A Plague of Unicorns (review)

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A Plague of UnicornsA Plague of Unicorns by Jane Yolen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Cranford Abbey’s orchard of golden Hosannah apples are ravished annually by a herd of hungry unicorns, Abbot Aelian begins a search for a hero to best the beasts. Sadly that leads to nothing but an empty Abbey larder as hero after hero descends on the place with his retinue, only to fail.

Meanwhile eight-and-a-half-year-old James, son of the Duke of Callendar, lives in a castle 50 miles away with his mother, uncle, sister Alexandria and baby brother Bruce—his father having gone missing while on crusade. That means that James—who asks altogether too many questions, so many, in fact, that some avoid him—may become the duke sooner than expected. But he doesn’t yet have an education. So, shortly after his ninth birthday, he is trotted off to Cranston Abbey to learn languages, Bible illumination and all the other things one learns in an abbey.

Of course the unicorns arrive right on schedule and James, who is growing up and learning that questions not asked but pondered can produce a crop of their own answers, hatches a plan. Will he be another Abbey hero?

I loved the medieval monastic setting of this children’s chapter book by Jane Yolen.

The characters are delightful too, seen through the narrator’s and James’ points of view. I was especially pulled in by James and his misunderstanding of the adult reactions around him, like seeing his mother’s sending him away as proof that she no longer loved him.

The plot reads like an ancient folk tale complete with chapter titles that echo old books: “Chapter 1 – In which we are introduced to a short history of the Unicorn Plague,” “Chapter 7 – In which James finally gets to leave the castle,” etc. The black-and-white illustrations add to the book’s feeling of authenticity.

Yolen’s writing is perfect—simple yet profound:

“James went downstairs to the kitchen where Cook had a birthday cake all baked, and they shared it without questions, without answers. Because cake is like a stopper in a bottle. It keeps things corked up inside” – p. 93.

So why the four stars instead of five? Because despite all its good points, I missed a certain spiritual dimension that I have come to expect in books published by Zonderkidz. Oh, there is lots of religious content. We see the monks and James illuminating scripture, going for prayers, sprinkling holy water etc. but I didn’t pick up in James any sense of God or growth in his relationship with Him. The spiritual connection that there is, is between Sandy and the Unicorns:

“It was not the holy water on the ribbons nor the magic of the rowan boughs that called the unicorns in, but the song that Sandy sang.

James wondered, Is it magic? An incantation? A wizard’s spell?

… The stallion pointed his horn at Sandy’s chest but did not thrust forward. Nor did Sandy pierce him with the spear. Instead, hero and unicorn gave twin sighs and sank down together at the foot of the tree, the unicorn’s head resting in Sandy’s lap” – p. 176, 177.

And so the book’s spiritual message, subtle though it is, seems more like animism than Christianity—something which, as I said, surprised me in a book published by Zonderkidz.

I would still recommend this imaginative, gentle tale, with parents and caregivers using the portrayed spirituality as something to discuss with young readers.

I received A Plague of Unicorns as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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