Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: The Last Unicorn

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I couldn't resist this, as there were so many different editions with different covers!  The one on the left is the very 70s-ish cover of the copy from my library which I actually read.

Title:   The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle, 218 pages
Publisher: The Viking Press, 1968

The last unicorn lives alone in a forest, quite happily until an overheard conversation leads her to understand that she is the last unicorn.  Then she sets out on a quest to find her missing fellow unicorns.  Along the way she accumulates companions: Schmendrick the (failed) Magician, and Molly Grue, a person of the female persuasion.  Their way leads them to the devastated kingdom of King Haggard, and to an encounter with his protector, the Red Bull.  Though the quest goes to the very brink of failure (which would be success for King Haggard's son Prince Lir), in the end the rest of the unicorns are found and rescued, and the prince is left to mourn alone.

This book was not at all what I had expected, having read blurbs that put it in the company of The Lord of the Rings.  It does in fact share some stylistic elements with LOTR (though the impersonal narrative style--I don't know how to better describe it--is much more exaggerated).  But while Tolkien's work, however subject to parody, is not in itself at all parodic.  The Last Unicorn slides in and out of parody as easily as I slide in and out of my slippers.  Nor is the story full of the battles and noble sacrifices that mark high fantasy (including Tolkien).  The only hero-like actions are done in full-parodic mode.  And the sorcerer is largely a failure at magic.  Flashes of humor give the book some life, at the same time as they drain it of life.

For much of the book the style put me off, leaving me too distant from the characters to care that much.  I admit that, had this not been listed as one of the foundational works of fantasy I wouldn't have finished.  By the end, I did learn to care some for the characters, but I found, as I always do, that the mixing of parody with straight fantasy leaves me dissatisfied and uninterested.  I was glad the unicorns were returned to the world, but there is no one in here I would have cried over as I have been known to do over certain moments in other books.  Other than for historical interest in the development of the fantasy genre (and I'm not completely clear just where it falls there, either), I can't particularly recommend the book.  I suspect its time has passed.

Or maybe it's just me.  An awful lot of people have praised it, and who am I to say they are wrong?

I checked out this copy of The Last Unicorn from my library, and received nothing from the author or publisher in exchange for my review.  The opinions expressed herein are my own and only my own.

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