Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Read: 27 - 30 September 2010
Pages: 167

From the back: This is the story of the last unicorn on earth, a creature whit the 'oldest, wildest grace that horses never had'. She had lived contentedly alone for hundreds of years, and would have continued to do so, believing that somewhere in the world there were others like her, had she not overheard a huntsman say that she was the last of her kind. Thereafter she could have no peace of mind until she had left the safety of her enchanted wood and gone to see for herself. And once exposed to the covetous eyes of men, there was peril for her at every turn...

A Magical Tale

I don't really know where to start this review, so let me start with the beginning:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless colour of sea foam, but rather the colour of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

This is the most beautiful and compelling opening lines I've ever read. The language is so fluid and calm, reading it feels like listening to the sea itself. I was captivated by the writing from the first line (I can't imagine a better place than a lilac wood with a unicorn in it), and I stayed that way throughout the novel. Several times I had to stop and read a passage over again, just because it sounded so wonderful. Beagle makes everything sound old and familiar, yet new and fresh at the same time.

This is a haunting story; sad, scary, bittersweet, light-hearted and downright funny, all in one. It is heartbreaking to watch the unicorn, once so carefree and happy, start questioning herself and her whole existence. So she sets out from the lilac forest in search of her fellow unicorns, and along the way she is joined by Schmendrick the Magician, a failure at magic but with a powerful secret, and Molly Grue, a woodswoman with a kind heart and a keen mind. Together they head for King Haggard's castle to find the Red Bull, who drove the unicorns ahead of him down all the roads.

As sad and scary as this story is, what I liked best about it was the subtle humour that always made me smile amid the darkness. This is how Schmendrick's mentor described him:

My son, your ineptitude is so vast, your incompetence so profound, that I am certain you are inhabited by greater power that I have ever known.

Near the beginning of the book there is a short paragraph about a blue jay that sees the unicorn as she's passing by, and hurries back to his wife to tell her what he saw. The poor thing is so excited but trying to play it cool, but all his wife does is reprimand him for not bringing home supper and accuses him of seeing someone else. This little exchange is so funny, so cute and such a witty portrayal of a human marriage, it might just be my favourite thing in the whole book.

The Last Unicorn is like a mixture of Gaiman, Pratchett and Tolkien, with a little bit of Rowling thrown in for good measure, yet it's completely unique and extraordinary. It's a magical tale that I will never forget. Buy it, borrow it, steal it – do whatever you have to, but read this book. You won't regret it.

My rating: 6/6


Lindsay said...

I adore The Last Unicorn, and am always happy to hear of others who loved it.

If the style really got to you like that, you should also try The King of Elfland's Daughter, a classic fantasy by Lord Dunsany, from 1924.

Sample prose: "And the colour of Elfland... may yet be told, for we have hints of it here; the deep blue of the night in Summer just as the gloaming has gone, the pale blue of Venus flooding the evening with light, the deeps of lakes in the twilight, all these are hints of that colour."

Happy reading!

Hilde said...

Lindsay, I've never heard of The King of Elfland's Daughter before, but I love the excerpt. I will definitely check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

Ladybug said...

Wonderful review, Hilde. I have never read a book about Unicorns but I would like to and this sounds like a good one to start with :)

Belle said...

I used to love the movie when I was little, I didn't even realise it was a book! I HAVE to read it now!

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