Friday, October 14, 2011

Review - Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville

Short review: Cara and her grandmother are chased by a mysterious stranger, and Cara ends up in a magical land where unicorns are real. But this new world is still dangerous.

Leaping to Luster
A magical wonder world
Full of unicorns

Full review: Bruce Coville loves unicorns. I don't think there is any doubt about this. So it should surprise no one that when Coville sat down to write a more or less "serious" fantasy series, unicorns would be prominently featured. I've said before that I don't particularly get the love for unicorns - they are basically just a horse with a horn on its head, some healing powers and a penchant for virgins. However, with Into the Land of the Unicorns Coville seems to have taken the mythology of unicorns and launched a series that does about as much as one could do with it.

The story wastes little time getting started - Cara and her grandmother are out walking one evening when Cara spots a mysterious man following them which leads to a furious chase ending with Cara's grandmother thrusting a mysterious amulet into her hands and instructing her to leap off of the top of a church tower at the twelfth strike of the bell and deliver a message once she got to where she was going. And suddenly Cara finds herself in a strange land being assaulted by a dwarf-like delver who incapacitates her before she is rescued by the half-man half-bear Dimblethum. While recovering from her injuries in Dimblethum's cave, Cara meets the unicorn Lightfoot who heals her and informs her she is in Luster, the land of the unicorns. She also meets the diminutive squirrel-like Squijum, an excitable and like the Dimblethum, also a unique creature.

Or at least the land where the unicorns fled to when they abandoned Earth. Apparently unicorns were being ruthlessly hunted to extinction when they opened gates to this alternate world and withdrew to there. Cara was able to travel between worlds using the amulet her grandmother gave her - one of the "Queen's Amulets", of which there are only five. This, of course, raises the question of what her grandmother was doing with such a valuable object. And when Lightfoot hears the message Cara was instructed to deliver "find the Old One and tell her the Wanderer is weary", he declares that they must visit the Queen of the Unicorns (who he identifies as the "Old One") as quickly as possible. So, with the Dimblethum and Squijum accompanying them, they set out to cross Luster and visit the royal court, although both Lightfoot and the Dimblethum have some reservations about going to the royal court.

Before long this odd group of four come across Thomas, one of the few human inhabitants of Luster. Thomas is a tinker who pulls a big handcart around with him everywhere he goes and turns out to be a little more than one might think at first glance. Thomas spontaneously decides to join the little band, and they head out towards Grimwold's home. Grimwold is the "Keeper of the Unicorn Chronicles" who maintains a repository of all stories involving unicorns and their allies. By having Cara pick up various companions along the way, Coville is able to fill Cara (and thus the reader) in on the basic conflict of the series. In the distant past, unicorns acquired an undeserved reputation as vicious beasts. Through a combinations of misunderstandings, a unicorn is violently interrupted while trying to heal a small girl named "Beloved", and the tip of his horn breaks off in the girl's chest, leaving her in a continuous painful cycle of injury and healing. Prevented from dying by the horn embedded in her flesh, Beloved vows to take revenge upon the unicorns for the wrong she perceives they have done her, and her descendants become the "Hunters", who pursued the unicorns so relentlessly that they fled from Earth to Luster. Cara, with her amulet, represents an avenue into Luster for the Hunters, and so she is pursued.

And the unicorns weren't the only creatures to flee from Earth to Luster. There are a handful of transplanted humans and there are also the delvers and dragons, all of whom originally came from Earth and have little love for humans. We also find out that the delvers have been hunting for Cara to get her amulet, but that some delvers, nonplussed at the idea that humans might try to follow her into Luster are willing to offer mild assistance in her quest to warn the Queen of the imminent danger. After this unexpected assistance, the intrepid band of travelers turn to their next problem, which is that they must also traverse through the territory of Firethroat, one of the seven dragons in Luster.

The plot comes to a head in Firethroat's territory, as the shadowy threat that has been looming over Cara shows itself, and turns out to be somehow both surprising and completely predictable. Some quick thinking manages to turn the tables on her adversary, and some generosity results in a fairly substantial thank you gift. As with most Coville books, the lesson conveyed is that making friends is a good thing, and that being nice results in good things happening. These are fairly simple and straightforward life lessons, but they are packaged quite well here, and flow organically from the story.

Into the Land of the Unicorns is a pretty standard young adult fantasy story featuring mostly pretty standard fantasy elements: unicorns, dragons, goblin-like delvers, magical amulets and gates between worlds, the wise wizardly dwarf Grimwold, and of course, an evil immortal villain. But the story is engaging and Coville throws in just enough curves - such as the Dimblethum and the Squijum - to keep the fantasy elements from being stale. On the whole, this is a decent beginning to what promises to be a good, albeit fairly conventional, fantasy tale.

Subsequent book in the series: Song of the Wanderer

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