I’m trying to recall where, exactly, I first heard of this book…I know I very quickly added it to my Goodreads To-Read list last October, but the GR summary doesn’t include the one element that’d especially grabbed my attention. Maybe it was one of the reviews that first mentioned the strange, sparkling bones found by the protagonist — bones that, when pieced together, form an almost-perfect unicorn skeleton (some wires and other metal bits stand in for the missing pieces). A unicorn skeleton that somehow comes to life and lures Tanaquil far into the desert on some quest she doesn’t yet understand.
You guys. A unicorn skeleton. I.e. a dead unicorn. That comes to life. I.e. an undead unicorn.
IT’S A FREAKIN’ ZOMBICORN!!
Or as close to one as I’ve seen in literature. You can bet I told sj immediately so she, too, could add the book to her TBR pile. She’d been lamenting the lack of stories that feature both the mystical equines and the living dead since November 2011, when she was betrayed by an anthology that seemed to promise zombie vs. unicorn battles (it’s called Zombies vs. Unicorns, after all). Said anthology did not follow through on said seemingly implied promise (although…there was, apparently, a story about vampire unicorns). Even worse bait-and-switchery was committed by a book that was actually titled Zombicorns. And had a zombie-fied unicorn on the cover. Just above the small-print disclaimer that said, “Disclaimer: this book is not about unicorns.”
Of course, a bit of silver lining — the lack of published zombicorns did prompt the creation of a most unique short story contest. I’m not usually into horror, but the first-place story was quite awesome.
And it seems the concept has maybe possibly started to catch on in other areas:
Anyhoo… Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn is not a horror story. It’s more of a mystical steampunk hero’s journey. The setting makes me think of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; mostly the Gerudo Desert, physically speaking (or the Haunted Wasteland from Ocarina of Time/Lanayru Desert from Skyward Sword…minus the robot mines), but the society and technology are Hyrule-ish in general.
Tanaquil lives with her mother, the self-important and somewhat-flaky sorceress Jaive, in a very isolated desert fortress. Once or twice, Jaive or some of the other fortress inhabitants have mentioned a city to the far west, but Jaive — though most of the time she couldn’t care less about her disappointingly non-magical daughter — refuses to hear the girl’s thoughts of going away. And no, she’s not concerned about Tanaquil just running off anyway, because did I mention the giant scorching desert? That turns ice-cold every night? The farthest Tanaquil’s ever gone — nearly every day, just for something to do — is a rock formation maybe a mile away.
It’s under this arch that she finds the bones that glow like stars and sound like chimes if you tap them. And of course she knows she should put them back together. It’s what Tanaquil does best, after all, fixing broken things; it’s like she was meant to find the bones.
Things I loved:
- The unicorn, of course.
It was black as night, black as every night of the world together, and it shone as the night shines with a comet. On this burning blackness, the mane and the flaunting tail of it were like an acid, golden-silver fire off the sea, and it was bearded in this sea-fire-acid, and spikes of it were on the slender fetlocks. Its eyes were red as metal in a forge. *
This is an epic, badass unicorn. It’s beautiful, but also scary, and overall “cosmic.” It’s part steampunk, part “fey” — with those star-shiny bones and prism-like skull — and part monster.
- The setting, the bits of history and mythos we learn about it…I won’t go into much detail, since that’d be too spoilery. As world-building goes, it’s not as awesome as Seanan McGuire’s Faerie, or Bruce Coville’s Luster, but it’s interesting enough that I might want to learn more about it (there are two sequels, Gold Unicorn and Red Unicorn).
- No unnecessary romance! Like Katya, Tanaquil doesn’t need a love interest to make her story interesting.
- You know how I pay attention to well-written endings — not just plot-wise, but the prose, tone, etc. — and this one was both satisfying and a touch spooky.
Things I didn’t love:
- Towards the end, some of the events and revelations felt too rushed/glossed-over. A friendship developed too suddenly to feel convincing.
- Some of the characters’ names just bugged me — Lizra (sounds like “lizard”…nothing against lizards, but I just don’t like the name), Prune, Pillow, and Sausage. The latter three are maids or “scullery girls” at Jaive’s fortress, and I have to wonder, is it because of their lower social status that they were given such…non-names? I’m sure they’re nicknames, but still. Though, it does say something about the social atmosphere in the fortress. Maybe when these people came to work for the sorceress, either she or their more immediate supervisors didn’t consider them important enough to be called by their real names, so they just got simple utilitarian titles (Pillow embroiders things, Prune and Sausage prepare food…). And that laziness also reflects just how mind-crushingly boring life has gotten in the fortress, not just for Tanaquil. Everyone just sort of goes through the motions. Still…Sausage?
I liked it enough to 1-click myself a Kindle copy, and I’d be interested in reading more of Tanith Lee’s fantasy — especially her twisted fairy-tales. It was her creepy, inverted re-telling of Cinderella (“When the Clock Strikes“**), in fact, that first introduced me to her, back in college.
* Tanith Lee. Black Unicorn. New York: Atheneum, 1991. Pg. 34
** This copy of the story has a few typos that were not part of Lee’s original text. There’s also a missing sentence — after “‘The woman has bewitched her,’ her father said,” the text should read, “He desired very much that
to this be so. And when the girl clung to his hand and wept, he was certain of it. They showed her the body with the knife in it. The girl screamed and seemed to lose her senses totally” [italics = my corrections].