I am NOT a Qilin/Kirin expert, so until I accumulate the knowledge, I’ll feature some pictures attesting to how old and how ubiquitous the quilin/kirin is.
Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1993) lists several anecdotes about the qilin, or “Chinese unicorn” heralding the birth of Confucius and offering warnings to Genghis Khan (95). He provides a neat bifurcation of East/West unicorn traditions, quoting Borges, that “In the East, peace and tranquility; in the West, aggression and lust. Nonetheless, the unicorn remains an imaginary animal, an invention that can embody any value one wishes to project” (97).
Although unicorns have an important place in European mythology, they have a rich history in Africa and Asia as well. The European unicorn has its roots in the Middle East (aka. the top of Africa) and India, while the Chinese qilin/Japanese kirin has its own separate, long history. Because the qilin/kirin is so different, it deserves a full post. This is going to be about decentering Europe from the history of the “western” unicorn.
In 398 BC, Ctesias of Cnidus records “in India certain wild asses” with “a horn in the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length” (qtd. in Lavers 1). The body of this animal is white, but “their heads are dark red.” Cnidus is in modern-day Turkey, but Ctesias’s name identifies him as culturally Greek. The name alone alerts us to the ways “Western” cultures are far more diverse and complex than we now recognize. Anyways, Cnidus’s record of the Indian unicorn also indicates how much the Ancient Greek world oriented itself towards the Mediterranean and what is now the Middle East: modern Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iran. In 326 BC, Alexander the Great made it as far as India, but didn’t stay for long. India, therefore, demarcates the edges of Greek scientific research and record. The unicorn is just out reach.
At around the same time, another important strand of Western unicorn mythology developed in Ancient Israel. The Biblical unicorn has its roots in Middle Eastern culture and fauna…we don’t know exactly what the re’em cited in the Book of Job 39:9-12, and Psalms 29:6 and Isaiah 34:7 is, exactly. We know the re’em is used to describe unruly wild power and the re’em seems like it was a real, local animal. The re’em was translated as monocerous in Greek, which became unicornis in Latin. Bam! UNICORN! Except it could also be a rhinoceros.
Heading back to India, the Indian Rhinoceros is also a prime suspect in Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century description of a unicorn: “They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than an elephant. The unicorn has the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. In the middle of its forehead is a single horn, very thick and black. I assure you it does no harm with its horn…” That’s pretty far from a pearlescent dainty horse-creature. It’s this kind of unicorn that features in Peter S. Beagle’s story “My Son Heydari and the Karkadaan” in The Unicorn Anthology.
All of these “real” unicorns are located far away – both in time and space – from the medieval Europeans who reworked the image of the unicorn into the form we recognize today. The medieval Christian practice of reading nature metaphorically meant that descriptions of rhinoceroses were reworked to resemble Jesus Christ. This isn’t a case of epistemological violence…a British monk had a zero percent chance of seeing a rhino…I mean, a unicorn.
Between the Greek and Roman empires and the rise of transcontinental European imperialism in the sixteenth century, there’s about a thousand years where Europe wasn’t dominant, when it wasn’t contributing to the intellectual glory of the world. (That honour would go to the Muslim caliphates and Asian empires that generated ground-breaking mathematical, scientific and medical research…remember, Marco Polo isn’t a colonist. He’s a measly merchant who’s blown away by Kublai Khan’s kingdom.) However, as Chris Lavers describes in The Natural History of Unicorns, once European empires started to grow, natural scientists began searching for real-life unicorns. They found lots of rhinos and gazelles that look like they have one horn in profile…and so the image of the unicorn diverges into “real” unicorns and mythological ones.
Does engaging with the “real” Asian and African history of the unicorn mean setting aside the mythological power that built throughout medieval Christianity and modern fantasy? Or does it provide new opportunities for wonder?
King James Bible. Ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Lavers, Chris. The Natural History of Unicorns. London: Granta, 2009.
Looking through my archives, I realized that the recent popularity of unicorns has led to a range of representations – of both unicorns themselves, and of the people who interact with them.
This list has a lot of room to grow. If you know a book that’s got a unicorn and features characters from traditionally underrepresented groups or unicorns from non-western traditions, tell me, and I’ll try to review it!
Children’s & YA Books
If I Had a Gryphon by Vikki Vansickle, illus. Cale Atknson. Tundra Books, 2018. (A POC protagonist searches for the perfect mythological pet, sampling creatures from many mythologies.)
Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima. Simon and Schuster, 2017. (This gentle reimagining of The Ugly Duckling can be read as a loving coming-out story.)
The Secret Lives of Unicorns by Dr. Temisa Seraphini and Sophie Robin. New York: Flying Eye Books, 2019. (Unicorn finders from different backgrounds, places, genders, and ages look for unicorns across the globe.)
Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010. (Includes several stories with LGBTQ+ protagonists.)
Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry. Nottingham, U.K.: Angry Robot, 2018. (LGBTQ+ characters from different cultural backgrounds decolonize space! With unicorns!)
The Unicorn Anthology, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. San Francisco: Tachyon Books, 2019. (Includes several stories with LGBTQ+ protagonists and characters from different cultures, historical moments and socioeconomic statuses.)
This funny and bracing memoir has very little to do with unicorns on a literal level. On the other hand, maybe it is, as the title suggests, all about unicorns.
The unicorn is in the memoir’s opening anecdote, where young Tiffany is cursed with a spiky wart on her forehead. She is desperate to transform the attention she gets from her classmates from derision to awe, to go from being Dirty Ass Unicorn to the Last Black Unicorn (4). Haddish’s description of a life episode as a “weird fairy-tale horror story” seems to apply to her experiences generally (45). Like a fairy tale heroine, Haddish is able to spin straw (or dung) into gold. As a teen barely able to read but with a powerful memory, Haddish ends up in AP classes; an attempt to impress a boy ends up with her first winning a Shakespeare monologue competition and Bar Mitzvah entertainment; when her joking goes awry in class, she is given the choice between therapy and comedy camp. Just so, the memoir offsets this string of successes with her mother’s mental illness, the horror of foster care, the way these early experiences result in a string of abusive personal relationships, the politics of managing relationships in comedy.
Fairy tales in their original forms are often violent and heroes often encounter random, seemingly unpleasant events. Remember when Rapunzel is thrown out of her tower for getting knocked up and then has twins on her own in the wilderness? Or when the frog turns into a prince after the princess throws him against a wall for sneaking into her room? Or when Little Red Riding Hood is forced into a strip tease and then tells the wolf she needs to take a poop in order to escape? No? Well, get thee to the 1812 version of the Grimm’s fairy tales. The point is that original fairy tales are often also horror stories. Their narrative tension works on how heroes and heroines survive and succeed in terrible circumstances that are often the result individual cruelty enabled by systematic societal injustice.
Heroes and heroines of fairy tales often don’t succeed because they are “good” but because 1) they find ways to get help and 2) they are clever and crafty. Kevin Hart and Jada Pinkett Smith appear like fairy godmothers, reminding us that success emerges not from individual striving alone, but from mentorship, friendship, and investment in human relationships. Alongside Haddish’s recognition of the generosity of others, she’s gleeful in describing her ability to avenge herself both in wickedly inventive schemes to get back at terrible ex-boyfriends and by being the better person to colleagues who underestimate her. In fairy tales, happily-ever-after indicates stasis, a lack of movement. But Haddish reveals how she has to act like she’s got her happy ending to make sure her opportunities keep coming.
But if the victories of fairy tale heroes and heroines are satisfying, but they are also implicitly rare. The bones of unsuccessful princes are woven through the briars of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The Black Unicorn of Haddish’s title is also the “Last,” which is significantly less optimistic than the “First” Black Unicorn or even “A” Black Unicorn among many. So…If unicorns are rare, extraordinary creatures, are we to read Haddish as exceptional both because of her talent and ambition, or because she succeeds despite massive challenges? Both?
Haddish considers how the desire for being “wanted,” to be protected and wanted underlie her love of performance. Performance and comedy allow her to be “something that other people wanted me to be” (274). When no unicorn exists, Haddish makes herself one.
Oh, and unicorns do pop up twice. Read it to find out where!
When half-unicorn Gary Cobalt gets out of prison, the last person he expects to meet is Jenny Perata, the wheelchair-bound Maori army veteran who captured his ship, imprisoned him, dug out his horn, and accused him of murdering the wife of her co-pilot, Cowboy Jim. But Jenny needs Gary’s help to make a delivery…and unless Gary wants the world to end in 25 hours, he must broker an uneasy truce with his enemies. Berry balances a fast-paced plot and bawdy humour with serious questions about environmental destruction, colonialism, and human supremacy.
Analysis:Intersectional Science Fiction – Woohoo!
Space Unicorn Blues is a great example of the ways science fiction and fantasy can evolve past – or revolt against – the colonialist or Eurocentric tropes that once formed the genres. In this novel, the characters have no default race, species, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. The human nations who harshly rule the universe are not only the United States, but Australia and India. As in Battlestar Galactica, the soldiers are not restricted by gender or race. Instead, all of humanity is complicit in the destruction and enslavement of the Bala – the term used for magical beings. As a result of this premise, the central characters (save one) have complex intersectional identities.
Gary’s father is a unicorn prince; his mother, Anjali Ramanathan, is a human peace activist. After suffering the trauma of imprisonment and incarceration, Gary struggles between his desire to save other magical creatures and the need to collaborate with an old enemy. Gary presents ye old problem of unicorn characterization…he’s usually calm, grounded, spiritually centered…and his goodness means he’s a great deal more static than the second protagonist, Jenny Perata. (Ironically, the “full-blood” unicorns, Findae and Unamip are rather more sarcastic and morally flawed than Gary.)
Jenny Perata is searching for her dryad wife, Kaila, who has been abducted by the soldiers of Reason. Jenny’s Maori identity is alternately central and peripheral to the way she moves through the world. Sometimes, being a wounded veteran who has turned against the army dominates her choices; at others, sing a funereal haka or using a patu she’s inherited are what feels most natural. Jenny is a success as a character, because nothing she does seems to be predetermined by categories of identity. Rather, her own growth is charted as she navigates between her status as a member of multiple, conflicting categories (colonizer and colonized, war hero and outlaw, bandit and wife, etc.)
Although it’s not a character per se, but Gary and Jenny’s “stoneship,” the Jaggery is an interesting way of reimagining technology as ecological symbiosis. It has trees growing in it, a lake whose fish monitor the level of gravity, and a pulsating heart kept healthy by the singing of a dwarven choir. The Jaggery is a great example of thinking beyond our current technological paradigms. If that means going beyond the plausibility of science fiction and into the realm of fantasy, oh well! We ought to have more imagination anyways when it comes to acknowledging humankind’s integration into the natural world.
The author has an obvious fondness for most of the characters, with the exception of the last central character, Cowboy Jim. It’s a little confusing. Jenny’s overt motivation for keeping Jim around is that, as a heterosexual older white American man, Jim has the ability to get Jenny’s ships out of tight situations. But he’s really terrible as a person AND as a pilot! If heterosexual older white American men still stand at the apex of power in this universe, there must be someone who is a little better…at least at flying! And even Jim’s seeming superiority should be questionable when we have Battlestar Galactica egalitarianism in the ranks of the Reason soldiers. By the end of the novel, Jim has no redeemable qualities, and the fact that his wife got eaten seems to gain him no sympathy. If Cheryl Ann was such a great person who had great taste in friends (her trope is Nice White Lady), then how are we supposed to understand her attachment to Cowboy Jim? Jim’s centrality to the plot seemed like a weakness in what is otherwise a very imaginative and probing novel.
Thus, while this book exceeds in its diverse formulations of lovable rogues, it stumbles a little in its villain.
Synopsis: It’s 1893 and rumours about the return of a legendary flying serpent bring widow Cora Seaborne and her son to a small town in Essex. Cora is an amateur scientist, and she is determined to find a possible “living fossil.” But she soon befriends Reverend William Ransome, the handsome, married local rector who has reasons of his own to doubt the existence of the mythical beast. Cora and Will’s friendship forms across the widening breach of science and faith…but can it survive the pressures of parenthood, London politics, and community surveillance? Perry includes lots of interesting local historical detail, especially through Cora’s friends Dr. Garrett, a budding surgeon, and Martha, a socialist. Ultimately, the atmosphere promising the fantastic (the ambiguous possibility of the supernatural à la Tzvetan Todorov) disappears under the realist lens of the novel and its greater interest in character development.
Despite the promise of DRAGONS, The Essex Serpent is a realist historical novel and a meditation about the opposing cultural forces of faith and science. It’s well constructed, but I don’t think I was in the right mood to appreciate this book. I think I was expecting something in the vein of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, where meticulous historical detail and a commitment to the style material realism is married with fantastical content. Actually, I was hoping for a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm (1911), where Dracula’s creator imagined the appearance of a dragon in late-Victorian England.
BUT, The Essex Serpent is instead a self-conscious meditation on the production of fantastical stories.
So, spoiler alert: there is an Essex Serpent, but it’s (intentionally) a bit of a let-down. A giant eel…not the equal of Mary Anning’s discovery of the ichthyosaur or plesiosaurus and DEFINITELY not a great flying dragon.
When the beast is found, it’s dead and decaying on the beach after it’s been destroyed from within by tapeworm – Cora’s dream brought down into the mud (325). I mean, the description of “a pair of gills “showing “a crimson, meaty frilling that resembled the underside of a mushroom” is deliciously disgusting, but readers aren’t allowed to enter too fully into the nerdy thrill of biology à la Planet Earth. Instead, readerly response is guided towards…disappointment. A minor character writes to the protagonist Cora about the discovery of a giant twenty-foot eel-like creature washed up on the beach, “no more strange, no more dangerous, than an elephant or crocodile” (330). The letter writer even exclaims “What a letdown!” (330).
So, instead of being disappointed, let’s use this moment to think about the tension between historical realist novels and historical fantasies.
Will Ransome’s observation that “the mystery had not been solved so much as denied” could stand in for the message of much neo-Victorian literature (326). The Victorians were so wacky and full of promise with their dreams of social justice and progress and mythology…too bad they didn’t live up to their potential.
As someone who studied Victorian literature at grad school, I feel torn about neo-Victorian fiction….So often, neo-Victorian literature is weighed down by the knowledge of the future, by knowing that Darwin’s science becomes mainstream, by knowing that the First World War is coming.
The Essex Serpent is written in the style of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (2009), which meticulously fuses the lives of Victorian children’s authors (E. Nesbit, Frances Burnett, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame) in order to think about how a society that seemed to worship childhood ultimately sent their children to die in the trenches of the First World War or into the brutal British public school system. An incredible attention to detail, a masterful evocation of place, but lacking in the energy of actual Victorian texts with similar moral themes, like Jane Eyre or Nicholas Nickleby in the case of The Children’s Book or Middlemarch or Dracula in the case of The Essex Serpent.
I mean, scholars have argued for decades that realism is a fundamentally limiting genre. Characters are cut down to what authors (or their publishers) decide should be possible for them. Adding history to realism is doubly limiting.
The heroes and heroines of historical fiction (realistic or not) are often a little anachronistic…they have to think and feel like contemporary readers. If protagonists are too authentically historical, they’d probably alienate readers. As a result, characters are often pegged neatly into philosophical categories that place them on a “progressive” trajectory. For example, in The Essex Serpent, Dr. Luke Garrett is fascinated by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who was a groundbreaking Austro-Hungarian physician who advocated for – GASP – handwashing and disinfection between procedures. But here’s the thing: Semmelweis wasn’t super famous in his own time and his methodology was widely rejected by the medical establishment. So, we often have essentially modern protagonists moving through a world ruled by values that neither they nor their readers share. Yet, because realist authors often feel the ethical compulsion not to mess with history too much, protagonists can’t be truly successful in enacting their modern ethics onto their historical world.
Ironically, some of the crazier characters of the period who defied social expectations don’t make good historical “realist” fiction, because their individual feats couldn’t be replicated widely across society or because they fit into a “Great Man/Woman” model of history that’s been replaced by sociological analysis.
Where is the great novel about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican rival of Florence Nightingale? The title of her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), says it all. She’s writing wonderful adventures, not realism. Writing a book about Seacole, perhaps, risks being Not Serious. M.T. Anderson’s very serious The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006) locates its narrative at the fringes of Enlightenment science at the turn of the American Revolution to consider how scientific narratives of race were constructed, but he’s writing YA. When authors writing “serious fiction for grown-ups” are so hemmed in by what they knew was probable, you can understand the desire and fear of fantasy.
This tension between fantasy and realism in historical fiction isn’t unique to The Essex Serpent.
Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan features a similar tension between the promise of revisionist fantasy and the limitations of the historical record. As a young slave in Barbados, young Wash is given to an eccentric scientist, Titch, as an illustrator/assistant. When reality is so terrible, Wash is given the fantasy of science – a flying balloon in which he and Titch escape the plantation. But the fantasy of intergenerational, of slave/master friendship, and of escape-through-innovation comes (literally) crashing down. The narrative picks up again with a similar theme when the now-grown Wash ends up falling in love for the biological illustrator, Tanna, who is the daughter of a marine scientist. For the second time in the novel, science fails to liberate Wash because it is constrained by institutions governed by conservative ideologies. Eventually the plot takes on a dream-like reverie and an inconclusive ending, unravelling into something like, but not quite fantasy.
Why are authors scared of fantasy and adventure? They have legitimate, ethical reasons…Because, on the other hand, you have the wildly revisionist revenge fantasies of Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained, Glorious Basterds, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. These films erase real, historical violence with fantasies of violence. They provide cheap thrills instead of a path towards authentic healing. Tarantino’s fictions work as film rather than literature because they move too quickly for thoughtful engagement.
So, if we want to engage creatively with the past without erasing injustice, cultural difference, or trauma, where do we go from here?
On the one hand, we have serious historical fantasies like M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (race & the American Revolution) or Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless (2011) (the shifting ideologies of the Soviet Union), and historical realism that is structurally creative as to move readers out of the deadlock of anachronism, like Anthony Marra’s puzzle-like story-cycle, The Tsar of Love and Techno (2015) (the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia).
But there are also some current narratives that succeed in addressing our desire for fantasy, even if their resolutions are primarily realistic. Here, I’m talking about Taika Waititi’s films, Boy (2010) and Jojo Rabbit (2019).
There’s been a lot of controversy about Jojo Rabbit as a potential trivialization of the Second World War, where ethical ambivalence seems to get sidetracked into conversations about whether the film is funny or sentimental, or not. But watching Jojo Rabbit alongside Boy suggests that Waititi has a shared concern that runs through the ten years between the films’ releases:
What do you do when you’re a child growing up in a place where reality fundamentally doesn’t make sense?
These are both films about near-adolescents whose fantasies of manhood – about who they might be when they grow up – are overtaken by the realities about the failures of their idealized father-figures. Alamein Jr./Boy is a Maori kid growing up in contemporary, rural New Zealand; Jojo is (initially) member of the Hitler Youth – they should be on the opposite ends of the societal hierarchy of power. And yet their portrayal of psychologically surviving through fantasy is remarkably similar. In both films, Waititi enters fully into their fantasies, showing Boy and Jojo’s dream sequences or alternate realities. Boy’s father is a hero, a prison escapee, and hangs out with Michael Jackson. Jojo’s Hitler gives him pep-talks when he’s bullied. Boy’s father’s absence is tolerable because he is doing all the things Boy wants the agency to do; Jojo’s fantasy father-of-the-nation is present to support him in all the ways his arrested/missing/dead Resistance father has failed. (Waititi also plays both father-figures.)
In both films, the young protagonists struggle when they come to realize the utter chasm between who they want their fathers to be and how their fathers have failed them. Emasculated by institutional prejudice and emotionally crippled by his wife’s death, Boy’s father, Alamein Sr., feels little responsibility for his children. In Jojo Rabbit, Nazi ideology is revealed to be rooted in unresolved insecurities similar to those Jojo carries with him: fears about masculinity and weakness. In the absence of male guidance, Boy and Jojo both almost – literally – die. To survive, they must first imagine and then fulfil their own visions of manhood. Although strict gender boundaries (external in Jojo’s case, internal and subliminal in Boy’s) prevent the children from initially seeing women as role models. Reimagining of manhood in both cases involves incorporating the “feminine” care ethic. Boy’s Aunty Gracey and Nan and Jojo’s mother, Rosie, all carry the economic and emotional burden of caring for children and providing communities with positive, non-violent visions of their future…visions rooted in commitment and work.
Wait, but weren’t we talking about historical fiction and fantasy?
Boy isn’t a historical film, per se. Boy’s struggle is immediate and ongoing, but the conditions that surround him are determined by historical structures of injustice and by his own personal history and mythology of how his family works. Thus, Waititi’s film functions as an extension of Boy’s work within the narrative. Just by existing, Boy is changing narratives…it needn’t be historical because it is history. By contrast, Jojo’s experience — that of a conventional mainstream child growing up completely absorbed into a totalitarian ideology we now revile — pushes against the anachronistic conventions of historical fiction. He’s a normal child and — according to our moral conventions, at least at the beginning of the film — a de facto monster. He is (conventionally, ethically) a narrative dead end, an impossibility. But children like him existed. Jojo’s real-life parallels, the generation that grew up after the Second World War had to contend with the moral vacuum of the recent past. They’re people like Bernhard Schlink, who wrote The Reader (1995) or Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter, who were interviewed for What Our Fathers Did (2015). Except these real-life children grew up without the opportunity to drop-kick their rejected fantasy-heroes out the window, like Jojo eventually can. Jojo’s physical manifestation of his psychological fight against Hitler is the fictional consolation that Waititi’s film offers.
All of this to say…
Historical realism needn’t be defeatist and historical fantasy needn’t be ethically cheap. And blending realism and fantasy well takes hard work. But we can do it if we try, and we can enjoy it.
Genre: Anthology, general fantasy (i.e. stories everyone can enjoy), fantasy for adults (i.e. some stories contain graphic violence, sexual violence and erotica)
Age Range: 14+
Disclaimer: If you are under 14, you should probably read this review only if your parents let you after they’ve read it themselves.
The stories in The Unicorn Anthology speak to the tensions within unicorn lore, between stories that cynically undermine the unicorn’s association with innocence or purity and stories that complicate superficial ideas of what “innocence” and “purity” mean.
The most imaginative of the stories, like “My Son Heydari and the Karkadaan” and “The Transfigured Hart,” play on our expectations to deliver something that is both original and familiar, but the majority fall into three categories: cynical unicorns of desire, complex/pure unicorns, and object unicorns.
As the book’s tagline, “UNICORNS: They’re not just for virgins anymore,” suggests, the unicorn of desire features heavily in this collection. Several of them, like “A Hunter’s Ode to Bait,” “The Lion and the Unicorn,” and “The Maltese Unicorn” are startling in their union of violence against the unicorn and the darker impulses of human sexuality.
At the same time, Bruce Colville’s “Homeward Bound,” Jane Yolen’s “The Transfigured Hart,” Peter S. Beagle’s “My Son Heydari and the Karkadaan” and Marina Fitch’s “Stampede of Light” are all child-friendly, though not childish. They deal seriously with the thoughts and feelings of child protagonists in worlds where their innocence or idealism is threatened by sinister or ignorant adults. Most rare are the stories that manage to marry sensuality and spiritual purity…In “A Thousand Flowers,” the sullied minds of most humans can’t comprehend the bond between a princess and her unicorn lover.
Remarkable, perhaps, is the absence of substantive unicorns as characters in several of the stories. In “The Brew,” “Ghost Town,” “The Maltese Unicorn” and “Survivor” and “Stampede of Light” depend on the unicorn as an image or as an ingredient against which to measure human moral frailty or failure. As in the stories where (dead) unicorns are present only through their horns, in “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” and “A Hunter’s Ode to His Bait” feature unicorns only as animals, as prey to be hunted. In these stories, human disrespect for nature and the abandonment of human responsibility for the environment become more pronounced.
The absence of substantive unicorns brings up a recurring issue – how do authors or artists deal with the otherness of unicorns? Reducing it to an icon or something that is of “use” – alchemically or in a plot – provides a way not to think of the unicorn as a conscious, feeling presence that challenges human superiority.
Anyways, I’ve provided a summary of the stories below so that readers can decide what interests them.
Table of Contents
“The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” Carlos Hernandez – A journalist teams up with a unicorn conservationist, but soon discovers things are not at all what they seem.
“The Brew” Karen Joy Fowler – A woman remembers her childhood friend’s frightening encounter with a man who’s encounter with a unicorn has ensured him a long and tortured existence. The unicorn is present only through an alchemical ingredient.
“Falling Off the Unicorn” David D. Levine and Sara A. Mueller – Lesbian rodeo unicorn romance! The technicalities of “virginity” allow Misty to keep her unicorn while freeing herself of oppressive ideas about purity. This story had a very YA feel to it, with the unicorn functioning like a pet, rather than a character.
“A Hunter’s Ode to His Bait” Carrie Vaughn – Over several years, unicorn hunter, Duncan, becomes enamored with his bait, Eleanor. Eleanor might be a virgin in body, but she has outgrown the innocence/ignorance that Duncan has relied on to manipulate her. She is not only aware of the way her body functions in human/unicorn power dynamics, but she’s also turned on by power.
“Ghost Town” Jack C. Haldeman II – A drifter washes up in a run-down, one-burro towns. The drifter’s ability to see burro’s slow transformation into something more magical connects to his own moral growth.
“A Thousand Flowers” Margo Lanagan – I reviewed this AMAZING, beautiful, but emotionally brutal story in my review on Zombies vs. Unicorns. It features hypermasculinity, the wrong people punished for sexual violence, human-unicorn hybrids, infant death…
“The Maltese Unicorn” Caitlín R. Kiernan – lesbian noir! The unicorn here is not alive but merely provides the material for a certain object.
“Stampede of Light” Marina Fitch – A teacher notices a strange woman luring innocent children away from the playground. The children are unicorns message is a bit on the nose, but I like stories about teachers surviving the grind of school and connecting with kids.
“The Highest Justice” Garth Nix – This one was also in Zombies vs. Unicorns…it’s a solid medieval unicorn fantasy WITH a zombie, so that’s always fun! Also the language is pretty tasty!
“The Lion and the Unicorn” A. C. Wise – Another unicorn-child! Unfortunately, unlike Lanagan’s, this one has grown up to be abused in a brothel. A.C. Wise and Margo Lanagan seem to be on the same page when it comes to the human greed and the subsequent failure to respect the unicorn’s otherness.
“Survivor” Dave Smeds – a soldier heading to Vietnam insults a tattoo artist before getting inked with a unicorn. The unicorn tattoo’s protective powers soon become a curse.
“Homeward Bound” Bruce Coville – a young, orphaned boy becomes obsessed with a unicorn horn he finds in his sinister guardian’s study. Transcendence and transfiguration is at the heart of this story, getting at the power of the Christ-unicorn metaphor without explicit reference to Christianity.
“Unicorn Triangle” Patricia A. McKillip – A unicorn-made-human becomes a maid at a hotel while trying to find a way to find her true form again.
“My Son Heydari and the Karkadaan” Peter S. Beagle – A charming story of “real-life unicorns.” Karkadaans are the natural enemies of elephants. When Heydari, the son of an elephant herder, finds a wounded karkadaan, his father is unimpressed by the boy’s choice to try and heal it. Shepherdess Niloufar, however, is delighted by this show of caring. The two young people’s romance is threatened, however, once the karkadaan regains its strength and starts to rebel against human care.
“The Transfigured Hart” Jane Yolen – Two lonely children separately spy an albino deer. When they meet, Richard insists it’s a unicorn. Heather thinks she knows better. In this story, the point-of-view rotates between Richard, Heather, and the albino deer in short chapters, providing unexpected revelations and blind spots. I loved this story for respecting the “unicorn’s” perspective and for showing both the possibility and limitations of Richard’s mantra: “Believing. It takes practice.”
“Unicorn Series” Nancy Springer – A series of poems that captures moments of everyday magic…moments where the glory of unicorns might be seen.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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+
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?
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.