Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review #12: The Last Unicorn

This month's Animal Fantasy Book Review is Peter S. Beagle's classic novel, The Last Unicorn.  Equine novels are near and dear to my heart, as you could probably guess from my horse-themed manuscript, The Beast of Bannock.  Ordinarily, I discuss recent animal fantasies in my book review feature, but classics undoubtedly have their place in today's reading population, too.  Just as students study Steinbeck and Salinger in the classroom, there is much to be learned from classic animal fantasy works.  It's good for writers to know what's selling in today's market, but it's equally important to know what books played a part in shaping the genre.  If you aren't familiar with The Last Unicorn yourself, here's the summary from Goodread's website:   

The unicorn discovers that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets off to find the others. She meets Schmendrick the Magician--whose magic seldom works, and never as he intended--when he rescues her from Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, where only some of the mythical beasts displayed are illusions. They are joined by Molly Grue, who believes in legends despite her experiences with a Robin Hood wannabe and his un-merry men. Ahead wait King Haggard and his Red Bull, who banished unicorns from the land.

I will start off by noting that I have never seen the animated version of The Last Unicorn, so I came into this book with no expectations or prior knowledge of the story.  (Heck, I didn't even know the movie was originally a book until I saw it on Goodreads!)  I am happy to say the book is an enchanting read, and one that you won't soon forget.  The characters are varied and deep, the plot magical, and the unicorn as bewitching and aloof as I imagine one might be in real life.  (Wouldn't you be aloof, too, if you were the most beautiful, immortal creature in the world?)  What I admire most about this book, though, is the writing itself as well as how Beagle balances the characters in the story.

Told from the third-person perspective, The Last Unicorn switches mainly between the titular, unnamed unicorn, the magician Schmendreck, and their companion Molly Grue's point of views.  Each sees the world differently, giving their separate flavors to the story.  The two main human characters are affected by the unicorn in their own ways, bringing the equine character to life in a way she couldn't do on her own.  As I mentioned above, the unicorn is aloof, and it can be hard to feel close to an emotionally-distant character you don't know very well.  But the respect, awe, jealousy, despair and other raw emotions that the unicorn brings out in Molly and Schmendrick make you root for the equine and her quest--as well as the large part the humans play in it.  And for all her beauty and grace, the unicorn is genuinely pitiable, as Beagle presents from the very first line: "The unicorn lived in the lilac wood, and she lived all alone."  She tugs at your heartstrings before you even find out just how alone she really is.  Beagle could have chosen just the unicorn or the magician to tell this tale, but I think it is only with the twining of all the characters' viewpoints that the full story can truly shine.

The best part about this book, though, is the gorgeous writing.  I can honestly say this is probably the most beautiful book I have ever read.  Every page has thought-provoking metaphors, unique smiles, and breathtaking, lyrical word choices.  I was constantly re-reading paragraphs, savoring phrases and wallowing in the images.  At one point, the villainous King Haggard shouts at the unicorn, "What's the matter with your eyes? They are full of green leaves, crowded with trees and streams and small animals...I want to know why there are fox cubs in her eyes."  Leaves and trees and fox cubs in someone's eyes?  I have never thought to describe a character's eyes like that!  But it is a stunning image that stayed with me long after I read that passage.  The entire book is just like that, with writing so beautiful your heart will sigh and ache with every page.

If you love reading classic fantasy literature or have an affinity for equine stories, then this book is definitely for you.  And if you are a lover of words themselves, then you owe it to yourself to read this beautiful book.  By reading The Last Unicorn, you'll see how different it is from the current fantasy books that are being published for modern young readers, but you'll also find common threads that still make it a meaningful book today.  I don't think you'll be disappointed, and it may just inspire you to write a little more poetically.

To the best of my research, Peter Beagle does not have an author website, but there is plenty of information about him and his other works on the web.  If you read The Last Unicorn, do let me know.  I'd love to hear what you think!

Happy reading!  :) 

Note: Summary is from Goodreads and the jacket art image is from

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