Book Review: The Unicorn Series

The Unicorn Series
By Tanith Lee

My Editions:
Black Unicorn – 192 pages, 1993, Tor Books
Gold Unicorn – 244 pages, 1996, Tor Books
Red Unicorn – 192 pages, 1998, Tor Books

Tanaquil has grown up in her mother’s desert fortress, where, due to her mother’s powerful magic, household items are always disappearing or changing, and Tanaquil has grown restless and feels ignored. But when a peeve, who has picked up some language thanks to stray magic, brings Tanaquil a strange, shimmering bone, Tanaquil’s life is turned upside down. Thanks to her incredible mending skills and the hoard of bones the peeve finds, Tanaquil builds a unicorn that her mother’s magic brings to life. Through the unicorn, Tanaquil finally finds the willpower to leave her mother’s fortress and explore the world, the peeve at her side. Throughout her travels, she encounters several mystical unicorns and grows into her own skin as she experiences and affects the world around her.

It can be hard to review a series without spoiling plot details, but I’ll do my best. As you may know, I started this re-read of the series with Jacob because he’d never read Tanith before. I was happy to revisit a series that I know I love and it turns out there were many little details in this books which I’d forgotten.

Black Unicorn is our introduction to Tanaquil, the peeve and the world they live in. Tanaquil feels neglected by her mother, who is a powerful sorceress and disappointed that her daughter doesn’t share her knack for magic. Tanaquil does have the ability to mend things and when she uses her skill to create a unicorn, she is able to escape the isolation and loneliness of her mother’s fortress. The unicorn that she, the peeve and her mother’s magic created shows up periodically to both help and hinder Tanaquil as she makes her way to a city by the sea.

The peeve is utterly adorable and annoying in all the right ways. If you don’t want to own a peeve after reading this series, I’m not sure you’re human. Tanaquil is refreshingly bold, outspoken, but also unsure of herself and it was great to watch her come into herself throughout not only this book, but the series.

As always, Tanith paints a wonderfully detailed world with seemingly broad strokes. I would classify this series on the border of middle-grade and YA, and the books are very short, but Tanith accomplishes a lot of depth.

While we don’t see a whole lot of the unicorn in this book, we do get a glimpse of the world it comes from. Tanaquil’s mother has spoken of other worlds, both perfect and terrible, that those with magic hope to be able to explore. Tanaquil gets a glimpse of the perfect world the black unicorn lives in and understands that humans have no place in it. Yet rather than become depressed when she returns to her own world, Tanaquil learns to appreciate the beauty around her and that speaks volumes about her character.

In Gold Unicorn, we get more information about the unicorn and I think it strengthens the story. This is actually my favorite book in the series (though the other two are close behind) because we get more depth from the characters and the world-building. In Black Unicorn, the unicorn is a catalyst for Tanaquil’s adventures, but in Gold Unicorn, we have a beast that is affected by the humans who created it. In turn, the unicorn leads them to a dark world that reflects the purpose for which the humans intended their creation and opens all their eyes.

I don’t want to talk too much about the plot (the back of the book gives enough away and I wouldn’t recommend reading it – just dive right in!) but Tanaquil’s adventures strengthen her as a character and as usual, I enjoy her dry sense of humor. We also get a better look at Tanaquil’s mending abilities and how she uses them and allows them to be used by others. The dark world that the crew enters because of the unicorn is a change-up that also adds depths to the characters because of how they react in the new environment.

In Red Unicorn, Tanaquil makes her way back home to her mother after a couple years away. She is more self-assured, yet is unsure how to approach her mother, especially now that her mother has found love. It seems to Tanaquil that everyone she knows has paired off now, even the peeve, and she feels more alone than before she left home.

She spends the majority of this book in yet another world, one that appears to be a sort of twisted version of her own world, where there are copies of people she knows, but with opposite personalities. There’s even a copy of herself, who constantly breaks things, and another peeve (called a veepe) as well. Here, Tanaquil discovers more of her own magic and learns a lot about herself and those she knows thanks to their doubles. Her time in this world finally makes her realize she feels lonely because she let the man she loves leave her life, so she decides she must go after him.

There’s another unicorn (red, obviously), but it’s back to being a background character, leaving the focus on Tanaquil and her actions and personal discoveries.

It was a wonderful ending to the series and contains my favorite lines:

“Say yes properly, or I’ll push you into the fire.”
“Yes properly.”

If you enjoy YA/middle-grade fantasy with smart and smarmy female charactersand a focus on self-discovery, I highly recommend you give this series a shot!

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