Peter S. Beagle, The Unicorn Sonata (Turner Publishing, 1996)


The Unicorn Sonata is Peter S. Beagle's novel about a modern girl who accidentally stumbles into a gorgeous Otherworld populated by archetypal fantasy denizens such as satyrs and unicorns, as well as rarely-mentioned mythological creatures like the ferocious perytons, and pure authorial inventions such as the diminutive shendi.

Like the author's masterpiece, The Last Unicorn, this book also has mythic unicorn iconography at its heart. But readers should be forewarned. The Unicorn Sonata takes place in an entirely separate universe than that of The Last Unicorn. There is no overlapping of events or characters, and no link between the two beyond the fact that they deal (in their own different ways) with unicorns. Readers seeking "The Last Unicorn II" will not be placated by this markedly divergent, though truly charming story, which is aimed squarely at a YA audience.

Thanks in no small part to its setting in an L.A. suburb c. 1995, the tale's opening is infused with unexpected pragmatism. The awkward adolescent protagonist, Joey, is stuck in a washed-out world of highways and strip-malls. Joey's air of resignation in response to her monotonous existence will be viscerally familiar to anyone who has ever despaired of life's sometimes crushing normalcy. Joey is lucky that classical fantasy elements form the backbone of the text, because she is the very picture of a fairy-prone youth. All the standard symptoms are enumerated in the book's first few chapters: fleeting images whisk across her peripheral vision, she gets along best with the wise and wacky 60+ crowd, she's better at music than gym and is socially unpopular. Then a classic conceit brings magic right in the front door of the music shop where she works, in the form of boy with indigo eyes and a very strange instrument for sale.

Not long after Joey hears this intriguing visitor play, she follows the lingering strands of his haunting melody right out of Los Angeles and into the near-utopian world of Shei'rah, where three different species of magnificent unicorns flourish, and human beings are non-existent. While dangerous predators do stalk the land, this is presented as part of the natural order; the bizarre malady insidiously blinding the unicorns, however, is not. Joey finds herself welcomed with open arms by the inhabitants of this fabulous new world, and she returns for longer and longer periods of time.

Although there is an undeniably "Golly-whiz!" aspect to Joey's characterization, her frolics in Beagle's incarnation of Faerie are contagiously diverting and relaxing. As she gradually immerses herself in lush Shei'rah, the narrative language follows along. This eloquent portion of the tale most closely echoes the startling and graceful imagination that suffuses the entirety of The Last Unicorn. Familiar metaphors are made fascinating by the interjection of unexpected adjectives, glinting insistently from within the text to draw and captivate the reader. The descriptive prose divests itself of its workaday pallor and throws in its merry lot with the riotous landscape. The illustrations — vibrant and intricate color plates by the talented Robert Rodriguez — provide a delightful, compelling visual interpretation of the intense descriptive passages. Interesting plot-twists center around the supporting characters, particularly Joey's witchy grandmother, the curmudgeonly music shop owner, and a malcontent male unicorn who wishes he could live in the human world. While there is less evidence of dedication to poetic language in this book than in other works by Beagle, there is more room for simple joy. The main theme is one of perspective and vision. Beagle warns young readers and adults alike that by choosing the mundane over the spiritually fulfilling we forego our integrity, leading to a myopia of the soul. However, Beagle thoughtfully provides a prescription to heal the dullness that occasionally tarnishes everyone's perception of the world; the book closes with a resounding testament to music's pivotal role in discovering magic and carving out a permanent home for wonder.

[Tiffany Matthews]

illustration from Robert Rodriguez's cover art for the 1996 Turner Books hardcover of The Unicorn Sonata

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