Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: "Black Unicorn" by Tanith Lee

In her desert fortress, a hundred miles from civilization, the Sorceress Jaive toys with the laws of magic. The careless overflow of her powers warps the world around her--just as her neglect warps her daughter Tanaquil, raised in isolation.

Tanaquil's talent lies in repairing broken things, rather than in spells and enchantments. One night, by chance or fate, her mundane work collides with her mother's magic. The skeleton of the creature she has painstakingly reassembled comes to breathtaking, terrifying life. The black unicorn, dead for a thousand years, tears through Jaive's fortress and disappears.

Half enchanted, half desperate, Tanaquil follows the hoofprints of the black unicorn across the scorching desert. With no money, no friends, and no control over the beautiful, terrifying creature that alternately helps and haunts her, she must rely on her own wits and her own heart to guide her.

  3.5 out of 5 stars

Long ago, in a high school creative writing class, I played nice all year long before handing in a mini-epic full of treachery and murder and all that jazz. One of my classmates privately expressed surprise. "I expected you to be a unicorns-and-princesses kind of writer," she told me.*

I was offended.

I shouldn't have been. I had not yet been introduced to Peter S. Beagle's magnificent The Last Unicorn, but I was already familiar with Tanith Lee's Black Unicorn trilogy. And if only I had remembered that they existed, I would have been less quick to defend myself against that "accusation." If I were to write about unicorns, I would like to do it with as much dignity, style, and grit as Lee does.

Black Unicorn is dark in setting, but not in tone. It is a world of bones and empty deserts. It verges on steampunk enough for me to count it as such, especially given Tanaquil's self-employment as a mender of broken machinery (cannons, wind-up toys, etc.) She repairs the skeleton of the unicorn with copper gears, wheels, and pins, designing mechanisms to enable the skeleton to move as if it were alive. That image is a good explanation for the world and the mood of the book: the shining starlight skeleton of a unicorn, pieced together with clockwork.

The story is a bit of a nod to C.S. Lewis' The Horse And His Boy. In many ways, Tanaquil's adventures could be a revisitation of Aravis' journey--especially when she reaches the city by the sea and meets the Princess Lizra, who is Lasaraleen written with a more loving hand. Lizra is my favorite character of the week, by the way.
"Surely you don't honor me by thinking of me as a friend?"

"Are you an enemy then?" said Lizra, with a knife-like glance.
Tanaquil said, "I only meant--"

[...]"I was once friends with a road-sweeper's daughter, Yilli, and she came here often. I really liked her. Then she tried to cut my throat one morning. She wanted to steal some of my jewelry. She could have had it. I've avoided friends since then."

Tanaquil was shocked into weird sympathy. She could see it all, the sweeper's daughter's painful jealousy, Lizra's bold, blind trust, her own shock, the emotional wound she thought she should be casual about.
"I still sometimes catch sight of her," said Lizra bleakly. "She bakes pies in the Lion Market."

"You mean you let her go?"

"I held her upside down out of the window first."

Tanaquil said, "Are you in fact warning me to be careful? Since you don't know anything about me--"

"So what?" said Lizra. "I just think I might like to
know you, not about you. Yes, poor Yilli was my mistake. But you have to take risks."
Lee brings life to her characters with a deft hand, revealing them through dialogue and action rather than through narration. (After one too many books written in first person POV, this was a welcome change.) All of the major characters share the same longing: to find a place where they matter. Lee uses this similarity to set them against one another. While we, as the reader, empathize with Tanaquil's desire to escape the isolation and neglect in her mother's fortress, Jaive is simultaneously trying to prove her magical chops to the world and requires both Tanaquil's presence and her obedience to achieve it.

While the characters are well developed, though, they come across as victims of the plot, not as instigators. Tanaquil isn't driving her own adventure--she's just along for the ride.  Every new turn in the plot occurs because of the eponymous unicorn, herding the characters through the book like a sheepdog. This passivity is one of the book's great weaknesses.

The other is its length. Black Unicorn is too short. It's like a meal at a fancy French restaurant, where your artfully prepared entree is less than two inches square with a drizzle of sauce. Three bites, and the book is done! The world and the characters are rich enough to support a longer adventure. While this isn't a pacing issue per se--the development of the plot is well timed--it does disappoint me.

The size of the book (and the age of the protagonist) lands this one in the Young Adult section, but the writing is elevated beyond many adult fantasy texts. Lee's prose is unusual and evocative without becoming purple. Moreover, I found nothing particularly objectionable in the content, which is very rare (both for me and for the books I read.)

Now if only Black Unicorn were longer, and its heroine more proactive. Then I could give this one the five stars it almost earned.

Thanks for this review is due to Shannon, whose review of Lee's anthology Dreams of Light and Dark inspired me!

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  pass?
Content Warning: none

[*This is the second best un-compliment about writing I have ever received. It is surpassed only by "You don't look like you'd be talented."]

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