Genre: Post-apocalyptic fantasy
Ideal Age Range: 13+
Wandering through a postapocalyptic landscape, young scavenger Pete Garey befriends a wisecracking unicorn named Ariel. When a malevolent necromancer threatens Ariel’s life, the duo set out from Florida to New York in order to confront the source of evil. Along the way, Pete and Ariel’s intense bond comes under stress as they come increasingly in contact with other humans. Having been separated from friends and family as a young teen, Pete’s connection to Ariel relies on his “purity.” Virtues worn easily in the wilderness begin to chafe as Pete, now a young man, seeks the recognition of fighting men and is troubled by his attraction to women. Ariel, on the other hand, balances her sharp-tongued with wisdom. The novel’s emotional core is leavened by generous portions of violent action – in this brave new world, heroes and villains apply katanas, claymores, and crossbows with gusto. While certain plot threads are never fully resolved and canned food seems a little overabundant five years after the apocalyptic “Change,” Pete and Ariel’s quest of self-discovery on the road has ample excitement and heart.
Analysis below (with some spoilers)
Ariel uses of the unicorn to consider of male adolescent sexuality and “purity,” specifically by using Ariel and Pete’s bond to explore the tension between privately fulfilling emotional relationships and publicly legible sexuality.
Pete and Ariel: Familiarity, Femininity, and Human Love
The central relationship of the novel is tantalizingly undefinable. Are Pete and Ariel friends, in which care they have equality? Or is Ariel, as Pete’s non-human Familiar, positioned as the lesser party? Or, is Ariel, as a supernatural being, superior to Pete as a mortal and as a human?
Or are they lovers, in which – again – they are equals? In isolation, the bond between human and unicorn is immediate and equitable. From first sight, Pete sees that Ariel has “lover’s eyes” (2). Moreover, Pete and Ariel pronounce their love for each other in word and in forgiving each other’s failings (79-80). However, if they are lovers, they can be lovers only when they are alone outside the constraints of human social and sexual constructs.*
In the presence of humans (and men in particular), Pete redefines his relationship in terms of possession. As he chides a friend who dares reach out to Ariel, “Keep your hands off her…You aren’t pure; you aren’t fit to touch her. She’s my Familiar.” (39-40). Only belatedly can he concede that instead of “Familiars” having a one-way relationship, “we’re each other’s” (43). Yet this exchange leaves little room for Ariel to raise her own voice.
Pete’s possessiveness of Ariel seems to compensate for the way his status as her Familiar acts as a (shameful) public badge of his virginity. The apocalyptic “Change” that fritzes all modern technology occurs when Pete is fourteen; wandering the mostly-abandoned landscape alone, he has no companionship except his unicorn. Despite the collapse of modern society and with it the normalized adolescent rites of passage, Pete is deeply embarrassed by his virginity when he encounters other people. He feels both emasculated and elevated by his connection to Ariel. He interprets the gaze of adult men tagging him as the “wimpy date of [the] prom queen” (43).
Pete frames Ariel as a woman, because doing so constrains her to a legible set of emotions and expectations. When underestimated, Ariel is “a woman scorned,” wherein her femininity diminishes the legitimacy of her emotional reaction (49). Framing Ariel as a woman places them in a hierarchical relationship of creator and created, like Pygmalion and Galatea. He teaches her to talk and because they raid libraries together, she reads the same books. They are each other’s’ sole companionship and so they have an exclusive and excluding patter (pages ___ has a great sequence of banter featuring unicorn and horse puns). Ariel is a reflection of Pete’s intellectual growth. Thus, when Pete wishes Ariel “were a woman,” Ariel replies, mirrorlike, “so do I” (139). Ariel’s womanliness initially seems uncomplicated. There are sequences where Ariel’s animality seems to disappear: more than talking, she inhabits human spaces and goes into houses and motels without apparent difficulty (142). The issue, as one of Pete’s would-be-lovers explains, is that Pete is divided against himself; therefore Pete and Ariel are divided by his sense of self (335).
Though Pete and Ariel are both sexually unknowing, this state is desirable in Ariel-as-woman and increasingly untenable in Pete-as-man-not-boy. As the perfect woman, Ariel is also unattainable. Ariel observes Pete’s erotic dreams from the outside (126) and describes what she sees. While she offers an opportunity for him to engage in earnest discussion about sex and desire, Pete’s shame transforms this potential for openness into further distance and alienation between the two. Although Ariel feels she has “lost some of my ignorance” about death, Pete keeps her unenlightened about human sexuality (81). There is no space for them to explore together. As a woman, Ariel is squarely in the “virgin” category (along with Pete himself), while women like Shaughenessy and Tess McGee who are thoughtful and sensitive – but sexually knowing — are labeled as “bitch” (311) or “whore” (333). Pete loves Ariel and their solitary life together. But he is also obsessed (the novel’s allotment of attention shows) with being a man among men, which means containing and constraining women’s power over him.
Finally, and most significantly, Ariel-as-unicorn is always more than Pete makes her out to be. The trick and joy of the prose is its reversal of expectations. Ariel initially comes across as a bit too cute, the colour of “the best vanilla ice cream” (2) speaking with a “little-girl voice” (3). By the next chapter, however, she’s calling on her human companion to get his “ass in gear” (11). She feeds him mysterious knowledge about the world (she instinctively knows how dragonsfire functions); she is not above using Pete as a guinea pig to “test her abilities” (72). Once Pete loses control of her whereabouts in New York, he never regains her, despite his rescue operation. Although he officially loses her on page 388, he has parted ways with her already on page 250. Although readers never get to fully see Ariel outside of Pete’s perception of her, but Boyett-as-author skillfully indicates the limits of Pete-as-narrator.
“Purity” and Violence
While Pete and Ariel’s bond reveals the difficulty of shaping a love-relationship outside of human social definitions, Pete’s attempt to gain the recognition of adult men through violence also reveals the gap between sexual purity and other kinds of (undervalued) purity. The emotional risks of Shaughnessy and Theresa McGee get far less page time than Pete’s martial abilities, and especially his swordfighting and hang-gliding lessons in all-male groups.**
Peter Garey might not have had sex, but he has killed lots of people. Yet he can touch Ariel. Shaughnessy, a young woman who has avoided harming other people in her attempts to survive but has had sex with a man she lived with for two years, cannot touch Ariel.
The normalization of violence and the skittish avoidance of sex seems particularly American, [and I suspect we’ll find it recurs in Diana Peterfreund’s Killer Unicorn books, Rampant and Ascendant]. Prowess in battle is completely congruent with the absence of sexuality. There’s not a lot of sexy times in Beowulf. In fact, there are none. Legends of Sir Galahad and Sir Gawain pair knightliness and prowess in battle with the ability to resist sexual temptation. But the shame in virginity is newer and points to the gap between the original cultural context of the unicorns with twentieth-century ideas of masculinity. In fact, when Ariel narrates her first encounter with Pete, she mentions how humans, defunct human infrastructure, and technology “didn’t fit” with the new world after the “Change,” but Pete and his purity do “fit in” (26). In essence, as an adult male virgin, Pete has the same mythical status as a unicorn. I find this hard to believe, though it seems entirely believable that Pete feels unique and non-existent because his virginity doesn’t fit with the image of manhood. The myth of manhood destabilizes its reality.
Because Pete’s virginity gives him access to Ariel, he denies one means of establishing his masculinity. As a result, he increasingly relies on mastering violence in the presence of men like Malachi Lee and Tom Perry to prove himself. Indeed, in Ariel’s absence, the only thing these men can’t provide is (straight) sex. Shaughnessy and McGee are nearly reduced to their sexual function, and it is to Boyett’s credit that he makes Pete self-aware enough to recognize the disservice he does to these women. Pete’s self-dividedness points to the lie at the heart of masculine individualism – it’s not enough to be truly alone and unique, as is Pete and Ariel’s pairing in the wilderness. Instead, Pete has to be manly and “independent” in a way that can be seen, recognized, and approved by other men.
Only by parting from Ariel can he be the self-contained man he idealizes, despite the damage it does to her, himself, and Shaughnessy, who is reduced to standing by her man until he sees fit to recognize her own emotional rights. To be a “pure” man, Pete must cast away sexual purity and commit to communal, public violence.
*Pete and Ariel share an intense spiritual and intellectual bond somewhat like those of Heralds and Companions in Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series. The emotional conundrum is similar to that of Lavan Firestorm and Kalira in Lackey’s Brightly Burning (2001). Solitary young man finds solace in the perfect (equine, nonhuman) female. The bond , though fulfilling, also reinforces the young man’s isolation. The novels’ conclusions indicate the two possible paths. [SPOILER TERRITORY: Lavan, tragically, cannot function without his equine Companion. By contrast eventually Pete detaches and grows up; he loses his “purity” and Ariel at the same time, but he gains a “normal” human adulthood.]
**Unrelated note: as a fencer, I doubt two weeks suffices to master the katana. It takes longer to develop your muscle memory – see Inigo Montoya in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. I am also amazed that there is readily available canned food available six years after the apocalyptic change. And that people eat off of paper plates.