly, in His Majesty’s Dragon, Captain Laurence has to move from being the figure of sole decision-making power on board a ship to working with a young dragon who is stronger and more intelligent than he is. Not only that, but Laurence and Temeraire work in partnership with several other dragon-captain pairs.  

Laurence is a complete gentleman at all times. He is sensitive, thoughtful, polite, like a Jane Austen hero. He’s Darcy with a job…and without either pride or prejudice. He’s Captain Wentworth of Persuasion, but with a dragon and no relationship angst.

When he makes mistakes, he finds ways to quietly correct the situation. When becoming a dragon’s captain destroys his chance of marrying the girl-next-door, he manages her disappointment with delicacy. When he accidentally befriends the Draco Malfoy of the Aerial Officer Corps, he extricates himself from the relationship, while continuing to care for the repugnant man’s neglected dragon. When he’s horrified to discover female officers among the Aerial Corps, he learns to swallow his preconceived notions of gender and to appreciate Captain Harcourt and Captain Roland as both colleagues and friends. Without sacrificing traditional “masculine” traits of honour, emotional reserve, authority, and physical vigour, Laurence demonstrates how these can be combined with respect for difference, openness to growth, kindness, selflessness, and generosity.

Laurence’s goodness made me think of Harry Potter … but instead of pigheaded Ron and overeager Hermione, he has Temeraire who is even smarter and even more generous. (And re: Harry Potter…I mean, he and Temeraire do go to a training-camp set in a Scottish castle and have to figure out the social dynamics.)

This is a book that respects and explores the deep and complex love of friendship. Although Temeraire’s hatching effectively destroys Laurence’s decade-long career, Laurence discovers joy in Temeraire’s company. Laurence learns not to regret leaving his old Naval life, because he has the chance to reevaluate everything he thought he knew…from his assumptions of the superiority of the human species, his ideas about gender, about team-work…the list goes on. But most of all, he is surprised by the strength of his love for Temeraire. The two refer to each other as “my dear” and choose to sleep side by side.

The bond between dragon and captain is not unique to Laurence and Temeraire. His colleague, Catherine Harcourt, neglects her own health to guide the recovery of her dragon, Lily.  Laurence watches a captain kill his own fatally-wounded dragon in battle and notes that the man “sacrificed the opportunity” to save himself, choosing instead to die together (321). By contrast, Captain Rankin’s disregard for his Levitas makes him a figure of derision within the Aerial Corps.

Interestingly, the intensity and equality of these interspecies bonds must be kept hidden from the dragon-fearing public. The Aerial Corps keep away from “good” society and are looked down upon for allowing social mobility between the lower and middle classes. Likewise, female captains of Longwings, who work, socialize, and sleep with their male colleagues in total equality, hide their freedom when in mixed society. One would think that with dragons by their side, they would have more social power. On the other hand, their choice not to use force to sway public opinion puts faith in a parliamentary system and social evolution rather than military tyranny.

My one big underlying question is – and perhaps subsequent books in the series answer this – why dragons don’t pose more of a political threat to human political and social systems.

Temeraire’s intelligence is unique – he is bilingual right out of the shell and enjoys listening to mathematical treatises read aloud in Latin – and Novik demonstrates how many dragons have been bred for speed or agility rather than intelligence. But in Temeraire’s formation, others like Lily the Longwing and Maximus the Royal Copper, aren’t dummies either. But perhaps they lack political consciousness. Laurence is surprise and concerned by Temeraire’s interest in how loyalty and honour work…but Temeraire’s personal loyalty to his captain and his friends redirects his attention from politics. For the moment.

PS. The author, Naomi Novik, is pretty darn cool, so if you are interested in reading more about her and her dragon books (or her fairy tale adaptations Uprooted and Spinning Silver), check out her website here.

Did you know that there is a “Unicorn crestfish”? Eumecichthys fiski is a real, though rare species lurking off the coast of South Africa and Australia, 1000 metres deep.

Check out this beauty:

Head of a Unicorn Crestfish, Eumecichthys fiski. Source: Eric Woroch, US NMFS-PIRO Observer Program / Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain

Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that they are “herbivorous algae eaters.” while Fishes of Australia describes their exciting superpower: “As a defence against predators, the Unicorn Crestfish can expel black fluid from around the anus.” Much better than farting rainbows.

For more on this species, check out:

Bray, D.J. 2017, Eumecichthys fiski in Fishes of Australia, accessed 23 Jul 2019, http://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/4329

Davesne, Donald. “A fossil unicorn crestfish (Teleostei, Lampridiformes, Lophotidae) from the Eocene of Iran.” PeerJ 5:e3381; DOI 10.7717/peerj.3381

Froese, R. & D. Pauly (Editors). (2019). FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. version (02/2019)., available online athttp://www.fishbase.org

“Unicorn fish.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. 18 May 2011. Accessed 23 Jul 2019, https://www.britannica.com/animal/unicorn-fish-Naso-genus.

The Jesus-unicorn is a cornerstone of classic medieval and renaissance unicorn iconography. Today we’re going to get to some delightful, slightly wacky versions.

“Jesus-unicorn?” you may say with bewilderment. “How does Jesus fit into the unicorn story of virgins tempting wild beasts into their laps, only to be slaughtered by hunters?”

It’s pretty simple if you think about it like a medieval person, where the natural world is structured to reinforce theological concepts.

Essentially: the unicorn, representing purity, healing, the supernatural, can only be called into contact with the profane world of humanity through the spiritual integrity of a virgin is the same as Jesus (healer of mankind and son of God) being born of the faultless virgin Mary. While the unicorn’s virgin and Mary are both guiltless themselves, they live in a morally compromised world, one that is hostile to the unicorn/Jesus. Whereas the virgin is aligned with the Jesus-unicorn’s healing, male hunters are violent and deadly.

In the image below from the Ormesby Psalter, for example, we can see the virgin raising her hand in distress.


Ormesby Psalter: ms. Douce 366, fol. 55v: det.: border: Unicorn and hunter. c.1310-25. Bodleian Library.

Things never go well for the unicorn. In the famous fifteenth-century Unicorn Tapestries, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the unicorn is brutally killed and taken to the castle. He even has his horn – the source of magical healing – cut off. Allegorically, the hunters, like the persecutors of Jesus, prioritize the wrong thing. They kill the healer and consider themselves triumphant, bearing his body to the site of secular power.

“The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle” from The Unicorn Tapestries. South Netherlandish. 1495-1505. Tapestry. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/467641?searchField=All&ft=unicorn&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=5

In the last and most famous tapestry of the series, the unicorn is magically alive again (parallel to the resurrection of Jesus). Though he still bears the wounds of his attack, the unicorn resides peacefully in a garden that resembles paradise. Essentially, the message is that you can’t really kill the unicorn or Jesus; both are more powerful than mankind’s ability to hurt.

“The Unicorn in Captivity,” from The Unicorn Tapestries.
South Netherlandish. 1495-1505. Tapestry. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/467642

So far, this is “Unicorn 101” stuff. Which is why we’re going to look at some quirky alternatives to the elegance of the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries.

The next three images are a more obvious use of allegory in presenting the Jesus-unicorn…and are therefore more confusing. Perhaps this has to do with the way the weavers approach time. In the Ormesby Psalter illustration the entire story of Jesus is compressed into one moment of time: his arrival on earth (being in Mary’s lap) and his death (the attack by soldiers) happens at the same time. In the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the story is segmented and linear.

In the images below, we have – like in the Ormesby Psalter – a compression of time, with the Jesus-unicorn caught between a soldier and a virgin. But the composition is a little kooky. Can you see why?


Unknown. Archangel Gabriel chases unicorn towards Virgin Mary, Hunt of unicorn, Allegory of Incarnation. Getty Images. Web. 15 Aug 2018.

Instead of having the virgin as an inherent attraction or reason to approach mankind, with actual men as the aggressors, here we have the Archangel Gabriel as the hunter. What? Yes…Gabriel is dressed up in hunting gear, with dogs, a trumpet, and (in two of the images) a spear. And he’s chasing the unicorn. As a result, the unicorn is running, full throttle, with his horn down, at Mary.

In the first image, we can only imagine the family dynamics in Heaven which have led to this situation. “You…will…join…humankind!!!” we hear Gabriel shrieking between toots of his trumpet. “Your dad…told…you…so!!!” The Jesus-unicorn is so unwilling it takes some scary dogs to convince him to finish his chores.  

Mary’s expression is the real delight. Here, Mary has her hand raised in a futile attempt to ward off her oncoming animal friend. Her hair is flying back at the force of the impact. Her eyes are wide open and her mouth is round in hopeless anxiety. Gabriel is supposed to be announcing soothing Mary’s fears by saying something along the lines of “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God…Surprise, thou art pregnant” (that’s a loose paraphrase of Luke 1:30-31). But whatever Gabriel’s saying, Mary doesn’t seem the least soothed.

In this next tapestry, both Gabriel and Mary are much calmer.


Altar Frontal: Capture of the Unicorn. German. 16th century tapestry. Artstor.
Web. 15 Aug 2018.

Possibly this is because Gabriel’s long robes aren’t quite right for hunting so he’s not that much in a hurry. Mary has obviously had enough time to plan her reaction, because she seems to be deploying some judo or tae-kwon-do. With one hand on the unicorn’s horn and the other on his foreleg, she’s going to bring him up short and maybe flip him into a docile pose. Perhaps her move will even turn him into a baby. Anyways, this Mary is a pro. Her look of resignation is that of a practiced unicorn-flipper.

Lastly, we have a true return to form in the woodcut below.


Anonymous Artists. The Virgin with the Unicorn. 15th century woodcut. Nuremberg. Artstor. Web. 15 Aug 2018.

Again, Gabriel, the dogs, and the unicorn are going at full throttle. The unicorn has his horn aimed right at Mary’s womb, as if he’s planning to transfigure himself into a fetus in a moment or two. As if to remind us what’s happening, full-grown man-Jesus is looking down at the proceedings from above and giving it his blessing. Mary has her arms up in what is now the international sign for choking but was then a sign of prayerful acceptance. At least she’s ready for it?

After all of these high-energy, anxiety-provoking representations of the Jesus-unicorn, let’s end with a more calming portrait Madonna and Child:

“Virgin and Unicorn” from Defensorium Inviolatae Virginitatis Beatae Mariae/Defense of the Inviolability of the Blessed Virgin Mary. German Woodcut. 1490.

This unicorn’s horn is pointed down, and out of any danger. His hoofs are in her lap, her arm is around his neck. He and the virgin gaze at each other in a moment of calm. The hunter hasn’t found them yet.

Hurrah! My book, The Changeling of Fenlen Forest, has its US birthday today!

You can find it here on Amazon.com

What’s it about?

Elizabeth thinks she knows the gloomy Fenlen Forest. But when her treasured unicorn fawn, Sida, goes missing, Elizabeth tracks her into a strange land where the people think Elizabeth is a changeling, a malignant being who too closely resembles a missing girl.

If Elizabeth can find her fawn and uncover the fate of her lost double, can she stop the fear from turning into hate? To solve the deepening mystery, Elizabeth befriends a handsome, skeptical young shepherd whose stories hint at a dark secret lurking at the forest’s edge, and follows a herd of wild unicorns with the ability to unlock the past.

Open the pages and find “an entertaining and mysterious read, one that will engage audiences and encourage a second reading to discover more secrets of the forest” -CM Magazine

“Elegantly conceived and richly crafted, Magyarody has given us an enchanting tale of old world magic with relevant themes. A fun, mysterious ride for anyone who has dreamed of wandering into a dark forest, and perhaps never returning…” – Tyler Enfield, author of Hannah and the Magic Eye and the Wrush fantasy series.

“Textured and evocative Katherine Magyarody’s The Changeling of Fenlen Forest takes readers down a delicately unfolding journey of love, loss, and self-identity. Unicorns, superstitions, and a shrouded forest that hides its secrets darken the mystery of Elizabeth’s resemblance to a missing girl. Her journey will linger with readers long after the last page has been read.” — Natasha Deen, author of In the Key of Nira Ghani

It’s been half a year since I started sharing my love of strange and startling unicorns! Now that there’s a good number of posts, I’ve added two pages, Unicorns by Theme and Unicorn Book Reviews. These will help you peruse according to your taste!

I’m currently working on a post about the use of unicorns in modern philosophy…but it’s taking a bit longer than usual because I have to read philosophy. 😉