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.