Friday, January 14, 2011

Review - A Glory of Unicorns by Bruce Coville

Stories included:
The Guardian of Memory by Bruce Coville
Tearing Down the Unicorns by Janni Lee Simner
Beyond the Fringe by Gregory Maguire
Stealing Dreams by Ruth O'Neill
The Ugly Unicorn by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Story Hour by Katherine Coville
The Unicorns of Kabustan by Alethea Eason
A Song for Croaker Nordge by Nancy Varian Berberick and Greg Labarbera
The Healing Truth by Kathryn Lay
Child of Faerie by Gail Kimberly
The New Girl by Sean Stewart

Poems included:
The Dream-Child by Nancy Varian Berberick

Short review: A collection of short stories about unicorns that left me still wondering why people are fascinated by them.

Despite the attempt
To make unicorns magic
I just don't get it

Full review: I have never quite understood the fascination that some people have for unicorns. As mythological creatures go, unicorns are pretty uninteresting: neither looking like a horse nor having a horn is particularly impressive and the sexual implications of only being able to be ridden by a virginal maiden are somewhat creepy. Bruce Coville, on the other hand, loves unicorns, and the anthology A Glory of Unicorns containing twelve short stories about the beasts is the result. The title is a reference to Coville's belief that like a group of lions is called a pride, and a group of geese is called a gaggle, that a group of unicorns should be called a "glory", which is a pretty clear indication of how he feels about unicorns.

But it seems that merely writing about a horse with a horn and a penchant for virginal women isn't enough to make a good story. Almost all of the stories in this collection resort to pumping up unicorns by adding additional magical powers to them. In Coville's own story, The Guardian of Memory, the unicorns are able to magically travel between our world and their safer, magical world. Likewise, in Beyond the Fringe by Gregory Maguire unicorns are able to magically hide in the fringes of carpets and tapestries. In many of these stories, the fact that the mythological creature at their focus is a unicorn is almost entirely irrelevant: a Pegasus, or a satyr, or a dragon would do just as well. In The New Girl by Sean Stewart the unicorn is mostly a unicorn, and even seems to have the standard mythological preference for virginal girls, but the story is fairly modest - a girl seeking to be free of the suffocating small town life comes to understand the plight of the unicorn the town keeps as a combination first aid kit and good luck charm. Despite its quiet nature, the story is decent, and the only one in which the unicorn in the story is by and large just a unicorn.

Of all the stories, the most intricate one is probably The Ugly Unicorn by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, which is set in a fantasy version of China with dozens of different kinds of unicorns. Once again, it turns out that simply being a horned horse-like creature isn't sufficient to make for a good fantasy story, so we have elephant-unicorns, dragon-unicorns, and tiger-unicorns and curative properties attributed to unicorn horns (to be fair, this is not entirely without precedent, as some traditional myths ascribe antivenin properties to unicorn horns, but not the ability to restore sight) and the ability to change shape. As with many of the stories in the book, the fact that one of the central characters is a unicorn isn't really that important - he could have been a fairy or an elf and the story would have worked equally well. Despite it being a good story, it isn't really a unicorn story at all, it is a fairy realm story dressed up with unicorns. Another fairy realm story in which unicorns are used is Child of Faerie by Gail Kimberly, in which a girl is faced with the choice to stay on Earth with her human family, or abandon them and return with her unicorn to the land of fairy. Once again, the unicorn is somewhat extraneous to the plot, as it could have been replaced by almost any fairy realm type creature without affecting the course of the story in any way.

In some cases, the unicorn has additional magical attributes, but is used metaphorically, as a means of showing a girl growing into adulthood, as in Tearing Down the Unicorns by Janni Lee Simner. Or the unicorn is the bringer of dreams (and is coincidentally named Dreams) as in Stealing Dreams by Ruth O'Neill. The Unicorns of Kabustan by Alethea Eason uses unicorns as a metaphor for peace, and gives them the ability to fly and communicate telepathically to boot, managing to pump unicorn attributes up and make them a literary device at the same time. Another story using unicorns as a metaphor is Story Hour by Katherine Coville, in which a grandmother tells the tale of how a unicorn went from being real to being held in her heart. The story is related as a story that within a story that may or may not be true. It is one of the weakest stories in the book, but to be fair, all of the "unicorn as metaphor" stories in the book are pretty bad and in all of them, there isn't anything particularly unique to unicorns that is used in the story.

Both A Song for Croaker Nordge by Nancy Varian Berberick and Greg Labarbera and The Healing Truth by Kathryn Lay are also "unicorn as metaphor" stories that deserve to be singled out as particularly awful, although for wholly different reasons. In A Song for Croaker Nordge the unicorn is creepily sexualized as only responding to the singing of a girl, and serves as a metaphor for death. Making the story even creepier is the fact that the girl in question is singing to unknowingly summon the unicorn that represents death for her own father. And even creepier is the fact that her father knows that girls can summon unicorns by singing because his now dead wife used to do so, and he has taught his daughter the trick. The interplay between incestuous overtones of the father-daughter relationship, sex, and death is really unsettling. The Healing Truth, on the other hand, is a very weak version of the Pinocchio story. The protagonist is a crippled girl with a penchant for lying. She finds an ugly unicorn that only she can see. For others to see, and for the unicorn to become beautiful, the protagonist must convince others to believe in the unicorn, and to do that she must regain the trust of those around her despite her reputation as a serial liar. Of course the little morality play works itself out exactly as one might expect, and in the most transparently facile way possible. Both of these stories are just weak, one because it is inherently icky, the other because it is so very childish in tone.

While someone who is a unicorn enthusiast may find the book more satisfying than I did, I suspect that they might be somewhat put off by the fact that the unicorns are, for the most part, not really unicorns. They are flying, invisible, telepathic, mystically healing, beasts that hide in walls and carpets and walk between universes. It seems that the unicorns in most of the stories are simply ciphers onto which any kind of magical or otherworldly attribute can be mapped. As a result, most of the stories are only "unicorn" stories by almost random happenstance, and could have just as easily been stories in which elves, pixies, or simply "magic" had been used to replace the unicorn. In short, I found the book entirely useless for demonstrating what is special about unicorns. From my perspective, this makes the book little more than a collection of generic magic stories of uneven quality and as a result I can't give it more than a mediocre recommendation.

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