Year of the Unicorn by Andre Norton

Year of the Unicorn book cover
Rating 9.5/10
Anyone with an interest in unconventional romantic fantasy should read this forgotten gem of a book.

Knowing which Andre Norton novel to choose from her prolific output can be a daunting task. I confess the late great Ms. Norton is not my favorite author. I’ve liked a few of her novels, while many of her co-authored books published in recent years suffered from lack of editing and an over-reliance on archaic language. Year of the Unicorn is the novel that changed my mind. Norton’s very loose adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast story becomes a tale of love and trust, betrayal and a quest for identity.

Gillan is by birth one of the famed witches of Estcarp, though she doesn’t know it. She has been raised all her life in Norstead Abbey on a war-ravaged continent. Longing for change from the quiet life of the abbey, she agrees to be one of the thirteen brides sent to the Were Riders, a mysterious clan of shape-shifting sorcerers who demanded wives as tribute for their aid in the war.

Danger and uncertainty trouble Gillan on the journey. She sees truth where the other brides see only illusion. She hides her powers from the suspicious Were Riders, who want from her only blind submission. And she must learn how to trust her strange new husband, Herrel, even as others in the clan are jealous of his good fortune and would steal his bride from him.

This short book is like nothing I’ve read before from Norton or, for that matter, any other author. I believe this relic of a novel (published in 1965) is a glimpse into the talent of the true Andre Norton, before the flood of under-baked, co-authored (and possibly ghost-written) books published under her banner during the last decade. Notable for being the first American fantasy novel to feature a woman as central protagonist, Year of the Unicorn is a bold feminist exploration of an intelligent woman’s role in a suspicious, male-dominated society. More than that, it is an exciting adventure story. I was never able to predict what would happen next, and the plot twists were entirely fresh. Almost half a century after its publication, I find this story more original than most of the trite, formulaic romantic fantasies sitting on YA shelves today.

Year of the Unicorn reminded me of the medieval lais of Marie de France, a story of love and loss, of divided loyalties and ambiguous moralities, where dream and nightmare exist side by side; a fantasy that inhabits a shadowy landscape of psychological perils and unsettling symbolism. These are deep, old waters that the shallower streams of modern fantasy seldom tap.

Year of the Unicorn is, I believe, the third novel in Norton’s beloved Witch World series and the first of the High Hallack cycle, but this novel can stand alone. I can’t recommend it enough. Anyone with an interest in unconventional romantic fantasy should read this forgotten gem of a book.

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