Year of the Unicorn Mass Market Paperback
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About the Author
For well over a half century, Andre Norton was one of the most popular science fiction and fantasy authors in the world. Since her first SF novels were published in the 1940s, her tales of action and adventure throughout the galaxy have drawn countless readers to science fiction. Her fantasy, including the best-selling Witch World series, has been popular with readers for decades. Andre Norton was the first woman to receive the Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy Award, presented by the World Science Fiction Society in 1977 and the first woman to be named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1983. --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
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"Year of the Unicorn" is a grand adventure, a love story, a coming-of-age novel set like a jewel amidst the fantastical Dark and Light of Norton's Witch World. 'Unicorn' veers away from the 'mainstream' WW adventures of the Tregarth family ("Witch World", "Web of the Witch World", "Three Against the Witch World", etc.), but it is perfect in its own setting (the Wastes and Dales of High Hallack), and in its own right. This is Norton at the top of her form.
The heroine, Gillan realizes that she is not meant for the quiet life of her vowed companions. She possesses a magic that is forbidden to the goodly Dames, and a restless curiosity that is stifled behind the stone walls of the Abbey. And so she rides forth, disguised as the bride who had threatened to kill herself rather than marry a Were-rider. In order to survive, Gillan must rely on her unschooled magic to separate illusion from reality, and true love from the snarling masks of the Were pack.
"Year of the Unicorn" is a grand adventure, a love story, a coming-of-age novel set like a jewel amidst the fantastical Dark and Light of Norton's Witch World. `Unicorn' veers away from the `mainstream' WW adventures of the Tregarth family ("Witch World", "Web of the Witch World", "Three Against the Witch World", etc.), but it is perfect in its own setting (the Wastes and Dales of High Hallack), and in its own right.
Gillan is by birth one of the famed witches of Estcarp, though she doesn't know it. She has been raised all her life in Norstead abbey on a war-ravaged continent. Longing for change from the quiet life of the abbey, she agrees to be one of the thirteen brides sent to the Were Riders, a mysterious clan of shape-shifting sorcerers who demanded wives as tribute for their aid in the war.
Danger and uncertainty trouble Gillan on the journey. She sees truth where the other brides see only illusion. She hides her powers from the suspicious Were Riders, who want from her only blind submission. And she must learn how to trust her strange new husband, Herrel, even as others in the clan are jealous of his good fortune and would steal his bride from him.
This short book is like nothing I've read before from Norton or, for that matter, any other author. I believe this relic of a novel (published in 1965) is a glimpse into the talent of the true Andre Norton, before the flood of under-baked, co-authored (and possibly ghostwritten) books published under her banner during the last decade. Notable for being the first American fantasy novel to feature a woman as central protagonist, Year of the Unicorn is a bold feminist exploration of an intelligent woman's role in a suspicious, male-dominated society. More than that, it is an exciting adventure story. I was never able to predict what would happen next, and the plot twists were entirely fresh. Almost half a century after its publication, I find this story more original than most of the trite, formulaic romantic fantasies sitting on YA shelves today.
Year of the Unicorn reminded me of the medieval lais of Marie de France, a story of love and loss, of divided loyalties and ambiguous moralities, where dream and nightmare exist side by side; a fantasy that inhabits a shadowy landscape of psychological perils and unsettling symbolism. These are deep, old waters that the shallower streams of modern fantasy seldom tap.
Year of the Unicorn is, I believe, the third novel in Norton's beloved Witch World series and the first of the High Hallack cycle, but this novel can stand alone. I can't recommend it enough. Anyone with an interest in unconventional romantic fantasy should read this forgotten gem of a book.
Year of the Unicorn has a completely different feel from the previous Witch World novels. It's written in first person and is, therefore, much more introspective than the action-packed stories about Simon and Jaelithe. The prose, also, has a completely different tone, and is most comparable (in my experience) to Ursula Le Guin's. This comparison seems especially notable with the audio edition because it feels a lot like the audio version of Le Guin's Voices -- even the voice of the reader (though different) is extremely similar. Kate Rudd reads Year of the Unicorn for Brilliance Audio and she does a great job.
I enjoyed learning more about Andre Norton's universe. The world-building is extensive and Norton avoids infodumping, so we just get a tantalizing glimpse of the Witch World with each book. The first half of Year of the Unicorn flies by while we learn about High Hallack and get to know Gillan as she makes sneaky plans and moves quickly to implement them. Unfortunately, the magic system, which relies mostly on willpower, is not so intriguing. Basically, supernatural things are accomplished by thinking and willing strongly enough. This is forgivable for a fantasy novel published in 1965, but it's still boring.
Speaking of fantasy history, according to Wikipedia, Year of the Unicorn marks "the first time in American publishing history that a young woman is the primary protagonist in a fantasy book" (no citation, retrieved on May 12, 2010). I don't know if that's really true, but I can say that Gillan is a likable young woman and her characterization is strong. However, this was actually both boon and bane, for Gillan, as she says herself, "speaks little... but she thinks much" and each thought she has is recorded for us. Thus, we are frequently subjected to her inner queries and then her entire cognitive process as she contemplates a catalog of potential answers. This includes frequent exclamations of "I could not... or could I... but how... how could I?" (etc.) and habitual reiterations of her terror. This caused the second half of the story to drag and to become frustrating when it seemed that Gillan had worked out a solution, acted on it, and then discovered that she was wrong and had to start over. I usually enjoy a first-person point-of-view, and I loved the first half of Year of the Unicorn, but by the end, I was quite eager to get out of Gillan's head.
Those, especially female readers, who enjoy a strong introspective heroine, are likely to enjoy Andre Norton's Year of the Unicorn. This can be read as a stand-alone novel.