As the story begins, six years ago the world underwent a Change. At least, no one’s said anything about the world outside the US, but since no one seems to have come along and tried to colonize the country from a stronger base the presumption is that it was a global thing. At 4:30 one afternoon, everything mechanical stopped working, from battery-operated watches to cars to telephones to guns. And for various reasons lots of people have died.
The story is told in the first person by Pete Garey, 20 (21?) years old and on his own since the Change occurred. Over a year ago Pete found a very young unicorn with a broken leg – and the book almost lost me right there when in a flashback the pretty little thing looked up at him and said, in a little girl voice, “Bwoke”. Repeatedly. What with one thing and another, Pete was – and is as of the time of the book – able to touch the unicorn, being still a virgin, and he helped her to heal. He named her Ariel, and they have become partners over the last couple of years, traveling and surviving together. They are, in fact, Familiars, which is pretty much what the common Fantasy usage is (as opposed to Buddies, which happens when a human bonds with an animal to gain control over it). They wander the southeast without much of a goal beyond survival, until the day they discover that there is an evil sorcerer in New York City who wants her horn. Not her, necessarily – her horn.
I don’t know. It’s a neat idea – suddenly the laws of nature change, and nothing mechanical works but magic does, but … shouldn’t that mean the wheel wouldn’t work? I mean, guns don’t fire. Wind-up wristwatches work, but guns won’t fire. Guns have been around for hundreds of years, and aren’t all that mechanical; my understanding is that it’s more of a physics thing than anything else, especially with old weapons; there’s no reason a revolver shouldn’t work even if technology has been obliterated. The explanation given is that Boyett hated guns, and didn’t want them in his book, and so discarded logic in favor of the explanation “It’s magic. Just because. Shut up.” Also, Boyett was 19 when he wrote the book, which actually explains a great deal.
Something I find fascinating is that the edition I have certainly doesn’t show Ariel on the cover – it comes across as a gritty urban post-apocalyptic fantasy: crumbling edifices, fire, random hub caps, and a sword. It was, I think, a good idea not to put the glowy white unicorn on the cover. That way lies Children’s Book, which this certainly isn’t. It is, however something of a coming-of-age story, along with the post-apocalypse semi-urban fantasy tale, and a Quest too. It’s actually strangely off-putting to have a unicorn in this setting – I’m too conditioned to expect certain things when a unicorn is involved, and none of those things are present. Ariel curses like a sailor – or rather like Pete, from whom she learned to talk … but she loves peppermint candies.
I … just don’t know. Pete’s all right; he’s self-absorbed, except when he’s absorbed in Ariel – but if spoilers are not alarming see below for more on his self-absorption. Ariel is all right; she can be kind of bitch, which is actually funny in a unicorn. And she knows things she has no business knowing, but has no idea about other things; she doesn’t know what a lighthouse is when she sees it, but she can always tell you what time it is, in the same sort of answer a person with a watch would: “It’s five till ten.” She doesn’t know what Chesapeake Bay is, but she’s able to identify a saddle on something else’s back and can give accurate and detailed information on dragon physiology and how to kill one. A factor in my lack of fondness for Ariel is, I think, that Pete spends so much time telling me how wonderful she is, but I don’t really see it in her actions and words. He tells me I should like her, but I’m given no reason to decide to like her. And the punning is as much fun as a hair shirt. In his afterword (so charmingly called “Taking a dump in Lothlórien” – which, by the way, he accents incorrectly), Boyett talks about how the book evenly divides people into two camps: those who loved the book and whose lives it changed, and those who flung the book against a wall and wrote him hate mail. There is, he claims, no one who falls in the middle area. I hate to break it to him, but yes, there is. *raises hand* I did not love the book. I don’t think it would have changed my life even if I’d read it in my formative years. But I didn’t fling it, and the urge to write a nasty email died quickly. I hated the ending, but I didn’t care all that much; I’m not sorry I read it, but I simply won’t ever reread this one.
****SPOILERS FOLLOW (not plot, but details of setting)****
I might have missed something, but I’m trying to work out what happened to the populace. Because Pete and Ariel can walk for days, on or off roads, and never meet anyone, and when they do it’s nearly always just a handful of people. There were over 238 million people in the US in 1985. There were over eleven million people in Florida, where Pete and Ariel start out the book, where Pete grew up. Yes, lots of people have to have died in the cataclysm. Obviously, if you were in a plane when the Change happened you were … in trouble (my first instinct being to say “screwed”). Hospitals obviously would be in peril; with generators useless as well as everything else, life support would be almost immediately ended. There were apparently a huge number of suicides, which is understandable, and looting and murder and general lawlessness is rampant, which is (unfortunately) human. Oh, and if you were driving along a highway and were caught in the middle of nowhere, that would be a problem. Would there have been crashes on highways if every vehicle there was just … stopped, and if so would they have been bad enough for fatalities? Would forward motion keep people moving for a few minutes? Why wouldn’t brakes work – isn’t that a simple matter of depression of the brake pedal applying the brake shoe to the wheel and slowing it, power brakes being only to make the process easier? (What about elevator brakes?) And what about everyone else? I suppose people stuck far away from home – as I said, stuck with a useless car in the middle of nowhere, or at work in the middle of nowhere – could lead to starvation, death from exposure (though probably not in Florida), or various other sorts of accidents. Cities have emptied, except for the dangerous and nasty. The first thing Pete runs into the day of the Change is intruders in his house – was one of those supposed to be his brother? If so, why? Did the Change affect some people’s minds? The neighbor who was a policeman seems to have gone mad – oh, and the cannibal Pete has to kill right at the beginning of the book. The loss of plumbing (did they? Lose plumbing?) and sanitation doesn’t seem to have cost lives; the moment the Change hit the air and water cleared of all pollution, with an improbably immediacy – although Boyett never says if it’s a self-cleaning system, as in whether it would matter if a clutch of survivors used a river as their latrine. Rampant disease is never mentioned. So …?
Oh, right – there was apparently an immediate influx of magical beasts, many of which will happily eat human. So that might account for a decent number of people, especially in the first few unprepared days – but … Where the heck did they come from? Did they all spring into being at the same time, the moment of the Change? Or did they always exist, and were released or emerged from hiding all at once …? This is one of the problems with a very young writer and an equally young narrator; neither knows everything, so there are many unanswered questions.
More: why hasn’t Pete ever tried to find his family? He said that his mother worked a few hours away by car; why not leave some kind of message at the house – just in case his brother wasn’t the one who killed the girl, and hasn’t been killed himself – and set off toward where she would have been, even if it was a few hours’ walk, or a day’s, or more? It’s stated she works in Miami, but not where the family lives, so it’s all speculation (though they apparently live very much in the boonies, as it’s several hours’ walk from the high school home. I could walk to our high school in under an hour. Say she worked two hours away, which is an idiotic commute, but just say; that would be say 100 miles. Cut it down to “as the crow flies” – or as the boy walks – and call it 60 miles, though it could be a lot less. So it might take him about a day and a half; he wasn’t in shape yet, so two days. Big whoop. He wandered all up the whole East Coast, for heaven’s sake – a few dozen miles to find his own mother shouldn’t be too much to contemplate. He might never have found her – but he’s spent the last five years wandering aimlessly anyway. I would have thought if he gave half a damn about his mother he would make some effort to go and see if he could trace her. I’d imagine she would look for her children. And what about all of his other friends, and extended family if any? His brother? And what about the family of the girl he saw killed? They can just wonder for the rest of eternity?
****SPOILERS FOLLOW (this time I mean it)****
One effect of Pete’s self-centeredness, I suppose, is that he seems to be genuinely confused about why Ariel grows bitchier when a girl insists on joining their traveling party. “Look, I’m sorry if I’m coming on too strong,[” she says. “]But you try reading fantasy books all your life – have a Bradbury dream walk by your bus bench on a hot day, with everything you’ve ever wanted tied up in a neat bundle – and see if you wouldn’t do almost anything to have it.” (Did Bradbury write about unicorns?) Many times it is said, and several times demonstrated, that someone who is not a virgin cannot touch Ariel. She can be seen, and is happy enough to travel with, those “not pure” (except for the girl, Shaughnessy – she never liked her), but non-virgins simply cannot touch her. They have traveled alone together for going on two years, and when a girl joins them – because she is irresistibly drawn to the unicorn, though not a virgin – Ariel puts two and two together: 20-year-old male, 20-something girl, alone. Compatibility in anything beyond gender becomes irrelevant; one boy (any) + one girl (any) = headache for unicorn. A few things are said about a unicorn’s ability to see the possibilities ahead, the possible branches a path can take. It doesn’t take that ability to be able to see the possibilities of a young man (especially one who has been having erotic dreams) remaining in close proximity to a nubile and willing (human) female. (And really, I didn’t need that deep an insight into the erotic awakening of Pete Garey. Thanks, though.)
The book was originally published in 1983, when the world was a very different place, and Boyett added a prefacing author’s note for the reprint. In it, he vaguely explains that there is something that no longer exists which did in the ’83, and since the book takes place in an undetermined future what isn’t there now shouldn’t be there then. But he made the decision to retain as part of the story what was once and is no longer there, part of the reasoning for which was that if it was removed it would be obvious. And I promise you that’s almost the way he says it in the prologue, only over several pages.
What he meant – obviously – was the World Trade Center, and I have no idea why he thought he had to dance around it in the preface; NYC + something no longer there which was hard to miss in the 80’s = the Twin Towers. I knew that the minute he started the tap dance; why he couldn’t specifically say “I decided to keep the World Trade Center in my book for the following reasons” I can’t fathom.
And … I wish he hadn’t kept it in. I get that it’s the future of 1983, and not the future of 2011, but … this is the tenth anniversary year. I didn’t see it coming when I opened the book, and though the prologue warned me it still hurt. I see that it would have been a nightmare to revamp the climactic battle scenes sans Twin Towers – but couldn’t he at least have changed the lame Middle-earth reference from when Pete first sees the towers? “Tolkien would have loved it”? Why? JRRT was NOT a huge fan of skyscrapers (not that there were so many when and where he lived, but I think it’s a safe statement given what I know about his personality), and his Two Towers were worlds apart, not side by side. Speaking of Tolkien … There were a couple of shout-outs to JRRT, and they both made my eyebrows crinkle (not to mention what was spewed out in the afterword, and the spelling thereof). I wonder if Boyett ever read him more than once, or if Pete is supposed to have. He (pick one) doesn’t seem to have a clue about what was in the books.
Another thing that bothered me about the book … Ariel and Pete are captured by the Big Bad. Pete escapes, though Ariel cannot (and even if she got away, they were on the 86th floor, and her leg was all-but-broken – that’s a lot of stairs. So, Pete gets away, and next thing he knows has fallen in with a group who plan to try to battle the Big Bad, and he can help them and they him and so they take him back to their base. In Washington DC. He … leaves not only the area where Ariel is held, but the city. State. Region. I hated that Boyett sent his hero some 225 miles south of where his best friend was suffering in captivity. I looked it up; the travel time by car is about 4 hours, give or take about an hour for traffic. On horseback it would be about 40 – 50 miles per day, and so at least five days. Five there, time for planning, five back again – and all the while Ariel wondering if he would ever come back for her …
Poor thing. She got shafted right, left, and center from the second they reached New York. I absolutely hated the ending. The little bastard just couldn’t keep his pants on for one more night – sacrificed his bond with his best friend, his familiar, who loved him for some unknown reason and whom he supposedly loved more than anything, so that he could shag the first girl he was exposed to for more than ten minutes. I never liked the Shaughnessy bimbo anyway (which is interesting considering the narrative is from Pete’s point of view), but this … She supposedly loved Ariel too, just for being what she was – and she took the first real opportunity that offered to hurt her more deeply than the big bad wizard could have dreamed of. Which is bad enough. Pete … what Pete did was so very much more hurtful. If he had done it in a different manner it might have been … no, not all right, but better. This was awful.
No, I won’t be reading this book again. I’m still not flinging it, but … Anyone want it?