Today I finished Unicorn & Dragon by Lynn Abbey. This was one of the books from the other weekend, and one I’d never heard of until it came off the shelf. The style of this oversized paperback is old, with Celtic feel to the font and the characters wearing jewelry that I would term “ancient.” Perhaps not as old as what the Pharoahs wore, but old enough when you turn your focus to the British Isles.
Set in England in the days before William conquered, the story revolves around two sisters, Alison and Wildecent, whose father is a Saxon lord. This is after the Saxons and even the Vikings had raided and then settled the land, mixing with those who had come before. Now the Normans are encroaching, and William is biding his time on the Continent.
Alison is the younger sister by a few months, blonde and Saxon, with an ancestry going back not only to invaders but also to the ancient Cymric peoples. Her legacy from those ancestors is her magic, her ability to read and influence the thoughts of others, a skill she trains among others under her aunt Ygurna. She is the apple of her father’s eye, gregarious and outgoing, and unused to meeting opposition aside from her father’s commands.
Wildecent is dark and shy, nearsighted and without magic. She is also not truly related to Alison at all, being an orphan who was sent by her parents to Hafwynder Manor to keep her safe from whatever tragedy struck their own castle. Her origins are unknown, though a clue arises when a Norman youth reaches their gates late one night, collapsing off his horse. When he awakens next and speaks French, Wildecent recalls the meanings of some of his words.
I am not truly certain how I feel about this book. It feels old, even though by my standards it isn’t, not really. Published in 1987, it’s from a time period that I generally enjoy reading (mid-eighties to early 2000s tends to be my favorite) and I’m not opposed to historical fantasy. Emphasis on the historical, because I can almost feel the research that went into creating a believable environment for the era. (We’re talking about a thousand years ago. I think he became William the Conqueror in 1096?) Yet something about Abbey’s attention to detail, or maybe it’s her writing style, just makes this book feel…dated.
I think one of the most similar feeling books I’ve read was Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is…not a good comparison. I read that book more because it is one of the defining pieces of fantasy and Arthurian lore. I don’t really think I can say I enjoyed it. Bradley’s writing for me is generally dry and feels old – not surprising, given when she was writing. I don’t recall actively hating that book, but I wasn’t at all interested in keeping it.
I haven’t yet decided if I’m keeping Unicorn & Dragon.
The characters aren’t bad for this “type” of book – a book that seems to be more about the setting and time period than the individuals – but again, they don’t seem to be the focus. The story is interesting; you don’t see a lot of stories (in America) looking at William the Conqueror’s time. But on the other hand…that hurts this book. I have a short story that is a much more fantastical take on the time period and it is an amazing piece of fiction. That’s “Holly and Iron” by Garth Nix, found in the anthology Wizards as well in his own collection To Hold the Bridge.
I’m working through the sequel to Unicorn & Dragon, and will make a final decision about the pair after I’m done with both.