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Review: “The Last Unicorn (1968)” by Peter S. Beagle (5 Stars)

Magical prose that flows in lyrical quality and somber notes in deft creation of a profound myth that is familiar and yet completely unique. Hope and regret and joy and sadness–a complete and wondrous tale!

The Last Unicorn is a quest story. With all the dire implications that its title bears the protagonist is indeed the last unicorn left in the world. She lives in joyful ignorance of this fact until cruel riddles from the sibyl whisperings of a magical creature hint at her true plight. She is alone.

So begins a journey out of the safety of the immortal world of the Unicorn and into the wider world of men and all the wicked and good that comes with that. The story has an air of a sort of coming of age tale mixed in with a winking nod at the classic hero’s journey. An unusual balance is achieved in the prose that intermixes whimsy and humor with a subtle sort of sadness. There is a strong voice throughout that manages this equilibrium with all the craft mastery of a mad genius.

Humor is a hard thing to write. To do it well is very rare. I would not label this book as a work of comedy similar to the efforts of other humorists in the fantasy or science fiction genre. Yet, whimsy is there and it works well to counter balance the more serious contexts that are being worked through with the over-arching plot. There are high stakes playing out. Folks risks themselves for worthy causes. The darkness threatens to dispel hope (as it so often does), and, of course, the characters must carry on and dutifully fulfill their fates.

The author’s writing is airy and light which makes for a fast read, but it maintains a certain weight to it throughout the book. There is also a lyrical quality to the voice and some actual bits of verse. I’m not usually a huge fan of song lyrics intermixed with prose, but they are done here well enough. This musical aspect sometimes compliments the dialog in an almost metered voice. The characters occasionally repeat themselves as if their words were pairing couplets at the end of a sonnet. That being said, there is none of it that is overwrought or reaching. Everything flows through to the end and is well paced in both rhythm, rhyme, meaning, and context.

The main characters in this story are all extremely memorable, however brief their appearance they are cast out onto the plot with grandiose colors and vivacious display leaping to life as they fret about with each of their own individual conflicts and concerns. The author cleverly weaves them into the protagonist’s mission. Whether they seek to thwart or aid, they are all a delight.

I was not surprised that this book has been turned into an animated feature, it reads very much like one. The whole while I read I could imagine the scenes being enacted and the songs being song. To an extent, most books do that, however this one had the feel of animation. I can’t remember if I saw the film years ago, but if I did I can’t quite recall it. The words themselves have a particular quality of levity that is different than the usual fare. Still, I was drawn into this story all the same and did not feel that these qualities undercut any of my empathy for the characters or their desires and needs and struggles.

The ending of the novel is also unique and very satisfying. It completes with the same air of familiarity as the characters and subject matter, but also something different. Things wrap up as they ought, yet with the right hints of joyful sadness that should come when there is a price paid to fight for what is right. A lesson of sacrifices and real consequences akin to old world faery tales. This harkening back to myths and legends is what makes the story feel familiar and the author’s playful use of language fits like a glove (or rather a chainmail gauntlet). In contrast, he also moves the narrative into untapped crevices and neglected niches of these classic genres managing to gain a unique and authentic hold of the monomyth.

It’s all done with a fresh and playful air and profound sincerity which has insured this story its place as an utter classic of the genre. The author has bespoke the dreams and aspirations of generations before and those yet to come creating a modern fairy tale enjoyable for all ages.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/09/17/review-the-last-unicorn-peter-s-beagle

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Posted by on September 17, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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