I have seen (and read) three types of fairytale fantasy published in the last century. The first is like Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicl...moreI have seen (and read) three types of fairytale fantasy published in the last century. The first is like Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles: it is clever at the expense of fairy tales, mocking (usually gently) the tropes of the genre, often through metafictional techniques. This type does little for me. The second is like most of Patricia McKillip's work: it takes those same tropes completely seriously and (if done well, as in McKillip's case) reminds us why the tropes exist in the first place, because they have width and depth and resonance. This is one of my favorite branches of fantasy. The third is the rarest, because it's the most difficult: it goes beyond the form of the fairytale and into archetypal territory, quite literally writing myth.
The Last Unicorn is all three of these.
That is probably fitting, given that it is one of the classics in the genre. Being three things at once, it left me with a sense of. . . unevenness, though to be fair that sense came only in retrospect; Beagle's prose is gorgeous and sure, and I devoured the book in two large gulps then wished there was more. Reading a random sampling of reviews online just highlighted the unevenness, though, because so many people seemed to be reading entirely different books.
The first thread, the metafictional, humorous side of the novel, predictably worked least well for me, though it worked better than any of the other books of that type that I have read. All of the characters know they are in a fairytale, and they either accede to the needs of the tale or try to shape it to their own ends depending on their personalities. There is also a sprinkling of anachronisms, which I read as another metafictional device, but may just be a leftover from Beagle's original vision of the story, which was set in modern times. What made this thread work better for me than those books who rely solely on the metafictional device is that Beagle used those moments when the characters broke the fourth wall to feed into his thematic concerns, something I will get to in a bit.
The second thread, the straight-forward fairy tale, is exquisitely, heartbreakingly beautiful. Had Beagle written just this story I probably would have out-and-out loved it more, though it likely would not have lingered in my consciousness as long as I suspect this reading will. It has all sorts of fairytale tropes: the quest, the unlikely band of fellows, the evil crone and the evil king, the curse, a tragic romance. . . there's even a talking cat. This section is about finding one's true nature; it is also very much about love, and the way it makes heroes of anyone it touches. It also features the loveliest passages, like this one:
Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
The third thread, the allegory, is why this book has so much weight, the reason so many people can read totally different books in it and love them all. There are actually two related allegories here: one, running through the first half of the book, is about perception, and the way we see only what we expect to see; the other, coming to the fore in the second half of the book, is about the unicorn as a sort of Platonic Form of beauty. The presence of these allegories makes the book fail in a lot of ways as a straight fantasy novel -- as some reviewers have noticed, there are no people in the world but those absolutely necessary to the story/message, and the world-building is nothing like internally consistent. But ultimately the allegory is the reason The Last Unicorn is deservedly a classic, in any genre.(less)
This is kind of a splendid book. It is demanding; the reader must engage with it, examining each card as it is revealed and disputing its meaning with...moreThis is kind of a splendid book. It is demanding; the reader must engage with it, examining each card as it is revealed and disputing its meaning with the narrator. It also helps to be well-versed in folklore and literature, both because recognizing many of the tales makes them more comprehensible and because Calvino's style is a strange, almost challenging mix of archaic and modern literary styles that sits uneasily on genre shelves.
It actually reminds me quite a bit of Catherynne M. Valente's two-volume novel The Orphan's Tales; enough, in fact, that I wonder if she was inspired by this work. Neither novel is quite a novel, per se, but more a collection of folk tales (or short stories in the form of folk tales) wound around each other through a magical framing device; but while many readers would probably enjoy the books more by reading them that way, they ARE more than the sum of their parts. Both site themselves within and comment on the greater body of world mythology; in both the narrator is just as much a character to figure out as any of the people he/she is discussing, and it is the narrator's story that is the heart of the book.
Calvino's book is not perfect; the first section, in the castle, is quite a bit more polished and satisfying as a puzzle than the second half in the tavern. The stories in the first half fit together organically, each leading into the next one and fitting together with all the others that came before in the crossword puzzle effect mentioned in the description; in the second half Calvino could not bring order to the chaos of cards, and while he made that chaos part of the novel's structure it still failed to satisfy. But despite (or possibly because of) its failings it is splendid. Glorious even. Pure, inventive literary fun.(less)
Really, really beautiful. The language is rather fraught with simile, especially in the beginning, but the tales are wondrous, and the structure of ta...moreReally, really beautiful. The language is rather fraught with simile, especially in the beginning, but the tales are wondrous, and the structure of tale within tale within tale ad infinitum is endlessly engaging, as Valente moves confidently between layers every few pages. I would strongly recommend you read this book rapidly -- it would be difficult to track the various layers of story over too many days or with breaks to read other novels, and characters reappear without warning a hundred pages after you thought they were done with, so it's good to have their stories still fresh in your mind. But Valente keeps everything clear, demonstrating a very impressive mastery of her story. If I have one quibble it's that she is not kind to her male characters, and I'm not entirely sure why this book won the Tiptree Award, but it is definitely a book I will cherish, and one I am already planning to someday inflict on my children at bedtime. It made me laugh and it brought me to tears; I have magical images dancing behind my eyes; and I will definitely, definitely be reading the next volume the instant I can get my grubby little hands on it. (Do I sound like a frantic fangirl? I am, I am. . .)(less)
This is a fairly strong young adult fantasy collection. Even though none of the stories is perfect, each one is engagingly written and features a diff...moreThis is a fairly strong young adult fantasy collection. Even though none of the stories is perfect, each one is engagingly written and features a different creature of fire.
The first, by Peter Dickinson and about the phoenix, is marred by sudden shifts in perspective that feel too rough for the gentleness of the story; however, it features some of the most beautiful imagery of the collection and is one of the more unique premises.
The second, by Robin McKinley and about a hellhound, is very much for animal lovers (which I am) and may be slow through the first five or so pages if you aren't interested in horses, dogs, cats, birds, and reptiles. After that (or if you don't mind that) however, it features the best pacing through its midsection, setting up a fairly large cast of characters for a short story and building a well-realized world with perhaps the best sense of jeopardy. The climax felt a little too easy, unfortunately, but the story as a whole may have been my favorite.
The third, again by Peter Dickinson and about the fireworm, was the most peculiar. It started very badly, with Dickinson's fictional Native American tribe feeling about as authentic as Disney's in Brother Bear. It was, however, only uphill from there, and the climax was incredibly moving, and caused me to feel angry in the best way. Its denoument again felt a bit easy, but the story was worth it nonetheless.
The fourth, the last by Peter Dickinson and about the salamander, was the only total miss of the collection. It started out very strong, but the instant its main character (a young slave boy named Tib in a pseudo-Middle Eastern setting) became emotionally removed from his actions I did as well.
The last story, by Robin McKinley and about the dragon, was the most well-rounded but unfortunately also the one with nothing about it that really stood out. It was reminiscent of her novel Dragonhaven in its male first-person narrator and semi-stream of consciousness style, but this narrator is far less self-absorbed than Jake was, making him likable even in his total denseness about his world. The world was interesting, if not quite believable (there has never to my knowledge been a culture that despises healers -- it's just not realistic, because people everywhere will get sick and they can't work if they're sick), the pacing was steady and the ending just right for the story.
All in all, while nothing in the collection is earth-shattering in any way, it is a pleasant read and suitable for late elementary school children and up.(less)
This is one of McKinley's strongest works to date, and it makes me laugh to think that she essentially wrote it on a dare. From what she's said on her...moreThis is one of McKinley's strongest works to date, and it makes me laugh to think that she essentially wrote it on a dare. From what she's said on her website, she had no love for the sleeping beauty myth -- after all, the princess spends it completely useless and out of the action, exactly opposite McKinley's usual heroines. The story she crafted in response to the fairy tale beautifully recasts the outside of the tale (the curse, the fairy godmothers, the spelled sleep, and rose hedge) with a new interior, upending the usual story into one in which the princess is a real person that the reader cares deeply for -- and a person who is instrumental in her own salvation, rather than a bystander to it.
But beyond the female empowerment coming-of-age tale are the glimpses of depth all of McKinley's best stories have: explorations of what family means, and the necessity of acting with courage and compassion even when it may leave you vulnerable to dark forces. The moments I loved best about this novel are when McKinley shows us that even the best ending, the one that leaves everyone happiest, may still have unexpected sharp edges, little bits of pain that come with gaining a great victory at the cost of something you didn't necessarily value in the first place. The unexpected resolution to the story (even more unexpected because it continues to remain true to the outside form of the sleeping beauty fairy tale) is brilliant and winning and just the tiniest bit bittersweet.
Even laying aside how wonderful the novel ends, it is a joy from start to finish. It has more humor than any other McKinley work, and the Gig (and Woodwold within it) is certainly one of McKinley's most delightful worlds. For those who have read her obsessively (as I have) there are even hints that this is Damar, the world of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, many generations later, and it is implied that the princess' mother comes from the kingdom that Lissar settled in in Deerskin. On rereading, I am even further convinced that this is one of my favorite novels of all time.(less)
The premise sounds a bit juvenile and silly, and the book is anything but. It is moving and lyrical and raises questions about family and identity tha...moreThe premise sounds a bit juvenile and silly, and the book is anything but. It is moving and lyrical and raises questions about family and identity that are rarely addressed. It is a coming-of-age tale in the absolute best sense, and has wonderful things to say about how our past shapes us.(less)
All of McKillip's novels are beautiful. Her exquisite prose and her ability to capture the sense of magic (both light and dark) that imbues traditiona...moreAll of McKillip's novels are beautiful. Her exquisite prose and her ability to capture the sense of magic (both light and dark) that imbues traditional fairy tales ensures that any novel she writes will tantalize and delight. Her style is deliciously archaic, even baroque, and she has a habit of giving the reader the bare minimum of information to make the plot and motivations of her characters understandable, tingeing every action with the spice of mystery. This has worked not very well in some novels -- I found the climax of In the Forests of Serre near-incomprehensible -- but even when the mystery isn't working her novels are delightful confections designed to be savored.
Ombria in Shadow is McKillip at her best -- a dark chocolate truffle, rich and beguiling. The city of Ombria, with its decaying streets, and its shadows that bleed into the underworld of its past, and its hints that there is yet another shadow city that may overlay Ombria itself, is the most breathtakingly beautiful McKillip creation I have encountered since I read Alphabet of Thorn (my first McKillip, though published two years later -- clearly McKillip was on a hot streak). The cast of characters is just as good, each one three-dimensional and bowed (but not broken) by heartbreak. And the central mystery, of how the city will cope with the loss of its prince in an already uncertain time, is always enticingly just out of reach until the climax, when strand after strand of the plot comes together in a breathless resolution that answers a host of questions and raises a dozen more, but which is still entirely satisfying on a visceral level. The denouement is quietly wonderful, granting the happy ending that seemed hopeless in a most unexpectedly melancholic way.
All in all, I don't think I could have loved this book any more.(less)
This is Patricia McKillip at her most dream-like. . . the prose is lyrical and winds its way through the story, the characters border are more mythic...moreThis is Patricia McKillip at her most dream-like. . . the prose is lyrical and winds its way through the story, the characters border are more mythic than realistic, and the plot sacrifices rational logic for the logic of fairy tales. Her novels are soap bubbles, frothy and delicate but with magical colors and lights sparking out of them at unexpected moments. This particular novel does not resonate with me quite as strongly as The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Sorceress and the Cygnet, or Alphabet of Thorn did, but I still can do nothing but recommend it highly.(less)
I love Patricia McKillip's writing. That bald statement doesn't do the depth of my feeling justice, but there it lies. She turns the simplest statemen...moreI love Patricia McKillip's writing. That bald statement doesn't do the depth of my feeling justice, but there it lies. She turns the simplest statement into poetry, creating exquisite images that shimmer before the mind's eye long after the book has been closed; she imbues the whole world with magic, drawing forth colors unimaginable from the stark black text on a white page.
It is possible that Winter Rose is her best book. Where normally her prose creates just the slightest distance, separating the reader from the actions described, the prose in Winter Rose is immediate, urgent, driving. Where normally her characters are just a little bit of a cipher, subject to motivations just the tiniest bit outside human ken, here her characters are warmly, achingly human. And where normally I finish one of her novels awed and melancholy and delighted, I finished Winter Rose wanting to scream.
She does all this by a simple change in perspective.
Normally, McKillip writes in a tight third-person perspective, shifting between characters at the chapter breaks. It is this that creates just the little bit of distance, this that keeps her characters ciphers. It gives her scope, for she often writes novels where the characters start spread across the map and only come together during the climax; but it does lessen the emotional punch. In Winter Rose, however, she is concerned with only one character: Rois Melior, the wild child of wood and water and bramble. Given that narrowing of focus, McKillip wisely delivers an arrestingly beautiful first-person perspective, gifting Rois with all of McKillip's own skill at seeing showers of gold in a summer sunbeam and the Wild Hunt coursing across a windblown sky. From the very first page that "I" makes Rois as ethereally flawless as McKillip's prose.
And that was why I wanted to scream at the conclusion of her tale. From the very first page I took Rois to my heart and I did not want to let her go -- and the ending McKillip weaves for her, enigmatic and difficult as always, cut me to the bone. It is, by fairy tale standards, a happy ending; but she deserved so much more.
Oh, you wanted to know about the plot? Well, it's a mixture of The Snow Queen and Tam Lin, and either I've gotten better at deciphering McKillip's climaxes or this is a remarkably coherent one. It is also about the stain that child abuse spreads through a family, and that element is handled so deftly that it is far more heartbreaking than anything more preachy could be.(less)