phoenix art credit Sujono Sujono
For my second Wyrd & Wonder post, I wanted to feature my favourite magical creature of all time – the unicorn!
Listen, I love unicorns, and I make absolutely no apologies for it. I don’t remember when I fell in love with them, but since I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t… It’s safe to say they stole my heart quite a while ago.
Nor am I the least bit subtle about it: my rucksack is covered in unicorns, my purse has a unicorn on it, my keys are guarded by unicorn keyrings, and there are days I’m dressed in unicorns from my earrings to my socks. My bestie bought me a unicorn hoodie for Yule. When I say I love unicorns, I mean I LOVE unicorns.
I love them when they’re sparkly, and I love them when they’re glorious, dangerous creatures. I love that they embody both wildness and femininity, two concepts that should go together more often. It tickles me that black unicorns apparently symbolise sodomy (although I only ever found one source for that, and nothing to corroborate it.) I don’t see unicorns as tied to Christianity, or virginity, but I do see them as hopepunk icons.
…Gotta write an essay about that sometime. *scribbles*
It therefore saddens me greatly that it’s so hard to find really good unicorn stories. Most are written for much younger readers; unicorns might appear in passing in adult fantasies (such as in Miles Cameron’s Masters & Mages trilogy, where the General rides a unicorn into battle), but they rarely feature. This, then, is my attempt to gather a few of the best ones into a single list, in the hopes that it reaches some other unicorn-lovers out there.
(And no, The Last Unicorn doesn’t make the cut. I’m not a fan, although I have no issues with anyone who is. It just didn’t quite click for me!)
The Firebringer trilogy series is best summed up as: Watership Down, but unicorns. What at first seems like a very simplistic story for children rapidly reveals itself to be much more complex, and unafraid of tackling difficult questions; although written for a younger audience, I think it has something to offer adults as well.
Jan is the prince of the unicorns, who are in turn the chosen people of the goddess Alma: raised up above the animalistic pans (fauns) and the monstrous gryphons. But Jan is hardly the perfect prince; he’s reckless, a rule-breaker, impatient to be allowed to go through the adulthood rite of his people and be allowed to join the herd’s warriors. His father, Korr, is an imperious and powerful figure, one that’s hard to live up to – but when he finally allows Jan to make the journey to their people’s sacred pool, it sets Jan on a journey prophesied a long, long time ago.
Over the course of the books, Jan discovers that the history he’s been told is full of holes or outright lies; that the prejudices the unicorns hold for other creatures are baseless; that there are other ways to live than the way he does. Racial stereotypes, the unhealthy weight of tradition, the value of peace over war, standing up for what’s right; these are just some of the issues the trilogy examines. And, frankly, the unicorns and their culture are just fantastic.
Ariel is set in the aftermath of the end of the world; when technology died without warning, magic came back, and 99% of the human population vanished without explanation. Pete, who’s a teen when the Change occurs, survives alone as a scavenger – until he meets a unicorn he names Ariel. With his help, Ariel learns to speak and read, and eventually the two of them stand as equal companions. Pete is the narrator of the book, but Ariel is a major character, sharp and funny and beside Pete every step of the way on their journey to confront the sorcerer who wants Ariel’s horn.
The Obsidian Trilogy is kind of the epitome of classic fantasy – we have humans, elves, and demons (as well as sundry other ‘wild-folk’ like centaurs and undines), and, as you can see from the covers, dragons – and unicorns. Kellen is the son of the Arch-Mage, living in the Golden City of Bells – a city ruled over by the Council of Mages. Within the City, everything is perfect…and never-changing; there are rules about everything, down to the smallest of minutiae, and the rules must never be broken. So when Kellen discovers Wild Magic, anathema to the hidebound Mages, and refuses to give it up, it gets him exiled.
Shalkan, a talking unicorn, becomes his rescuer and companion in Kellen’s journey beyond the City. It’s a long journey, with a destination he could never have imagined – the Obsidian Mountain, home of demonkind…
There’s a lot of cool things about this trilogy, not least the unicorns themselves – these are non-equine unicorns, and can only be approached and touched by virgins. The touch of a unicorn’s horn is instant and total death to demons, which makes the unicorn-mounted elven warriors a vital force. Lackey and Mallory don’t really suborn the classic tropes much – the demons are very demon-y – but the worldbuilding around the elves is pretty fabulous, especially their obsession with tea!
The sequel trilogy set in the same universe a century (or more?) later, also features a unicorn companion to the human adventurers.
One of my favourite series of all time, the Black Jewels series – especially the core trilogy made up of Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, and Queen of the Darkness – doesn’t give unicorns a major part, but they are incredibly beautiful, magical creatures with a very special part to play. In the world of the Black Jewels, unicorns are Kindred – sentient, sapient creatures kin to the magic-using Blood of the human races. And when Witch, who is Dreams Made Flesh – the dreams of every race, longing for the perfect Queen – arrives to walk the realms, she embodies the dreams of the unicorns too.
(A head’s up that book one, Daughter of the Blood, has some really dark content in it, so please look up the content warnings if you know you have triggers!)
Unicorns I Have Known is not a novel, but a collection of ‘unicorn’ photographs accompanied by notes on unicorn sub-species and behaviour – a kind of naturalist’s travelogue. The photographs are gorgeous, but it’s the sketches and unicorn-ology in the calligraphic notes that made this book really special to me, and a must-have for any unicorn lover – if you can track down a copy!
The Unicornis Manscripts is another non-novel, a book whose conceit is that it contains the translations of an ancient manuscript about unicorns, their abilities, history, and behaviour. It’s an incredible work of art, full of sketches and drawings reminiscent of Michelangelo’s, with original lore and a lovely memoir-esque feel as Green describes his journey with the eponymous manuscripts. Again, it’s a priceless treasure for anyone who loves unicorns.