CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 28. . . .March 25, 2011
The Hunt of the Unicorn.
New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf (Distributed in Canada by Random House), 2011.
345 pp., hardcover & e-book, $18.99 (trade), $22.99 (lib. bdg.), $16.99 (e-book).
ISBN 978-0-375-85872-7 (trade), ISBN 978-0-375-95872-4 (lib. bdg.), ISBN 978-0-375-89624-8 (e-book).
Grades 4-11 / Ages 9-16.
Review by Janet M. Johnson.
Reviewed from Advance Reader's Copy.
The Hunt of the Unicorn is one of the best fantasy books for young adult readers to be written in the last few years. It has a good story with the fast plot typical of an adventure. By weaving historical elements into the modern world, the author has created a parallel world of wondrous beasts such as the types that would be found in a medieval bestiary. Like Percy and the Olympians, these mythological creatures come to life and enrich a fantasy which takes place in two locations, modern America and Golgoth, a European world placed in the Dark Ages. Not only does the story play out in two alternate worlds, this duality is a common thread to be found throughout the book without the reader feeling these pairings are contrived.
The reader is first to make the acquaintance of Alice-Elayne in the bustling city of New York where she is losing herself in the story of a werewolf. Her father interrupts her to tell us about the original AE (Alice-Elayne). Already the reader's imagination is piqued with the question of which is more fantastic, the werewolf or the history that has been passed down through centuries to our present day heroine. The story begins when Elayne's father reads "The Incredible Yet Nonetheless True Tale of Alice-Elayne Robochon: Her Adventures in Goloth, Land of the Fabulous Beast; and What Happened Next." The book sets the stage for Elayne and the reader to learn about the history of the Weaver and how each Alice-Elayne is duty-bound to help the unicorn Moonspill. Throughout the reading of the book, readers also learn that her father is terribly ill with cancer and is probably not going to be cured. Alice-Elayne would like to believe in a mythical world where she could find a cure for her father.
Although the modern Alice finds it difficult to believe the story her father reads to her, she is not so skeptical about the piece of unicorn horn he gives her and which he tells her it is the key to this other world. When an opportunity arises to visit the Cloisters museum in New York to see old famous tapestries from the Middle Ages, Alice is very anxious to see them, and she discovers these "awesome" tapestries depicting a white unicorn were made by the Weaver since the initials of AE were on them. Hearing a call to cross over, Alice-Elayne discovers the portal into Goloth where she is met by a unicorn and carried away. Moonspill, who was old and becoming weak because of his old age, had been seeking her to help him free his mate who had been held captive by a descendant of the old Adam. Believing his only hope was the legend of being tamed by a maid, he sought out the descendant of the original Alice-Elayne, and together they formed a bond to rescue her father and Heartsease, his mate.
The Hunt of the Unicorn is the classic quest story that you might find in fantasy, and it is told through many twists and turns or subplots before the heroine reaches her reward. She is aided in her quest by the old and wise Moonspill who is also seeking to free his mate. Both learn a life lesson along the way. The modern reader will recognize the recurrent allusions to saving the environment and the value of ecology in all its forms. Alice, a very sympathetic character who is concerned for her father, takes on a motherly nurturing role towards him. Perhaps because she only has one parent, she is also self-reliant and shows courage and confidence in her actions which are not dependant on an adult. The unicorn is too independent and prone to feel anger and lash out, and it is this difficulty in thinking situations through that has, in part, caused him to fail to protect his mate. Both must learn to trust each other.
As she wondered, words came into her mind. Do not fear. My horn grows still and I will sharpen its point again. Yet know these two things. First, that it is the touch of the unicorn"s horn on magic tree, on magic weave, that opens the doorway between worlds.
She looked at what she held, seeing it now not as a mere piece of ivory but as the key it was. She nodded, looked up. "And the second thing I must know?"
He bent his head to her. If your need is dire, beyond all mortal hope, then hold this piece of me and call. I will come.
She stared into his eyes. "Is it true you saved my father's life?" It is true.
"And now you have saved mine." She hesitated, then continued, except this time in her mind. "So know, if you need me. I will return. And if I die before you call for you live far longer than we mortals-I will pass on this vow to my child. She to hers. For what you have done for our family, our family will honor our debt...for all time."
The story wraps up in Central Park and the streets around Alice's New York home. Here, she is assisted by a street person who saves her from evil followers of Leo, the new tyrant in Goloth who have tracked her into the new world with Cerberus, a three headed dog.
All essential aspects of a good story are present. The plot, characterization and tone are consistent and believable. The Hunt of the Unicorn will lead the interested reader into the study of French history, especially the wars with the English and life in a castle. The story is based on a series of tapestries that can be found in the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The unicorn tapestries hang in this museum and depict a hunt of one such wondrous beast. There is another set of unicorn tapestries in Cluny, France, which are also very well-known, but the set in New York have the mysterious A and E woven into them.
I would strongly recommend The Hunt of the Unicorn to any reader above the age of nine who is interested in fantasy, the middle ages and unicorns, although there is a caution here for the author depicts the horror and violence of the hunt realistically, and it may be disturbing to some young people.
Janet M. Johnson is the Coordinator of Technical and Media Services at the Red River College Library, Red River College of Applied Arts, Sciences and Technology, in Winnipeg, MB.
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