Original publication date: December 1983
New Edition: August 2009
A boy and his unicorn travel across the East Coast of the United States in the Changed landscape where magic has replaced technology in Steven R. Boyett’s debut novel, Ariel. The first person narrative is told from the point of view of Pete Garey, a young man in his early twenties who has come to live in a world upended where cars, computers, airplanes and nearly all machines have ceased to work. What he finds instead on the very first page, is an injured unicorn. From that first meeting in Florida, the two become inseparable and because he’s a virgin and pure, he can hug and touch her.
Boyett quickly avoids some of the fluffy cutesy cliché associated with unicorns when Ariel begins to speak and mouth-off back to Pete. The bond between the two is more than that of a mage and a familiar, it is an intimate bond that might even border on that of star-crossed lovers. This description sounds trite, I admit and even writing it does as well. However, Boyett’s skill in evoking the feelings between Ariel and Pete is wonderfully rendered.
In the Changed world of the novel, no creature is more magical than a unicorn and nothing holds as much magical power as the horn of a unicorn. It is for this reason that Pete and Ariel must constantly be on guard and aware of their surroundings even more so in this dangerous new world. When they come across Atlanta, this danger confronts them head on as an imposing man on a Griffin who, on behalf of a powerful Necromancer in New York, demands Ariel’s horn. Fortunately, Pete had recently befriended a warrior named Malachai Lee who helps to fend off the Griffin and its rider. Malachai is a sword master of the newly changed world and takes Pete under his wing. With the real threat of what amounts to a bounty on Ariel, Malachai sets out for New York to confront the Necromancer, demanding Pete and Ariel not follow him.
Of course Pete ignores the advice and wants to fight this powerful enemy himself. Along the way, Ariel and Pete gather more people to their group one is a young boy named George who’s father pushes him to join Pet and Ariel so he can slay a dragon, which are said to have been seen in the Adirondacks. The group is also joined by Saughnessy, a young woman who forces herself into the group much to the chagrin, initially, of Pete and even more so Ariel. A confrontation with the Necromancer at the Empire State Building is inevitable.
Little, rather no explanation is given to the reason behind the Change. It just happened and though it may have been interesting to find out the why, Ariel is a stronger novel because no explanation is given. Perhaps because I recently finished it, I couldn’t help but draw mental comparisons between Ariel and Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road. Stylistically both novels couldn’t be more different, but the sense of ruin and the dangers of a decay of civilization they both illicit in the feel of the world as seen through their characters is similar
Other elements of the novel get the ‘lack of explanation’ that the Change gets, but where Boyett balances this is in the dialogue between the characters. We, as readers, are able to find out their reactions to the Change. Some things in life cannot be explained and we can only react, and for that that line of thinking in Ariel, the story is stronger, more plausible and allows one to believe in unicorns.
In the two decades since the book was first published the world has changed and Boyett has written a sequel. Publisher Ace has repackaged Ariel with an iconic cover from Steve Stone that does well to convey many of the themes and overall feels of the novel, in spite of the lack of a unicorn on the cover.
Despite a couple of important plot elements dating the novel, the story itself holds up 25 years later and worked on a very powerful and emotional level for me. Included is an afterword reflecting on the book and some insight to the novel. One thing that is remarkable about the novel is that Boyett published it when he was only 19 years old. It was a book I had a difficult time putting down once I opened it. Ariel is a realistic, moving, powerful and at times heart-breaking novel that while told in a fantastic setting is very much about coming to terms with real life and changes small, natural, and grand.
Highly, highly recommended.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford