An anthology is always an interesting read, filled with multiple narratives and styles and as a result uneven by nature. The Unicorn Anthology, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, is one which comes with a plainly stated theme.
The introduction by Peter S. Beagle is about his own history with unicorns, and about how a creative individual becomes known for a certain work. He cites himself, yes, but only after a litany of others, many passed on, others still living. Each is given time, and I cannot help but see the character of Beagle in who was chosen, from Christopher Lee and Jim Houston who were friends of his to James Stevens and Robert Nathan, authors celebrated for individual books in spite of lengthy careers. Beagle goes on from this to discuss his own history with genre, and it is quite an enjoyable read. A brief bit of biography that draws at the heart, as many do, and does so quite well. Certainly not to be skipped, even if one is the kind of reader who normally might do so.
The first story in the collection, Carlos Hernandez’ “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory”, about an American reporter in the U.K. Gabi Reál is having a drink with friends when a forest ranger who purportedly works with unicorns appears. It is quite a good story, and kept me reading on. There’s an interesting reference to poaching here, appropriate both as a metaphor and a likely result of unicorns existing in the present day. There’s even an amusing fantastical scientific explanation. More themes and events exist in the story of course, but Hernandez chose well in constructing his story.
Second up is “The Brew” by Karen Joy Fowler, which starts at Christmas time as the narrator finds a nice snow globe with a slightly blue unicorn in it, and thinks back to childhood games gone very wrong. There are stories nested within stories here, and I greatly enjoyed all of them. There is a sense of loss in this one.
“Falling Off the Unicorn” was written by the team of David D. Levine and Sara A. Mueller. The first dialog in this one includes a phrase everyone has said or thought at some point in their life — “This is going to hurt” — but one which works well in context. The reader is quickly swept up in a fictitious sport, and begins to piece details of the world together quickly through it. The reader meets Misty, a unicorn jockey, as well as her unicorn’s caretaker Caroline. Here the reader sees what happens when things don’t go right during a race, and some interesting questions about how certain requirements for those handling the creatures might actually work. Frankly, the idea of unicorn racing alone grabbed me with this story. While i won’t say this story brought quite the same emotional gut-punch to me as some others in the collection, it had more ideas I did not see coming as well.
Carrie Vaughn’s “A Hunter’s Ode to His Bait” comes fourth, and is . . . interesting. The old idea of baiting a unicorn with young virgin is used to very good effect here, although we’re seeing the story more from the point of view of the hunter than from that of the prey or bait, as the title suggests. That said, the young woman becomes increasingly clearly defined. It’s one that might seem a little odd to some, given a definite age gap and an arguable bit or morality about a relationship, but Vaughn goes out of her way to suggest a lack of traditional exploitation, and reflects on the way that any exploitation might be happening, albeit only briefly. This takes the traditional in a startling, but interesting, new direction.
“Ghost Town” is Jack C. Haldeman II’s piece for this collection, which opens with a con artist finding himself stuck in a nowhere town that’s half abandoned already. He meets a woman in a bar, and begins, slowly, to discuss what would be best to do now that he is essentially trapped, and she in turn discusses whether the way he lives now is right. This one was more outright hopeful than most in the collection, but it was so in an odd little way. It’s more upbeat than many in the book.
Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” starts with someone annoyed at all the flowers because they need to take a leak and don’t want to do it on one of them. It’s a bizarre start, but not a bad one. The story switches point of view at times, and has twists that are frankly obvious, but is still an enchanting little read, and gives another interesting take on the unicorn being drawn to virgins.
The seventh story got me smiling a bit at the title, “The Maltese Unicorn” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Set in New York in the 30’s, this volume represents a fascinating fusion of styles, and through it we soon see an interesting take on the themes of noir fection. A woman finds another waiting for her, she having evidently refused to cooperate with her criminal employers and stolen a highly desirable object. The setup should be familiar to anyone who’s read Dashiell Hammet’s novel. There are some interesting interactions between the two women, which goes a little more the way I expected, having read some of Kiernan’s work, than it might’ve otherwise. The reason for the theft is not entirely the same as in much noir, certainly having a little more to it than the strict monetary value of the object in question. I enjoy a tribute to classic noir, fantasy or not, and this definitely fits the bill.
This little bit of fusion is followed by Marina Fitch’s “Stampede of Light”, about a teacher. It’s beautiful, haunting, and sad. A delight. It’s about a woman thinking back on her students and the world not quite seeming right around them. A strange old woman, and an image of unicorns. One of my favorites of the collection.
“The Highest Justice” is Garth Nix’ entry in this volume. It is also the most classically fairy tale, with burdens, summoning, cycles, wicked queens and beloved people hidden away. There is a clear theme of loss to this tale, and a most interesting combination of witchcraft as evil and magic as something else entirely. It is told in relatively few words, as most fairy tales can be, and is the better for it.
The tenth story is A.C. Wise’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” which follows a boy who is, indeed, the spawn of a unicorn, and has some horrifying memories of his youth because of it. It is a little slip of a story at best, interesting, and gone before one realizes the plot. Pain is, as often in this collection, a primary theme.
“Survivor” by Dave Smeds is as depressing as anything I have read in a long time. Starting in a tattoo parlor during the Vietnam War, a man named Troy, little more than a boy, elects to get a unicorn tattoo in a strange attempt to impress his buddies, remembering a book from his childhood, before being sent back to the battlefield where tragedy strikes, leaving him with a horrifying burden. This one fits into the collection, and yet its type of fantasy evokes a different feeling than most. It’s a biography shown in failure and pain.
Bruce Coville’s “Homeward Bound” features a young man who lost his father and lives with his uncle. He sees what his uncle tells him is a narwhal tooth, which he is sure is a unicorn horn. There’s a steady turn towards the dark with this one, and an odd and not quite traditional ending.
“Unicorn Triangle” by Patricia A. McKillip is urban fantasy, and from a point of view I am very much surprised I did not see sooner. That alone would be appreciated, but the mix and almost rotation between past and present, one world and the next, is impressively achieved for a work of this length, blending seamlessly in the first instance to the remembrances of a character in a situation she barely understands.
Peter S. Beagle’s entry comes relatively late. “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann” deals in Persian unicorns, which is a fun change of pace. It also reads much as a fairy tale told by a cranky old man. The world around it feels right for such a setting, although the strange nature of the unicorns in this tale is a good reminder just how varied content can be and still fit within the theme of an anthology. Indeed, contradictory yet sensible interpretations of unicorn themes are at play here, innocence meeting not so innocent quite well. There are questions about the lesson one could take from this, I suppose, about charity vs. one’s nature. This is more a “scorpion and fox” story than “Daniel in the lion’s den.”
“The Transfigured Hart”by Jane Yolen is A great little read. It starts with a quotation that is appropriate, though at first glance I was unsure whether it was from a real document or purely fictitious. For the purpose of this story that didn’t matter much, and it begins with the titular hart as our character. A loner and slight oddity among his people, the hart is white, and soon he is replaced as our viewpoint figure by a boy named Richard. Richard is a sickly boy who reads a lot, and he spots the hart. Then we meet Heather, a quiet girl to be sure. Personally I identified most with Richard, particularly due to some shared personality and behavioral tics from childhood. Friendship and its difficulties play a strong role here. It’s a very nice little,piece, though longer than many in this volume. This story more than most also puts thought into the question of belief.
Finally, the last piece is a poem by Nancy Springer titled “Unicorn Series”. It is quite nice, and the color choices reflect back to some of Springer’s other works. I’m less a expert on the subject of poetry, and as a result can say little more than that I enjoyed the piece, and that’s enough, for me, to justify a poem.
The unicorn has a special meaning to the modern fantasist, whether a fan or a creator, and Peter S. Beagle has more to do with that than any other. Here have stories that he man helped collect, all of them reprints in one fashion or another, but an interesting mix nonetheless, with tales as early as 1975 (Yolen’s “The Transfigured Hart”) and as a late as 2017 for a number of works. As one who enjoys both older and newer fantasy works, a variety like this is appreciated, where many volumes would keep only to more recent fare, seeing previously anthologized pieces as less desirable. This is a brilliant little collection with a wonderful introduction and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
(Tachyon Publications, digital edition 2017, trade paperback 2019)