When I started telling people about Hidden in Sealskin, the fact that it has a unicorn seemed to be the deciding factor for everyone. Not a single person had a mild response to it.
For the most part, the fact that it’s an insane unicorn drew people’s interest, or at least curiosity, but I also had negative responses. For example, as soon as I said the word unicorn to one person, they informed me that they don’t read fantasy with “those kinds of creatures in them” (“those kinds of creatures” apparently included elves, dwarfs, and dragons, which is a great way to avoid reading a whole lot of fantasy books – awful, wonderful, and everything in between – and not a great way to avoid only the predictable and/or badly written ones).
Since publication, this detail has also popped up in reviews:
“It was the description of “Hidden in Sealskin” that caught my eye. I’d never read a story about an insane unicorn.”
“Stories about unicorns that I have found in past are generally for little kids, so I enjoyed the fact this is an adventure book that YA or adult’s can enjoy.”
And yet another reviewer:
“I cannot say that I’ve read any other books that had a unicorn as a serious character. At first it seemed silly to me, but the that feeling was washed away as I read on.”
I could give you a treatise on the awesomeness that is unicorns, but I haven’t written an episode of The Art of Goofing Off since I left on my trip, so it seems more apropos to talk about books.
Let’s take a trip through my childhood and teen years, shall we?
(Warning: lots of books you may not have read before. May be hazardous to your to-read list.)
Earliest Unicorn Influences
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Prince Caspian
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- The Silver Chair
- The Horse and His Boy
- The Magician’s Nephew
- The Last Battle
These are the first books that, as a unit, changed my mind forever about the quality of books I’d be satisfied with reading. My first thought upon reading them was: “I want to read more like this!”
The only book with any unicorns in it is The Last Battle, which is the darkest of the series (and also my favourite). The unicorn, Jewel, is King Tirian’s closest friend and is a serious character from the get-go: loyal, fierce, and brave.
Unicorn as serious character: You bet.
A Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle
- A Wrinkle in Time
- A Wind in the Door
- A Swiftly Tilting Planet
- Many Waters
- An Acceptable Time
A Wrinkle in Time was the next book that blew my mind about books, and it remains my favourite book (and Madeleine L’Engle my favourite author) to this day. It has nothing to do with unicorns. And, like the Narnia books, the same goes for three of the books in the series. The two that do, though, have some darn cool unicorns.
In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace and the winged unicorn Gaudior travel through time to avert a nuclear war in the present. In Many Waters, Sandy and Dennys find themselves back during the time of Noah, complete with miniature mammoths, manticores, unicorns that sometimes exist and sometimes don’t, and angels and Nephilim that walk among humans. They don’t know how they got there or how they’ll get back before the world is covered in water.
The whole series is sometimes shelved in YA and sometimes in middle grade, and A Wrinkle in Time is the second book I read that changed my whole paradigm on what books could be. I’ve wanted to write as well as Madeleine L’Engle ever since.
(On that note, the third book to mark a turning point in my reading, though a far more subtle one, is Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer, which I read during the years I worked in the university library. It’s weird fiction – like, the genre, not as a general description, although the description is apt – and has nothing to do with unicorns at all. I was also more disturbed/unsettled by it than wholeheartedly liking it, but I’m mentioning it so the list of books that have impacted me like this can be complete in this post.)
YA: Sometimes, could easily be middle grade, depending on the whim of the shelver.
Unicorn as serious character: Indeed.
The Unicorn Series by Tanith Lee
- Black Unicorn
- Gold Unicorn
- Red Unicorn
I read Gold Unicorn and Red Unicorn as a teen, but I’m putting this series up here because I read Black Unicorn when I was eight. I read a lot of books when I was eight that were not written with eight year olds in mind (like Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon Chronicles and a book on how babies are made). It’s a YA series technically, although accidentally shelved in middle grade at library (thus me finding it), and I would go to the proper section afterwards on numerous occasions to reread it. The main character, Tanaquil, reassembles the skeleton of a unicorn, which she then must follow to help it find whatever it’s been searching for, whatever it is that it chose her to help it with.
Though I thought both Gold Unicorn and Red Unicorn were fascinating, they don’t have the same place in my heart as Black Unicorn. This may change upon rereading them several times. Along with Black Unicorn, for good measure.
YA: Yes (despite one shelver’s off day).
Unicorn as serious character: Indubitably.
ALL the Unicorn Series
Unicorn Fantasy Series by Vicki Blum
- Wish Upon a Unicorn
- The Shadow Unicorn
- The Land without Unicorns
- The Promise of the Unicorn
- A Gathering of Unicorns
The first two books of this series inspired me to write a novel when I was eleven (said novel stole a lot from that first book in its opening and overarching storyline, but somehow didn’t have any unicorns in it). The third disappointed me so much when I read it years later that I haven’t read the last two. Maybe I will one day, just for closure?
A girl named Arica falls through a crack into another world, where she finds out that she can communicate with unicorns and that their country is in danger of being invaded by a country to the south that hates magic. I loved it.
Also, Canadian content ftw! The author is Canadian, and the parts in our world are all set in Canada. It’s also the only fantasy series I’ve read where there are saskatoons.
YA: Nope, but that didn’t stop it from inspiring my first attempt at a novel, which was YA.
Unicorn as serious character: There’s, like, a billionty of them.
Unicorns of Balinor by Mary Stanton
- The Road to Balinor
- Sunchaser’s Quest
- Valley of Fear
- By Fire, by Moonlight
- Search for the Star
- Secrets of the Scepter
- Night of the Shifter’s Moon
- Shadows Over Balinor
I loved these books. Going from one world to another, unicorns, secrets, amnesia, magic, dark and creepy bad guys… *happy sigh* I clearly need to write me some portal fantasy sometime.
Be warned, the last book, while it does tie up the overall story of that series, it does also have a cliffhanger. I thought all these years there was another series, or at least another book. Turns out, nope. The author’s contract ended, and she’s apparently not interested in writing more. *DIES*
YA: Yep, in my mind. Although I can see it being considered a middle grade series.
Unicorn as a serious character: Behold, all of the serious unicorns. All of them. Except not the comic relief unicorn, obviously.
Avalon: Web of Magic by Rachel Roberts
- Circles in the Stream
- All that Glitters
- Cry of the Wolf
- Secret of the Unicorn
- Trial by Fire
- Song of the Unicorns
- All’s Fairy in Love and War
- Ghost Wolf
- Heart of Avalon
- Dark Mage
- Full Circle
I read this series because I enjoyed it, not because I thought it was particularly good. HOW DOES THAT EVEN WORK? Oh, right, that whole guilty pleasure concept. :D
After book 8, I lost track of the series, and I might catch up on it all one day, for old time’s sake. Unicorns are fundamental to the fantasy world (yes, this is more portal fantasy. Gotta love travelling between worlds!), and very cool, although the main focus is on the magic itself and the main characters learning how to use it.
This series also influenced my first attempt at a novel- it shaped a lot of the set up for its major characters. Before I read this series, my main character was on her own in a fantasy world. After, she had friends journeying with her.
YA: Nope. Maybe early teen years.
Unicorns as serious characters: I don’t even know what you mean by a serious character. I took them seriously, so…?
The Days of Bruce Coville’s Unicorns
A Glory of Unicorns, edited by Bruce Coville
This anthology contains a wide range of what unicorns could be and what they mean to people. Last time I read, found that most of them aren’t very good, unfortunately, but I’m glad I read it though because of the inspiration a lot of the core ideas have given me. Several of the stories got their way inside me and have stuck there, whispering new stories into my heart that I’ll one day tell you.
YA: Not… really…
Unicorns as serious characters: Yes. Very yes.
The Unicorn Chronicles by Bruce Coville
- Into the Land of the Unicorns
- Song of the Wanderer
- Dark Whispers
- The Last Hunt
This is a YA series, which I loved until I read the end. I read the first two books as a teen and enjoyed the heck out of them (the way the world and overall conflict are set up is endlessly fascinating, and there’s a bit of description in the first book that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, it grabbed me so much), but the last two… I was not impressed by how he put that ending together.
That said, can we acknowledge the awesomeness of all those titles? Like. Gah. Those are really, really good titles.
Unicorns as serious characters: You freaking bet.
The Firebringer Trilogy by Meredith Anne Pierce
- The Birth of the Firebringer
- Dark Moon
- The Son of Summer Stars
This is another actual YA series, and I’ve definitely read the first. I remember thinking it was a weird book, but I absolutely loved the worldbuilding. I can’t remember if I read the second book, but I definitely haven’t read the third. Hm. Maybe it’s time to find them. :D
The main character is an arrogant unicorn prince destined to be the Firebringer, who gets swept off to a land where humans live. And where fire is.
Unicorns as serious characters: These are probably the most epic unicorns you’ll ever read.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
I saw the animated movie first, because I found it on a list of best animated movies. And LOVED it. It hit me in all the feels, gave me a sense of wonder, and pulled me, breathless, through this story I very much wanted to be told.
If there wasn’t a book to go with it, I was ready to write it, like, that moment. So I did some research first, only to discover that there was already a book, and that the movie had actually been based on it.
All right then, I thought, let’s see how it is. I can’t remember if I ordered it or just bought it the first time I saw it in a bookstore. Because never mind libraries when you’re sure you’ll love a book. And I was right.
Except I was left still wanting to write something. If I couldn’t write the book to go with the movie, I’d dig into what specific instances had the ingredients I wanted to use and find the story in them.
In proper fantasy fashion, there turned out to be three brief moments that gave me seeds. Unicorns weren’t integral to them, but as I developed the idea, unicorns came back to it and I had the outline for the White Changeling series.
YA: Ish? Much more for adults.
Unicorn as serious character: Without question.
Unicorns I’m Looking Forward To
Equus, edited by Rhonda Parrish
Equus will be the latest in Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menagerie series of anthologies. She’s still reading through submissions and making decisions, but there will most likely be at least one story with a unicorn in it, and it will likely be awesome. I’m not sure of the tone of the anthology, but it’s definitely put together with adults in mind, and I’m thinking older teens as well.
YA: At minimum, I’m sure.
Unicorns as serious characters: I’d be shocked if there weren’t.
White Changeling series by Thea van Diepen
- Hidden in Sealskin
- Like Mist Over the Eyes
- Hunter and Prey (forthcoming)
Look, I’m not going to lie and tell you I’m not excited about my own books. Especially when Hunter and Prey, book 3, is going to include some major developments with the unicorn, as well as hint at the possibility of more unicorns appearing later in the series. Not to mention all the other cool unicorn stuff waiting to be revealed as the series progresses.
NO, I’M NOT BEING A TEASE WHY WOULD I DO THAT
YA: Apparently? Sure. It’s not middle grade, at any rate.
Unicorns as serious characters: You betcha.
Final Thoughts (In Defense of Silly Unicorns for Children)
Yes, a lot of these are girly books about the power of friendship or whatever.
What is this nonsense about the power of friendship and “girly” things (like unicorns, talking animals, bright colours, and secretly being a princess or some such thing) being not serious or enjoyable to teens and adults?
Is it because the vast majority of the authors of these books (including the honourable mentions, below) are women? Because, if that’s the case, I’m going to get grumpy.
I’m not sure why it is that unicorns and their stories are made synonymous with shallowness in popular culture, either. What’s so shallow about beauty? Or magic?
Or friendship, for that matter?
What’s so shallow with wanting to be special?
Or finding out you are greater and stronger than you ever believed possible?
I, for one, stand with the unicorns.
Honourable Mention Unicorns (in no particular order)
- Where Have the Unicorns Gone by Jane Yolen (Not included because it’s a poem, not a novel. It still holds a special place in my heart, though, full of aching longing.)
- Acorna series by Anne Mcaffery (Not included because she’s not a unicorn in the strictest sense, but an alien with abilities and an appearance strongly reminiscent of unicorns.)
- Apprentice Adept series by Piers Anthony (Not included because the way he handles nudity and sexual politics weirds me the heck out. That said, it’s a series for adults that has multiple serious unicorn characters.)
- Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Not included because unicorn has only a cameo appearance.)
- The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black (Not included because I frankly do not even remember what happens with the unicorn in this series. Sorry.)
- Harry Potter by JK Rowling (Not included because the unicorn has only a cameo appearance in one book.)