Well of the Unicorn: Post the First

Like Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star, The Well of the Unicorn is an interesting book to study, and also a good read.
As the book opens, Airar Alvarson, a minor landowner in the Dales, is taxed out of his property by Count Vulk, the current ruler. His vagabondage ends when the cynical, conniving sorcerer Melliboe puts Airar together with the Iron Ring, a revolutionary movement out to overthrow Vulk. Airar grows in ability throughout the book and, after the fall of Vulk, becomes ruler himself (a much better one, it’s implied)——though only a few years later, barbarians invade, so there’s no happy ending.
What makes the book distinctive is how it veers far away from the swashbuckling epic fantasy the synopsis this makes it sound like. Like The Blue Star, the sides are sketched in shades of gray: Vulk is a bad ruler, but not Sauron or Voldemort class bad. If Airar hadn’t been personally hit by the taxes, it’s unlikely he’d have ever protested; several Vulkings he encounters in the book argue that submitting to a bad but authorized ruler is better than the chaos of just choosing who to follow.
As this might suggest, the politics is the other thing that makes Well of the Unicorn distinctive, and contributes to the shades of grey. Nobody’s really rising up against tyranny, they’re rising up to protect their own interests (while Pratt admits to drawing on a play by Lord Dunsany for the backstory, this review suggests Pratt’s own writing on Danish history contributed a lot). The mercenaries want money. The merchants want to protect their traditional privileges. The fisher folk of the coast attempt to talk Airar into staying with them as resident sorcerer (he has some minor ability) rather than going off to fight (they believe Vulk will respect their traditional privileges). Airar constantly grapples with the question of how to organize the traditionally disorganized Dalefolk, and whether appointing a leader invariably results in Vulk-style oppression.
While all this makes for an interesting read, as you can imagine the book isn’t exactly full of excitement. Absorbing as it is, it’s not really emotionally engaging——there are no real heroes, no good side to root for and not much of a climax. There’s also a scene where Airar uses magic to force a woman into his bed, so if you don’t want a rapist protagonist, this is not your book (Pratt, writing 60+ years ago, doesn’t seem to feel it’s worthy of much discussion).
Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend it. And I’ll have more to say about it soon.

1 Comment

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One response to “Well of the Unicorn: Post the First

  1. Pingback: Well of the Unicorn: Post sort-of the second « Fraser Sherman's Blog

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