Black Unicorn

Several years ago, I purchased Black Unicorn and Gold Unicorn by Tanith Lee from a library booksale.  My friend ASquared, who adores fantasy and probably knows much more about classic canon authors than I do, had mentioned this author before.  And those poor unicorns languished on my shelf until this month, my kick-in-the-pants, read-what-you've-already-got month.

Can a book be lovely, silly, and heartbreaking all at once?  I believe so, because I just finished one, and it was called Black Unicorn.

The sorceress Jaive lives in a fortress in the desert with her daughter, Tanaquil, and various servants.  Upon determining that Tanaquil shares only her flaming red hair and no other aptitude for magic, Jaive ignores the girl in favor of her own experiments.  Unfortunately, magic is a sneaky sort of thing, and it has affected the actual fortress (things rearrange, break, change color, disappear on a whim) and its animal inhabitants.  Most of them learned how to speak, including the desert peeves, which I imagined as a sort of longish dog weasel thing.

After a rather disastrous bid for independence one morning, Tanaquil's raging in her room is interrupted by a peeve who "found a bone."  Tanaquil's really not in the mood for this, but when she sees the "bone," she knows it's no ordinary bone.  It's fine and delicate and glows like moonlight.  With some food bribery, she convinces the peeve to take her to where he originally found the "bone," and Tanaquil eventually unearths the full skeleton ... of a unicorn.

As I mentioned, Jaive has pretty much done her best to forget her non-magical daughter, but it's not like Tanaquil hasn't any talents: she's a whiz with mechanical workings and repairs.  For this unearthly skeleton, she creates a framework of metal to hold it together.

In the meantime, Jaive schedules a banquet in the fortress to try and appease her daughter.  This is by far the most hilarious part of the book, and it felt very Diana Wynne Jones to me.  Every time a dish was brought in, the diners rose and Jaive proclaimed "We salute the fish!" or "We salute the potatoes!"  It was marvelously ridiculous.  But it's probably the last banquet Tanaquil will ever attend at the fortress in the desert, because some errant magic brings the unicorn to life, black and fiery and terrifying.  She feels compelled to follow it out into the desert, the spunky peeve at her heels.

This is a quest story, but more than anything, a journey of self-discovery.  The unicorn factors in very little, actually.  He's what drives Tanaquil to find out who she is.  Sometimes he drags her to her destiny--by the hair, no less!  Eventually, she crosses the scorching desert and arrives at the city that her mother has always told her about.  She falls in first with the people of the marketplace, and then a rude gang of merchants, and finally with the princess of the city.

This city was supposedly founded by the unicorn, and it is an object of worship and devotion by the citizens and the Prince.  On the seashore is a curious formation that is the Unicorn's Gate, where the unicorn of myth and legend entered this world to create the city.  All of these components come together beautifully at the end of the book.

A reader could be perfectly content with Black Unicorn alone, but I have to follow the further adventures of Tanaquil in the next two unicorn books.

Most highly recommended.  Found a book!


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