Year of the Unicorn – Andre Norton

The prettiest cover

I read the first three Witch World books in omnibus form (Gate to Witch World), and this was my favorite of the three. It’s more of a straight fantasy than the other two – Witch World and Web of the Witch World contained a strong Sci Fi angle this one did not. There are no flying ships or laser guns in Year of the Unicorn.(Don’t be fooled, though: there are no unicorns, either.)

I admit it – it’s also my favorite in part because of the theme of arranged marriage. There’s something about the psychology of a girl being sent off to marriage with a man she doesn’t know, and the reasons for it, and whether it ends up tolerable or horrendous or wonderful and how, that – done well and not gratuitously – fascinates me. Here it was amplified: the marriage on which the book is focused is one of thirteen that are the result of a bargain made years ago between the folk of High Hallack and the Were Riders of Arvon. The Riders are … well, no one civilized is quite sure exactly what they are. They are rumored to be sorcerers, shape-shifters; they are indisputably formidable in battle. They are not quite human. And so High Hallack sought the Riders’ aid in the wars – and it was granted, in exchange for the promise of brides when it was all over. The time has come: the Riders contributed to victory, and with now thirteen nobly born girls between 18 and 20 with no physical defects are to be delivered at the turn of the Year of the Unicorn.

When the train of brides comes to Norsdale and Abbey Norstead, twelve coming for their twelve-and-one, there is one girl in the keep who most believes herself safe from such a future: she is beautiful and delicate and sure to be betrothed at any moment. However, she discovers she was wrong: for various reasons, she is in fact number thirteen. How horrifying, and how typically patriarchal, that she had no idea of her fate until the last moment. Another girl, Gillan, an apprentice to the herbalist of the abbey who has a past that is mysterious even to her, comes to the conclusion that if this fair and delicate flower is sent off into the unknown she will very simply not survive it. Gillan is coming to loathe the constrictions of her sheltered, circumscribed, little life, and suddenly the idea of heading off into the wilds and taking an outlandish husband is far preferable. With some unexpected help which I still puzzle over a bit she quickly hatches a plot to take the other’s place. It works.

False advertising! Content is unicorn-free.

She and the other girls soon find themselves alone to prepare as best they can for a very unusual, very beautiful choosing and marriage rite – and Gillan finds she is even more alone when she realizes that all of the other girls are under some enchantment that masks the bleak landscape in beauty, and gives them excitement and joy where they might succumb to terror and dread. The ethics of that are questionable at best, but then again if the girls have absolutely no choice in the matter, they might as well be made happy about it. Even if it is all a lie. Hm. Regardless, Gillan can see through the illusion, and when she meets her groom, Herrel, she sees him as he really is: not wildly inhuman, as she feared, but … different. Her choice is completely unexpected, as Herrel is, he quickly tells her, the least among the Riders. He explains to her, as has been impressed upon him many times and in many ways, that he is barely functional in the magics they have. Because of this and the manner of his birth (which is the reason for his comparative powerlessness) he is nearly an outcast among the others. What follows is the tale of the Riders’ return to their home, and Gillan’s struggles to adapt, unenchanted, to a life even more alien than she had expected, and to the danger posed by another Rider who resents Herrel for gaining a wife when he did not.

The language of this and, I believe, all the Witch World books is very much High Fantasy: “A last whip of the fog between us was sundered and I looked upon this stranger from another breed who had come a-hunting me …

Also false advertising

Thus did I face for the first time Herrel of the Were Riders, whose cast cloak I had gathered to me, though not through the same weave spell as intended.” It’s the time and place and milieu in which it was written – was there anything besides High Fantasy at the time, really? – and a great many books attempted it, with wildly varying degrees of success. (That would be an interesting study, to take a look at the evolution of language in fantasy novels in their infancy.) (Uh oh.) Here it is well done – it has a far more natural poetic flow than the language of a good many other books I’ve tried – and it works. It doesn’t interfere with the telling of or the reading and enjoyment of the story; the book is in the first person, these are Gillan’s thoughts, and she has been raised as a noble and all but a cloistress: it fits. In this book, given the first-person POV, the reader is allowed a little closer to the characters – another reason I preferred this to the other two books in the omnibus, which were more standoffish.

If the book had been written today the concentration would be on sizzling sexual tension, and said tension would build and build to unbearable levels as the book went along; Herrel would have been more barbaric, probably, though still honorable of course, and there would have been near-rape by the rivals and perhaps by Herrel and eventually garments falling like autumn leaves. (I wonder how many times this exact plot has been lifted and … modernized. That would be another interesting study.)

The absolute weirdest cover

This is, I think, while adhering to the mores of High Fantasy and whatever formal or informal censorship was in place at the time, is actually more realistic. Instead of a gorgeous virgin sacrifice succumbing to the temptations of whatever et cetera, Gillan is a practical, pretty (but not astonishingly so), intelligent young woman who chose this path open-eyed, and faces the consequences head-on, often terrified but never really considering giving up. She does not have emerald green eyes or raven hair. Instead of the shockingly masculine, astonishingly beautiful perfect-except-for-being-attractively-damaged barbarian-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-the-honor-of-a-storybook-knight, Herrel is a young (or young-seeming) man with a good many flaws both real and perceived who is not beautiful (“He was neither handsome nor unhandsome by human standard, merely very different”), though he is honorable. Not happy about it, but honorable. We never hear a word about his muscles, or … organs, and while he does have green eyes, they are very simply green eyes. He never expected a bride from this transaction, and certainly never expected one who was almost immune to the illusions, and this new life is almost as difficult for him as it is for her – especially given the bitter hatred of the other, deprived Rider. They don’t fall instantaneously in love, and they don’t leap into bed immediately or even soon, and it’s altogether awkward for them until they are forced to fight together for a common goal. And even then it isn’t instant connubial bliss, but more of a comradeship which could lead to a real marriage that really endures.

I like these two, and I like them together. The plot did kind of continue what I hope isn’t an over-arcing theme of sex as a trade-off for women: they give up their virginity and they give up their magic, and their instincts fight it. But it is something of a medieval sensibility in a largely a medieval setting, and as such this is a good, solid, well-told story.

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