The elevator pitch I’ve been giving for this book is “it’s a tale about a boy and his unicorn taking place in post-apocalyptic America” which, upon hearing that summary, hits major interest buttons for me. So I can get the setting of Fallout but there’s also magical creatures and more importantly a unicorn?? Yes please, sign me up, I am so ready for this.
So I’m rather at a loss as to how “a tale about a boy and his unicorn in post-apocalyptic America” can end up so generic and boring. By the time I reached the climatic battle that we had spent so much of the book building up, the book felt more like a standard campaign conclusion in Dungeons and Dragons rather than the unique merging of genres that got me interested in the book. How did we get here?
It is the early to mid 80s and the world or at least America has undergone “The Change.” Technology ceases to work. Cars stop in the middle of the road, refusing to ever turn on again. Firearms will not discharge. Phone don’t work. Lighting must be relegated to that of candles. But with the change also comes magic. The environment returns to its once non polluted state. All fresh water is safe for drinking, regardless of what toxins and chemicals were previously dumped in it. And most importantly, magical creatures now roam the American landscape.
Our hero is Pete Garey, a 20 something year old boy who several years ago stumbled across an injured unicorn. Nursing her back to health the two bond in a way beyond friendship, eventually having her become his magical familiar. Her name is Ariel. But the more they travel together, the more danger Ariel brings, as people ranging from jealous thugs to an all powerful Necromancer covet her horn and the power it brings.
Regardless of my lackluster emotions towards the latter half of the book, the book does a lot of things well. The world building is quite well done, somehow combining the concept of post-apocalyptic salvaging for goods and trying to live without technology with the magical wonderment of a fantasy setting, along with all the dangers it brings. Dragons are now roaming the hills of Tennessee, there is a Gryphon rider reeking havoc on settlements outside Washington DC, and of course, the aforementioned necromancer living atop the Empire State building.
However, as the story progresses and the threats to Ariel and Pete become more fleshed out, the book starts taking on a very familiar literary landscape. We might be in post-apocalyptic America, but Ariel is first and foremost a standard fantasy novel where there is one powerful wizard that is the nemesis with sword fights and slaying of dragons happening along the way. There’s even a damsel in distress narrative later on. And all of this gets very boring.
The book certainly isn’t bad, but the ending feels haphazard at best. The climatic conclusion to the necromancer plot (which is the main driving force throughout the latter half of the book) ends so abruptly, I didn’t realize that there wasn’t anything else to it. It wasn’t until later that I realized, “no, that was literally all there was to the necromancer main plot.” Villains that appear throughout the book and were once menacing threats are now reduced to snappy one liners, saying things like “But I wasn’t playing your game… I was playing MINE!! AND IN MY GAME THERE AREN’T ANY RULES.” and “My sword hasn’t had fresh blood in some time…” It’s tedious and I stopped caring about any of the stakes we had built. And to make matters worse, the main plot between Pete and Ariel gets wrapped up with zero explanation or understanding of WHY.
Without going into spoilers, throughout the book there is a subplot of Pete’s internal struggles with his relationship with Ariel. Because you see, as per most of unicorn mythology, only virgins can touch a unicorn. Pete, being in his early 20s is finding that his virginity status is becoming a struggle for him, being constantly distracted and aroused by female counterparts. Now, I actually find this exploration of virginity in the eyes of men to be very interesting. But after spending large portions of the book dealing with this, we resolve the conflict without any explanation to Pete’s feelings about his decision or why he chose to make the decision that he did.
Ariel is apparently a cult classic, getting a reprint in 2009, over 25 years after the initial print run in 1983. And while I in the end was let down and not impressed by the book, I can understand why it gained a following, certainly if you were in high school upon first reading it. If the fantasy genre is new to you and you haven’t grown accustomed to the tropes frequented by the genre, maybe the plot would be more engaging and new to experience. But as it stands, I went into this book hoping for a beautiful merging of a dystopian apocalypse story with the magic of unicorns and was left with a 20 something year old boy whining a lot about how he wants to have sex and running into the same fantasy tropes I’ve been reading throughout my life.