Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Fitting the Echoes trilogy into Sharon Shinn’s oeuvre :

Okay, now I’ve listened to the first two books of the new Echoes trilogy, and I really liked them both. I’ll probably listen to the third this coming weekend, as I am most likely looking at a whole lot of driving, sigh.

This is making me want to go on a Sharon Shinn Reading Binge, though in fact I’m kinda trying to press ahead with my own current WIP, so who knows whether that will happen.

You know, when I think about it, Sharon Shinn certainly has enough books out to produce a real binge effect. Let me see … just about thirty books, most of which I have here on my shelves. That doesn’t include the Echoes trilogy. Thirty-two altogether, when I use Wikipedia to count them. Most of them I have in paper, six in audiobook format, and it turns out I’m missing two.

A few I’ve only read once or twice, others many times. Let me see if I can lay them all out in order, from the ones I constantly tell people they MUST TRY to the ones I don’t try quiiiiiite as hard to press into the hands of every possible reader.

Oh, and I’m going to take apart the series and drop different books into different categories, so let me add that nearly all of Sharon Shinn’s novels work as standalones, even if they are part of a series. She has a really strong tendency to complete all the important plot arcs in one book and then switch pov characters in the next book. There is one exception, but this rule is almost as consistent for her work as the importance of the romance. Every one of her books is a romance-fantasy, except for the few that are romance-science fiction.

Wait! One exception to the “Shinn writes romance” rule. Just one though, I think.

……

Right at the top:

  • The Shape-Changer’s Wife
  • The Truth-Teller’s Tale (Safe-Keeper’s series, #2)

Those two are perfect gems. The former, which is a standalone, is one of the most perfect stories I’ve ever read. Just a really lovely fairy-tale style fantasy. If you haven’t read it, you ought to — especially if you love Patricia McKillip. It is also the only one which is not a romance.

The latter is almost as perfect. Now that I’ve thought of it, I really want to re-read it.

In second place:

  • The Safe-Keeper’s Secret (Safe-Keeper’s #1)
  • “Blood,” a novella set in the world of Heart of Gold, published in the collection Quatrain.
  • Fortune and Fate (Twelve Houses #5)

I did mention I was going to take apart the series. Yes, the one that is fifth in its series stands alone. Events have happened and are referred to, but this book is set after the main series and can easily be read in isolation. It is also, as you can see, a particular favorite of mine.

Although all the novellas in Quatrain are fine, “Blood” stands out. It’s the only novella I’m going to list, though all Shinn’s novellas are nice to have as additions to your library. But “Blood” is just wonderful. If you don’t have this collection, pick it up and read that story. (And the rest, of course, once you have the collection.) Also, Shinn did something subtle with the beginnings of the four novellas in this collection which she told me once no one ever noticed. I hereby mention that so that you may pay close attention if you do read these stories.

One step down:

  • Archangel (Samaria #1)
  • Angel-seeker (Samaria #5)
  • Troubled Waters (Elemental Blessings #1)
  • Royal Airs (Elemental Blessings #2)
  • Heart of Gold
  • The Dream-Maker’s Magic (Safe-Keeper’s #3)
  • Echo in Onyx (Echoes #1)
  • Echo in Emerald (Echoes #2)

A very eclectic assortment in the above category; I know. That is inevitable as the category expands to take in more entries. I can’t really sort these out in terms of my personal preferences; I like them all a lot. Really, a lot, just not quite as much as the ones placed higher.

Although it was written fifth, Angel-Seeker is actually set chronologically right after Archangel. Personally, I prefer to read them one right after the other. Plenty of readers differ, but this is still my preference.

Troubled Waters and Royal Airs belong to the distinctive “comfort read” category for me. They are warm, friendly stories set in a warm, friendly country that is in the middle of a surprisingly warm and friendly industrial revolution. There is tension, but not that much. The pace is slowish; there is a slice-of-life emphasis rather than an emphasis on action and stunning revelations. When I’m caught a cold or I’m in a bad mood, these are some of the books I tend to reach for, so I’ve read them a bunch of times.

The description of Heart of Gold put me off for a long time … I am not keen on “problem novels,” which is what this looked like … but I finally read it because I loved “Blood.” I liked it much more than I expected to and it slotted into this near-the-top category. And, as you can see, the Echoes books are in this category as well.

The middle:

  • Mystic and Rider (Twelve Houses #1)
  • The Thirteenth House (Twelve Houses #2)
  • Dark Moon Defender (Twelve Houses #3)
  • Reader and Raelynx (Twelve Houses #4)
  • Jovah’s Angel (Samaria #2)
  • The Alleluia Files (Samaria #3)
  • Angelica (Samaria #4)
  • Jeweled Fire (Elemental Blessings #3)
  • Unquiet Land (Elemental Blessings #4)

Yep, the category is another big one. I liked all these books quite a bit and have read all of them several times. These four Twelve Houses books form one story and are the only ones where the individual novels don’t really stand alone because the overall plot arc is so important. However, we still do switch pov characters in every novel.

The fifth book of the Tweleve Kingdoms series, which as you have seen is my favorite, is really rather separate, as the main plot arc of the series is resolved in the fourth book. So this is really a quadrilogy followed by a standalone single book set in the same world, with guest appearances by some familiar characters.

For me, the overall plot arc of the quadrilogy is not as strong as the individual arcs within each novel. Twice — no, three times — maybe four times — someone does something stupid that predictably leads to a hellishly bad situation later. This is not always a pov character; I am specifically thinking of the king and how everyone seems to consider him a good king, for some reason, when all the available evidence is that he is at best well-intentioned but ineffectual, and at worst deeply stupid. The whole plot depends on the king not taking effective action to prevent highly foreseeable disaster. Also, at one point at least, the main characters decline to take decisive action, thus setting the scene for predictable disaster. This is the aspect that largely prevents this quadrilogy from bouncing up to the category above. However, I am really in the mood to re-read the whole quadrilogy now. I will probably start with the fifth book and then go to the first and read the rest in order.

The rest of the Samaria books also appear here, as you see, and I don’t really have preferences among them. I like them all, but not as much as the other two.

Ditto for the second two Elemental Blessings books, which I don’t believe I like quite as well as the first two. Still, when I was mildly ill a few weeks ago, guess which book I reached for? Unquiet Land, which is the most recent and which I had only read once. All four books in the series are so comfortable and warm. I really (really) love Darien, especially as he appears here, as a background character; but I do feel that if Lord Vetinari (say) had been in charge, the overall problem would have been resolved much earlier, with less wear-and-tear on everyone’s nerves, and without the need for a not-quite-deus-ex-machina moment at the end.

The rest:

  • Summers at Castle Auburn, which I definitely read but barely remember. My feeling is that I sort of liked it, but not all that much? I believe I may have felt it read a little younger than most of Shinn’s other books, but I’m not sure. Which makes me want to re-read it and see what I think now.
  • Jenna Starborn, which I admired in a literary sense but did not really like. It’s a Jane Eyre retelling, and clever, but (sorry, Sharon!) I have never really been a fan of Jane Eyre.
  • Gateway, which was fine, but did not stand out much for me. It’s a portal story where a girl steps through a portal into an alternate world. I only read it once. I should read it again and see what I think now.
  • The Shape of Desire (Shifting Circle #1)
  • Still Life With Shape Shifter (Shifting Circle #1)
  • The Turning Season (Shifting Circle #1)

This shapeshifter series was just not my favorite. Too much deeply felt emotion, I guess. I greatly prefer the more slow-build, lower-key relationships that are featured in basically all of Sharon Shinn’s other novels.

  • Shattered Warrior , a graphic novel. I guess I don’t mostly really like the graphic novel style, other than Sandman. The Mercy Thompson graphic novel didn’t work for me either.

The ones I haven’t read:

  • Wrapt in Crystal, which turns out to be a Shinn novel I’ve never read. Well, fine then. I have now ordered a used copy from Amazon, as it apparently is out of print and not available as an ebook.
  • General Winston’s Daughter, which I also haven’t read. After writing this post, I dropped a copy onto my Kindle, as that one is available in that format.

Other than the above, there are a scattering of other short works, many of which I’ve read and liked, but which don’t stand out for me in the same way that “Blood” does.

Shinn as a gateway drug: if you know someone who likes romances but has not read much fantasy, then especially if this person doesn’t care for modern paranormal, here you go. Sharon Shinn is the single most consistent writer of romance-fantasy I know of and would be a great place to start.

Okay! Weigh in with a comment if you like. How many of these have you read? Anybody out there who has never read much by Sharon Shinn? If you’ve read them all, which did you like the best? If you’ve read the last couple, what did you think of them? Do you agree or disagree with where I placed the various books?

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Art of Middle Earth

From Jeff LaSala at tor.com: Donato Giancola Is the Caravaggio of Middle-earth

When I visited Venice last year, I was overcome by the quality and quantity of the art filling the great halls of the famous Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). The works of Italian Renaissance painters like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto surround you and nearly overwhelm you in that place. Saints, kings, soldiers, philosophers, angels, and gods throng the walls, ceilings, and frescoes. But you know, if someone could sneak in an armload of paintings by artist Donato Giancola—paintings like “Gandalf at Rivendell,” “Boromir in the Court of the Fountain,” or “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”—and scatter them around the palace, I bet it would take a good long while for some snooty art historian to notice and complain.

Hell, I probably wouldn’t double-take, either, because those paintings would be perfectly at home there among the masters. I suppose if you put up enough of Donato’s masterpieces in the Louvre or the Met, maybe tourists would eventually wonder why Satan looks an awful lot like a Balrog or ask who all those stressed-out, grey-robed, pipe-smoking old men are, and hey, what’s that blonde lady doing with a sword and, whoa, is she facing off against a headless, mace-wielding black knight who’s just been unhorsed from some kind of pterosaur? What Greco-Roman myth is that even from?!

The whole post is well worth a look, with many great examples of Donato Giancola’s artwork. My favorite presented in this post is, surprisingly enough, the one of Sarumon called “Sarumon — Corruption.” He looks . . . worn out. Not physically, but emotionally; or, I suppose, spiritually.

Incidentally, the Doge’s palace in Venice is indeed amazing. And now that LaSala has suggested it, I too can visualizeDonato Giancola’s paintings fitting into that venue. They really would.

Final note: scroll all the way to the bottom. The robot feeding the squirrel is of course not exactly a Middle-Earth image, but it’s a great painting.

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Funny and weird stories of damaged library books

From Book Riot: Bacon Bookmarks and other tales:

This one’s a horror story: one patron walked out with a particular book, then walked back in in minutes to open up the book and show us where a previous patron had—and to this day I cannot imagine why—layered three pieces of cooked bacon in the very middle of the fairly large book, now calcified and half-moldy and pressed flat by the weight. …

Wow. But it could have been worse:

We had a patron return five DVDs and a few books to the library covered in sticky goo and absolutely reeking. This is fairly common for us, so staff took them in the back with bleach wipes and and the Stinky Book Box to see if we could salvage them. It wasn’t until the man was leaving that he mentioned that he had just gotten back from a fishing trip. Upon further (very kind and understanding) questioning, we discovered that he put the items in an empty cooler to keep them safe from the elements on his fishing trip, forgot they were in there, loaded his fish into the cooler, forgot the fish were in there, and left the cooler in the car for a week. Our items were covered in rotting fish guts.

Ugh.

You know, I did actually work at a library when I was a teenager. I even repaired a largish number of books. But I don’t recall that we had a Stinky Book Box, and we certainly never saw any books come back in remotely covered-with-rotting-fish-guts condition. I didn’t realize at the time that our library patrons were so much wiser, kinder, and more sensible than, apparently, those at other libraries. I hereby devote a moment of silent appreciation to all those patrons who did not do awful, disgusting things to books before bringing them back to the library.

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I hope it will be rebuilt

First, I understand more than $300 million in private funds have already been pledged toward the rebuilding of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Also:

an architectural historian named Andrew Tallon worked with laser scanners to capture the entirety of the cathedral’s interior and exterior in meticulous 3D point clouds.

It won’t be the same, of course. But I hope it is rebuilt, and I hope it stands another eight hundred years.

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Not sure I believe “mondegreen” is a real word

Link via The Passive Voice Blog:

What is a mondegreen?

Have you ever heard someone sing the wrong lyrics to a song? Maybe a child gave the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” a new meaning by replacing the line “life is but a dream” with “life’s a butter dream.” …

A word or a phrase resulting from mishearing another word or phrase (especially in a song or poem) is a common phenomenon known as a mondegreen. A mondegreen typically sounds like the original phrase, (i.e., they’re homophonous) but the meaning is often entirely changed—with presumably amusing results.

I believe in the phenomenon, of course, but I’m pretty sure I have never heard the term “mondegreen” before in my life.

The article says:

Sylvia Wright, an American author, coined it after a phrase she recalled mishearing as a young girl. Wright reportedly believed the first stanza to “The Bonnie Earl O’Moray,” a 17th century ballad, featured two unfortunate aristocrats:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where have ye been?
They have slain the Earl O’Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.

The correct phrasing of the fourth line is, “And laid him on the green.”

I find all this believable. What I’m not sure I believe is that “mondegreen” is a term that is used by more than half a dozen people who happen to have encountered this coinage by Sylvia Wright.

So! Tell me: did you ever hear the word before? If someone had referred to something as a “mondegreen” yesterday in your hearing, would you have known what they meant?

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Rewriting history

Fascinating story about Appaloosa history from Judith Tarr:

 The 2015 documentary, True Appaloosa: Quest for the Secret Horse is the story of Scott Engstrom, a breeder of Foundation Appaloosas who has always maintained that there is no way the Nez Perce could have had thousands of horses in the time of Lewis and Clark if all of their stock was descended from escaped Spanish imports. Horses just don’t breed fast enough. She believes that there were already spotted horses in the Pacific Northwest at the time of the European invasions, and that they had come, somehow, not from Europe but from Asia.

Wow, talk about striking boldly off on your own! I have NEVER heard anyone propose such a thing. And yet, it is true that if the Nez Perce had literally thousands of horses in the early 1800s, it seems implausible that they could have gotten them by acquiring a paltry handful of Spanish horses and breeding them. The horse gestation period, if you don’t know off the top of your head, is 11 months. If horses arrived on the North American mainland in the 1500s, then figure how long it would have taken any significant number to filter into Nez Perce territory.

Luckily we can examine these ideas with modern technology:

In true dramatic style, she happened to be watching television one night on her ranch in New Zealand, and happened to see an episode of Conor Woods’ Around the World in 80 Trades, in which he was trading horses in Kyrgyzstan—and one of those horses looked like a quite boldly patterned blanket Appaloosa. Scott got in touch with Conor and persuaded him to take her to Kyrgyzstan and try to find this horse, and once she found him, to analyze his DNA and find out if he was related to her Appaloosas….

She doesn’t find that particular horse. But she does find a “secret herd” of Appaloosa-patterned horses, and lo:

Engstrom … managed to collect DNA from the herd and have it tested at Texas A&M in the US. The geneticist who ran the tests determined that the horses were indeed related to Engstrom’s animals, enough that they seem to support her theory of Asian rather than Spanish origin. Which, if it is indeed true, not only rewrites the history of the Appaloosa breed but also that of the horse in the Americas.

How about that?!

New theories abound regarding this new detail of Appaloosa genetics.

Me, I like the idea that horses re-colonized the Americas across the landbridge. I know there are problems with that idea, but it’s neat and I’m going with it.

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RIP

Author and Grand Master Gene Wolfe, 1931-2019

Wolfe went on to write over 30 novels, with his best best-known work, The Book of The New Sun, spanning 1980-1983. The series is a tetralogy set in the Vancian Dying Earth subgenre, and follows the journey of Severian, a member of the Guild of Torturers, after he is exiled for the sin of mercy. Over the course of the series the books won British Science Fiction, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, Locus, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial Awards. In 1998 poll, the readers of Locus magazine considered the series as a single entry and ranked it third in a poll of fantasy novels published before 1990, following only The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

I know Wolfe is supposed to be one of the true greats. I could not get into The Book of the New Sun, though granted, that was a long time ago and I’ve probably changed a good deal as a reader since then.

I always put off trying another of Wolfe’s books. I have a couple on my Kindle, though. Maybe this would be a good year to dust them off, open them up, and give them a try.

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Recent Listening: Echo in Onyx by Sharon Shinn

So, this brand-new Echo trilogy is available only in audio format at the moment. Other editions will be released soon-ish, I believe, but at the moment, audio. The first book is Echo in Onyx:

First! An important note!

Keep an eye on this blog, because Sharon has generously agreed to give away a set of codes for free copies of the audiobooks here.

Audiobooks are not exactly cheap compared to other editions, so if you’re into audio at all, I bet you might well appreciate an audio giveaway! This giveaway will take place within the month, but please be patient because it won’t be tomorrow.

Now! The book —

The link above takes you to Amazon, where if you wish, you can read the back cover description. But you might not want to read that, because I personally thoroughly enjoyed being surprised by some events that are pretty well revealed in that description. Up to you, of course. I’m just saying.

For me, audio is a tough format. Listening to an audio book is much slower than reading text, and the slowdown exacerbates any kind of problem with the writing. Awkward sentences or iffy plot points can’t hide in forward progress because there’s no way to skim across them. A scene that might be paced fast enough in text slooooooows down to an absolutely glacial rate of progress in audio. In general, a book I might have liked pretty well in print is kind of meh in audio, and a book I might have liked enough to finish in print moves into the DNF category in audio.

There are two authors who work really well for me in audio: Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer. The writing is so good, plus there are enough plot twists and humor to keep my attention engaged for long periods during, say, a five-hour drive to a dog show.

For me, Echo in Onyx worked just as well in audio as a novel by either of those authors – the first audiobook by anybody else to jump up into that category. It’s the first audiobook I have ever listened to while doing nothing in particular — just sitting around, listening to it. I almost always need something else to do with my hands and eyes while listening to an audiobook, but this time I listened to several hours’ worth while just sitting on the couch.

The world in this trilogy is almost free of magic, except for the echoes. It’s not really Regency, but is strongly Regency-flavored, so it’s going to feel familiar to the reader. Except for the echoes. Imagine what it would be like to have two or three or four near-identical copies of you following you about every moment and echoing your every move and pose and gesture. Imagine what it would be like, watching aristocrats go about their lives in triplicate. Echoes don’t speak and are generally thought to have no real separate identities or thoughts; they are just physical echoes of their originals.

For some time I was all, WHY? Why does this happen and how come aristocrats consider it desirable to have echoes anyway? This is eventually explained in a way that makes reasonable sense and even ties into the metaphysics of the world.

So that’s the world: Regenty-ish, with echoes.

Now, Brianna, the protagonist, has had such a nice, smooth, happy childhood. She certainly has never faced a big challenge. When she moves to the city, she quite easily lands a plum job as lady’s maid to Lady Marguerite, the governor’s daughter, who is kind, sensitive, lonely, and quite willing to treat her maid pretty much as a friend, so Brianna’s life seems set to continue on its nice, smooth, happy path forever. Marguerite, by the way, has three echoes. And a secret.

Then Marguerite, along with various other eligible young ladies, is invited to the capital in a sort of reality-show situation – the heir to the throne is expected to choose a bride. The decision will be complicated by political maneuvering behind the scenes, but neither Brianna nor the reader is all that aware of (or interested in) those machinations. The story remains tightly focused on the human relationships – principally Brianna’s relationship with Marguerite and Brianna’s relationship with Nico – a servant of the crown whom she meets rather early in the story and who will play an important role as the story moves forward. Perhaps it may seem fraught if I mention that Nico is an inquisitor; like a cross between a detective and a secret policeman.

The story unrolls from there. I’m dying to describe various plot points in detail, but I will restrain myself. I will, however, just mention that:

a) Driving to St Louis last weekend, I exclaimed aloud as I encountered a really important plot twist. I will say, this was not exactly unforeseeable. But I did not foresee it. I emailed Sharon at that point and told her she practically made me have a car accident, which was figuratively if not literally true.

b) On Monday, while walking the dogs, I came to a complete halt in astonishment and alarm. This was at the moment Brianna stood up during dinner, in case you listen to or eventually read the book and want to know.

c) Yesterday, I arrived at work at the exact moment Nico discovered the truth about, um, things. That was not a great spot to have to pause the audiobook for the day.

d) You should totally give this book a listen if you like audio at all — especially if you already know you like Sharon Shinn’s books.

Quibbles:

a) The beginning may seem slow. It is slow, in fact. The giant problem that will drive the story does not occur for some time – say, around the early middle. This did not bother me despite how painfully slow some audiobooks can seem. Just as Georgette Heyer could somehow start False Colours with an eighty-minute conversation where the mother explains her improvidence to her son Kit without boring the reader, so Sharon Shinn manages to lead the reader through the warm, comfortable, easy beginning of Echoes in Onyx without boring the reader. Or at least, without boring me. Still, the story is objectively slow to start.

b) A worldbuilding detail mentioned early on may strike the reader as potentially very important. An astute reader may well say to herself, Hmmm, I wonder if maybe this might be really useful in getting someone out of a seriously tight corner into which she might be painted. Yes, yes it is. So this particular aspect of the resolution is predictable, especially since anyone who has read many of Shinn’s books will know perfectly well the story is not going to end as a tragedy. I guess if this were your first-ever story of hers, you might be in some doubt, but no way. Of course, the details of the resolution are a lot less predictable, but the ending is mostly not fun because it’s surprising; it’s fun because the reader gets to watch the bad guys be thwarted.

One final note: This story ties up perfectly and completely – it had to, because the protagonist and surrounding characters are going to change with the next book. There is a hook for the next book right at the end, but it doesn’t count as a cliffhanger.

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50 must-read books about unicorns

As you may have guessed by the over-the-top length of the list, this post is from Book Riot: 50 must-read books about unicorns.

But I clicked through anyway because: Unicorns! While it’s true that dragons have a special place in my heart, and that I am especially fond of griffins, I do happen to have a great fondness for really well-done unicorns as well.

Peter S Beagle’s The Last Unicorn ought to be first — unless titles are listed by publication date and then who knows. For literary importance, this is the title I’d put first. I think. I haven’t looked at the list yet, so maybe I’ll be surprised by recognizing something else that I would actually put before that one. [Update: nope, given all the books listed, this is still the one that strikes me as deserving the no. one spot in the Unicorn category.

Here’s a book with unicorns that I suspect the Book Riot post probably will not include:

I love this book, but I don’t believe it’s well known. Also, it’s not technically “about unicorns.” Unicorns are in the story, but not central. Centaurs are more important — and of course O’Donohoe’s truly wonderful griffin. So I do think the Book Riot post will be justified in not including it, though for mythological creatures, it’s top-notch. [Update: yep, not included.]

Okay, now let’s see what the Book Riot Post includes. This time I am almost completely certain Watership Down will not make an appearance. But no doubt many excellent unicorns will! I’m curious to see how many I’ve read and how many sound like something I must read asap.

Good heavens, the first twenty — twenty — are picture books! Does anyone else think that’s cheating? Because my initial reaction is: Come on, that’s cheating! But of course I might feel differently if I happened to have children the right age to enjoy picture books.

Eleven MG books about unicorns.

Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training by — get this — Maggie Stiefvater (and Jackson Pearce). I didn’t know Stiefvater had done MG books. This one sounds fun.

Nine YA books about unicorns.

I see that The Last Unicorn is included here. Hmm. I am failing to understand why that is considered a YA novel. Because teens like it? Because … I can’t think why else it would be. Seems like a peculiar categorization to me.

Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Pierce, of course. I am perhaps alone in not finding that one particularly noteworthy. I disliked the protagonist.

And finally ten adult novels about unicorns.

Oh! There’s Ariel by Steven Boyett. Yes, I should have thought of that one. I liked it quite a bit. You know, this one is actually is a LOT more YA than The Last Unicorn. If it were published today, I’m sure it would be categorized as YA. Young protagonist, coming of age, dystopian background — definitely YA, no question.

One more I recognize:Touched by Magic by Duranna Durgin. I do recall liking the book. I fear I don’t remember much about it other than the initial setup. I should re-read it.

And one last one that I recognize: the new one by Beagle, The Unicorn Sonata. Haven’t read it. It’s on my radar, where no doubt it will sit for the next decade. Have any of you read it? What did you think? If any of you rave about it, perhaps it will move up closer to the top of the TBR pile.

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