Friday, July 9, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There are Unicorns...

If you were in junior high or high school in the late 70s and 80s, the word unicorn is going to conjure up images of afros, rollerskating in short shorts, and sparkly tee-shirts with rainbows and such like. They belong in the same category as Care Bears and Trolls-- a collective interest that we're now just a little ashamed to admit we actually liked back when we were young and impressionable.

At least, that's the baggage I had to get over when I picked up the first volume of The Unicorn Chronicles, by Bruce Coville. I had very low expectations for this series, but agreed to read it because my then-10 year old niece really wanted me to.

Now would be a good time to say, I was completely wrong. This is no sappy, sugary unicorn tale; it's a fully realized fantasy with complex characters and a compelling plot that follows so many twists and turns I won't even begin to attempt to untangle it all here. The fact that it spans four largish books would make that task pretty unrealistic anyway.

Here's an ultra-short teaser: Cara Diana Hunter has been thrust into another world to escape a Hunter. Why she is being hunted, she doesn't know. She only knows that she and her grandmother, Ivy, are always on the run. Now she finds herself in a world where the trees have blue leaves and odd creatures are roaming about, some friendly and some not. She meets a unicorn named Lightfoot and learns about the Hunters and their "grandmother" Beloved, a woman who is being simultaneously wounded and healed constantly by a shattered unicorn horn in her heart. She is consumed with hatred for the unicorns, and although the unicorns left earth centuries earlier, Beloved can't rest until she finds a way into Luster to finally carry out the genocide she has dreamt about for so long.

Along the way, Cara meets a variety of creatures and characters -- dragons, delvers, dwarves, centaurs, a gryphon, a geomancer, an assortment of humans, and the squijum (don't ask me what it is -- some kind of squirly thing, I think). It's at least partially a coming-of-age story about Cara, but it's so enmeshed in the fantasy that it doesn't feel like that at all. It's really the story of the unicorns and Beloved. The fourth book, last in the series, is finally out some twenty years after the series began. I can only be glad I was introduced to these books now and didn't have to wait two decades to see how it all turned out.

There are some things in the final book that some readers might find disturbing. Cara's grandmother, we learn in Book 2, is actually a unicorn. She became human when she stumbled back to Earth while pursued by hunters. This makes Cara 1/4 unicorn. In the last book, Cara is offered the chance to become a unicorn to escape a large party of hunters who are tracking her. She accepts, but I found this really unsettling, the idea of losing your human-ness. I was particularly bothered by her lack of hands and found myself feeling rather claustrophobic about her transformation. Another theme developed in the last book is that of the Great Powers, the immortal beings who created the world of Luster and at least some of its inhabitants. The Great Powers are portrayed as essentially human in nature, just very much more powerful. Two of them have been exiled because of the illegal creation of Luster -- something the Great Powers aren't actually great enough to be permitted to do. One of them was exiled to earth, where he must "do enough good to earn my way back into paradise." So, running around in the narrative you have these beings that are, for lack of a better explanation, the gods of this world who subscibe to a kind of "do good, get good" philosophy. It's probably more mature than I'd be comfortable with for a child under 12.

It's epic, it's sweeping, it's long, but it's well worth the effort. Good reading for 10-15 year olds, maybe a little younger if your reader isn't intimidated by big books. Just bear in mind that the last book is for an older child -- perhaps 7th grade or so -- because of the themes and events it contains.

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