Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee. New York, Atheneum, 1991. (Newer editions are available on Amazon, but check out the awesome early 1990s cover of my library copy!)

Genre: Secondary world fantasy, multiverse

Ideal Age Range: 12+

Short Review

Sixteen-year-old Tanaquil yearns to escape life in her sorcerer-mother’s desert fortress. Her “mechanical” talent to fix things is not appreciated in a place where she regularly misses breakfast – because it has transfigured and escaped (6). But after an experiment goes wrong, Tanaquil finds herself cut loose from everything she once knew and followed by a terrifying one-horned beast. Finding herself moored in a foreign clockwork city, Tanaquil discovers that her talent to fix things is not as incompatible with magic – and unicorns – as she once assumed. Black Unicorn thrives on lush and unusual description. The vertebrae of a mysterious “milk-crystal” skeleton (12) look like “star flowers” (18). A unicorn’s mane flows “like acid” (32). The black unicorn is a mysterious avenger, providing a refreshing alternative to the norm of placid or cute unicorns who function as sentient friends to human protagonists. Despite the fearsomeness of the unicorn, this novel can be enjoyed by older children as well as teens alike. 

Buy Black Unicorn here:

Analysis (spoiler alert)

Black Unicorn can be read as lushly written, if structurally simple story about adolescent self discovery…BUT YOU WOULD BE WRONG! Black Unicorn is also about relational selves, the limits of empathizing with friends, humans’ attempts to control “reality” through technology, and the function of symbols in manipulating citizens.

“Weird Sympathy”: Identifying (with) Unicorns 

Over the course of the novel, Tanaquil develops bonds with two strange creatures, the black unicorn and Princess Lizra. The representations of both Lizra and the unicorn demonstrate the conflict between internal, private selves, the public performance of a social self, and the way that self is interpreted by a community at large.

Lizra, as Tanaquil’s friend, functions as a second external self. Lizra mirrors Tanaquil’s privilege, boredom,and loneliness. The magical fortress run by Jaive, Tanaquil’s mother, and the clockwork city run by Lizra’s father Prince Zorander’s  are parallel versions of adult attempts to distance themselves from reality (and from children fast growing up). Both Tanaquil and Lizra are aware of the benefits of their inherited wealth and the limitations of being the unwanted daughters of detached rulers. Observing Lizra’s alternately bratty and disarming moods allows Tanaquil to gain insight into her own less-than-kind behavior. Despite Tanaquil’s feeling of spiritual kinship with Lizra, however, the black unicorn represents the part of herself she cannot share.

Structurally, Lizra and the Black Unicorn work in tandem. When Lizra is present, the black unicorn fades into the background; when Tanaquil focuses on the meaning of the unicorn, her interest in Lizra is subsumed. The trade-off between Lizra and the unicorn is not accidental, as Tanaquil hopes to separate them: “It was because Lizra would not challenge or dismiss the unicorn that Tanaquil did not tell her” (92). Formerly friendless, Tanaquil’s similarities with Lizra eat away at her sense of unique selfhood. Keeping the unicorn a secret preserves a little corner of selfhood that Lizra can’t share.

The “weird sympathy”  Tanaquil feels for Lizra can also be seen in the way she reads the unicorn’s behavior (77). The unicorn, with its rage and destruction, seems linked to Tanaquil’s private understanding of herself. Thus, the unicorn interrupts Jaive’s feasts, which Tanaquil finds insufferable. It disrupts a misogynist caravan that mistreats Tanaquil and it destroys the snobbish artisan guild’s secret, corrupt rites when Tanaquil asserts her own trade. The unicorn seems to act as Tanaquil’s arm of justice in moments she feels endangered. In turn, as she understands, the unicorn is her secret joy and burden: “The unicorn was chaos and unsafety, capricious, almost humorous, and terrible. It had rescued and played jokes. But the horn was sharper than a sword…It’s mine, for good or ill” (92). In believing that the unicorn is “mine,” Tanaquil mistakenly claims ownership.

Black Unicorn Page 94

Heather Cooper, Illustration from Black Unicorn, page 94.

If Tanaquil initially believes that the unicorn is personal and private, unicorns often seem to function that way. Within the unicorn-hunt trope, they mythically emerge in response to one person (the virgin) and fight off the community (of hunters). Extrapolating to unicorns in fiction, the unicorn usually has a special bond with one person (Tanaquil and the black unicorn, Ariel and Pete, King Tirian and Jewel, Cara and Luster). But unlike many unicorn-human novels, the unicorn is never Tanaquil’s companion or sidekick. However, in Black Unicorn, Tanaquil has to come to terms with the way the city’s politicians and citizens publicly interpret the unicorn’s link to the city’s core identity. She is the virgin, the city-folk are the hunters, but neither understand the unicorn.

Like Lizra who is ““several beings at once” by being both “a woman who would rule” and “a child who wanted to be a child,” the unicorn belongs to the public sphere while maintaining a private self (136). Lizra’s public performance on her obligatory rides through the city as “the Princess” is quite detached from her private loneliness. As the king explains in Henry IV, Part I, ”By being seldom seen, I could not stir/But like a comet I was wondered at” (3.2.46-7). In Henry IV, royalty make themselves purposefully scarce to heighten their power – power is the result of artifice rather than of natural strength. Thus, Lizra’s observation that her “father likes things that aren’t real” is only half true (84). Prince Zorander – and his citizens – prefer clockwork animals, tableaux, and festivals because they are artificial. That is, the city specializes in products of human artistry wrought to promote specific ideas and stories.

The original legend of the unicorn’s role as the city’s founder (like many origin stories ) is profoundly ambivalent. The unicorn is both the city’s past creator and the future destroyer.  However, Black Unicorn effectively shows how legends which grow from a seed of historical truth are pruned to suit the tastes of later audiences.

In keeping with the city’s love of artifice and theatrical display, the Festival of the Blessing is less about venerating the unicorn’s power, but about taming a scary story. The public ceremony transforms the legendary unicorn into a domesticated beast. Rather than providing a blessing, it submits its power to the Prince. The Prince thus shows that he and his technology are greater than reality, greater than the natural world. As Tanaquil observes, “They must know, most of them, this creature was not a unicorn, only the symbol. Yet they were thrilled…at the successful rite” (98).

In a clockwork city, the “symbol” of the unicorn overwhelms the reality of the unicorn…but only as long as the unicorn stays away. But when confronted with the thing the citizens enjoy imagining (a real unicorn), their reaction is terror. They have been enjoying their control over (and taming of) the unicorn-image and cannot confront the black unicorn’s deeper symbol of radical difference and otherness. Tanaquil, conversely, comes to understand that the unicorn is “like a horse as a hilt is like a sword” (100). The unicorn’s existential conundrum is outlined by its contradictory description. Although people assume it must be the colour of alabaster, its darkness is denser than night. It “glow[s] black” (114). The unicorn represents form of existence that goes deeper than the superficial citizens can manage to think about. If the citizen create a shadow of the unicorn, the unicorn itself has the status of a Platonic Form.  The citizens’ blinkered perspective of the unicorn also reflects back on Tanaquil’s own narrow-minded definition of the unicorn as her personal possession or familiar.

Instead of being “her” unicorn, the unicorn “needs and demands” Tanaquil’s “service” in a project that exceeds the interests of Tanaquil personally and the city at large (111). Only by accepting the irrelevance of her own desires can Tanaquil understand the unicorn and gain enlightenment. Thus, her life’s journey ceases to be about discovering her own origins and becomes one of understanding the world she does not yet know.

Yet as her mother explains, in Tanaquil’s “badly made world” (11) existence of a real unicorn is an aberration. By serving the unicorn and returning it to its own “perfect” world (112), she erases its reality within her own dimension. In imperfect realities, unicorns can only exist as concepts or symbols.

Notes on Structure in “A Badly Made World”

One of the implicit rules of fantasy is that the world must have underlying and consistent rules. This is what Ursula K. Le Guin’s calls “plausibility in fantasy.” In an implicit riposte to Le Guin and in world-building in particular, Tanith Lee has Tanaquil’s sorceress-mother Jaive explain that they live in a “badly made world” (11).

Lee’s fantasy world doesn’t seem interested in proving its plausibility by internal rational logic. It doesn’t matter how magic works – or how clockwork functions, either. Neither does it provide an explanation for the prevalence of red-haired witches in a desert ecosystem. (What about the sunburn?) Instead, the world’s “logic” depends on emotional and linguistic connections.

In both its world-building and narrative structure, Black Unicorn is akin to the medieval and early modern romance. “Why set the story in a desert?” asks the logical reader. The only answers are 1) “Because that’s where the story happens, dummy.” Or 2) “Because romance is about psychomachia, where environments match the main character’s spiritual landscape. Tanaquil feels deserted and like her life is a barren waste.” Given that Lee introduces “peeves” as an alien species so she can work in an offhand pun on Tanaquil’s “pet peeve,” the second answer is entirely possible (84). Lee’s language is lush and lyrical but not ornamental, for Tanaquil’s “pet peeve” swears and bites and enacts Tanaquil’s own irritation with daily life. Likewise, descriptions of Jaive’s decadent and seemingly purposeless magic corresponds to Tanaquil’s disappointment that, because she is magic-less, she deserves none of her mother’s attention.

As in traditional romance, once Tanaquil is on the road events seem to happen to her, rather than Tanaquil asserting herself. This fits into Tanaquil’s mother’s theory of their life in a “badly-made world.” Although the world is bewildering and though no one explains the rules to Tanaquil, she is expected to play along. Tanaquil’s character and agency emerge in her perception of irrationality in the customs others take for granted.

If we miss the whole business about social performance obscuring reality, Black Unicorn seems to have relatively low stakes. This novel is indicative of an older genre of Young Adult fiction. The novel  feels markedly different from the post-Harry Potter/Hunger Games Young Adult genre, which feature fantasies of radical social change effected by young people. Survival for Tanaquil means individuating herself from her mother, recognizing her own talents, and recognizing her ability to choose, even when she doesn’t have a whole lot of power. Failure means obscurity, extortion, and an abusive apprenticeship, but Tanaquil doesn’t seem to have the power to “change the system.”  If Lizra does, Lizra also seems predisposed to protect her privilege when she grows older.  The other big generic difference is the absence of irresistible romance (a trope made unfortunately necessary by Twilight). While Tanaquil is sixteen, her story could be read with equal interest by a ten-year-old. This isn’t to say that the story is simple; rather that Tanaquil’s sense of self doesn’t depend on any sort of revelation of a sexual or gendered identity. If Tanaquil’s ability to mend things makes her akin to an early STEM heroine, very little attention is paid to the fact that she’s a girl mechanical genius. If Tanaquil comes to understand herself better as a daughter and a sister, but being empathetic while maintaining one’s independence isn’t filtered through femininity.


Heather Cooper, Illustration from Black Unicorn, page 67.

 In a “badly made world,” the private self must always contend with its relational selves (in Tanaquil and Lizra’s case, as daughters, sisters, and future leaders, in the unicorn’s case, as a legend and moral arbiter). Only by removing oneself to a “perfect world” can the private self be triumphant. But as Tanaquil discovers during her short trip to paradise, in humans, such a triumphant private self can easily become destructive. By contrast the unicorn, which has no genuine relationships in the human world, must return to its own plane of existence.

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