May 2024
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Review: The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

the last unicornA fantasy classic, The Last Unicorn describes the decline of the unicorns and the struggle for the last one to find her comrades after leaving her forest home – only to discover that she is now horribly alone. Convinced that her fellow unicorns actually do still exist, she embroils herself in bad situation after bad situation, though not without non-unicorn friends, while looking for elusive companionship.

I was absolutely thrilled when I stumbled upon a copy of this book while I was in the US in July. I had intended to buy a copy online at some point, so the serendipity of it appearing before me in a physical bookstore was plenty to persuade me to buy it and read it shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, it then took me over a month (!) to review it, so I’m afraid some of the details have been lost. But I’ll try and capture some of the essence of this magical book.

Half of its appeal for me was simply the way it was written; it struck as immediately a bit old-fashioned, the kind of fairy tale my mother might have read growing up. That’s probably because she could have as the book was published during her childhood, in 1968. The unicorn is beautiful but slightly terrifying in its beauty, kind of reminding me of Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings. Fantasy is a thing of awe, not something we can weave into modern life so much like in today’s urban fantasy; it’s distinctly medievalesque with castles, magicians, and lovelorn princes. It feels like proper, epic fantasy, despite its very short length. And though the characters sound like stereotypes, Beagle makes sure they don’t stay that way, weaving in personalities and little traits that make us grow to care about them.

The story itself also has an old-fashioned feel about it. Rather than pure action, much of the story is determined by fate and the way things have to be, rather than pure decision-making on behalf of the characters. Sure, they make some decisions; the unicorn chooses to venture out once she’s heard that there are no more unicorns, and Schmendrick chooses to help her at some stage along the way.

But a lot of the book simply flows along, inviting the reader to linger in the beauty of it rather than causing suspense even though the storyline actually does have a few cliffhangers and tense moments. Much of this is due to the absolute loveliness of Beagle’s writing, the way he describes the magic as though it could be real, and his descriptions. He creates an entire world in the space of a few pages – a true feat.

A proper work of fantasy, that immerses you into a world that you can almost believe in, The Last Unicorn is a classic that deserves to be read more often.

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