Year of the Unicorn: Strong introspective heroine

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy novel reviews Andre Norton Witch World 3. Year of the UnicornYear of the Unicorn by Andre Norton

Year of the Unicorn, third in Andre Norton’s Witch World saga, is a departure from the first two novels. It’s the story of Gillan, a girl with no family and an unknown heritage who has grown up in an abbey in High Hallack, far from the places we visited with Simon and Jaelithe in the first two Witch World novels. Gillan feels stifled in the abbey and longs for something more. She also feels the stirrings of a strange power within her. She finds a way to escape her meaningless life by volunteering to be one of the 13 maidens that High Hallack has promised to a group of shapeshifters who helped them win a war. This leads her on a terrifying adventure in which she discovers her power and, possibly, love.

Year of the Unicorn has a completely different feel from the previous Witch World novels. It’s written in first person and is, therefore, much more introspective than the action-packed stories about Simon and Jaelithe. The prose, also, has a completely different tone, and is most comparable (in my experience) to Ursula Le Guin’s. This comparison seems especially notable with the audio edition because it feels a lot like the audio version of Le Guin’s Voices — even the voice of the reader (though different) is extremely similar. Kate Rudd reads Year of the Unicorn for Brilliance Audio and she does a great job.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI enjoyed learning more about Andre Norton’s universe. The world-building is extensive and Norton avoids infodumping, so we just get a tantalizing glimpse of the Witch World with each book. The first half of Year of the Unicorn flies by while we learn about High Hallack and get to know Gillan as she makes sneaky plans and moves quickly to implement them. Unfortunately, the magic system, which relies mostly on willpower, is not so intriguing. Basically, supernatural things are accomplished by thinking and willing strongly enough. This is forgivable for a fantasy novel published in 1965, but it’s still boring.

Speaking of fantasy history, according to Wikipedia, Year of the Unicorn marks “the first time in American publishing history that a young woman is the primary protagonist in a fantasy book” (no citation, retrieved on May 12, 2010). I don’t know if that’s really true, but I can say that Gillan is a likable young woman and her characterization is strong. However, this was actually both boon and bane, for Gillan, as she says herself, “speaks little… but she thinks much” and each thought she has is recorded for us. Thus, we are frequently subjected to her inner queries and then her entire cognitive process as she contemplates a catalog of potential answers. This includes frequent exclamations of “I could not… or could I… but how… how could I?” (etc.) and habitual reiterations of her terror. This caused the second half of the story to drag and to become frustrating when it seemed that Gillan had worked out a solution, acted on it, and then discovered that she was wrong and had to start over. I usually enjoy a first-person point-of-view, and I loved the first half of Year of the Unicorn, but by the end, I was quite eager to get out of Gillan’s head.

Those, especially female readers, who enjoy a strong introspective heroine, are likely to enjoy Andre Norton’s Year of the Unicorn. This can be read as a stand-alone novel.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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