Technically, The Young Unicorns is the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin series. But in it, the Austins take a decidedly supporting role, and Vicky’s first person narration has been replaced with a third person narrative that flits from one person to the next, allowing L’Engle to show aspects of the story that Vicky could not possibly have known—along with sparing us some of Vicky’s teenage angst. (It’s still there, but confined to just a few pages.) And, perhaps because L’Engle decided that the Austins needed a bit of fun and intrigue, The Young Unicorns abandons the warm coming of age family story for mystery, intrigue, rich ethical debates and a touch of science fiction. It also deals with many of the same ethical issues raised by The Arm of the Starfish—although considerably less problematically.
Thus, in many ways, it “feels” more like one of the O’Keefe books than one of the Austin books—a feeling only strengthened by the presence of characters from the O’Keefe books. But I have to say, I enjoyed it considerably more than the O’Keefe books.
Part of this is doubtless the setting. The Young Unicorns is set in and about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a place L’Engle loved and knew well. She worked there as a librarian and later a writer-in-residence, and her love for and knowledge of that part of New York City shines through. The setting also allows her to have fun with such things as hidden and abandoned New York City subway tunnels (amazingly with very few rats, although admittedly the rats may be an 80s/90s thing), antique stores, and the issues with keeping a large dog in Manhattan, details which add to the authenticity of the book.
And these details are needed, because, frankly, the plot has more than a few large gaping holes. It begins well, when some of the Austin children and their new friends, Emily Gregory, a talented and recently blinded pianist, and Josiah Davidson, a former gang member who prefers to be known as Dave, rub a lamp and summon a genie. Which is the sort of thing that I can completely believe would happen in Manhattan.
However, something appears to be—how do I put this—slightly suspicious with the genie, and not merely because, well, despite what I said, genies do not typically make random appearances in Manhattan antique stores. (As far as I know. I can say nothing for the city’s other four boroughs.) Nonetheless, and somewhat surprisingly, not everyone immediately jumps into genie investigation: the Austin children still have to do their homework, and Emily still must practice under the watchful eye of the peppery Mr. Theo (one of L’Engle’s better drawn adult characters, adding a needed touch of occasional humor). But the mysterious events nearby can’t be completely ignored, especially after Dave, finds that both his old gang and certain members of the cathedral may be up to something nefarious indeed, related to the genie.
I’m uncertain about what to say, exactly, about Emily Gregory. On the one hand, a positive image of a disabled character is always a plus, particularly one who, like Emily, realizes that a disability is not the end of doing things or happiness, nor a requirement to become an angelic and inspiring person. On the other hand, Emily can be positive in part because her hearing is so good, she can almost echolocate, the way bats do—developed to compensate for her lack of sight. If none of the legally blind people I know can actually echolocate, alas, this ability is a staple of fiction about the blind, and it’s not completely unlikely that the musical Emily would have developed heightened senses. What is unlikely is that she would have developed them this quickly, given that the accident that blinded her does not appear to have happened that long ago, and she is still adjusting to using her cane. But that’s a quibble.
Less of a quibble is my issue with the entire subplot about the lasers. I am aware that lasers were at their very earliest stage of development when this book was written so I am willing to handwave the various technical issues, but the idea that anyone would run around New York City with a genie and a lamp to conduct what are essentially laser lobotomies on people is just…ludicrous seems too weak a word here. (And no, this is not played for laughs.) And yet I’m expected to believe that at least three grown men and various formerly tough gang members fixated on violence are all gung ho about this plan, although to be fair the gang members have, as it were, rubbed the lamp. (I don’t know how intentional this was, but L’Engle’s language as she discusses rubbing the lamp and the laser treatments that follow have a sexual tone to them that really does not help.)
To his credit, Canon Thomas Tallis, visiting from other L’Engle books, strongly protests the plan, not on the grounds of pure silliness, but on the ethical ground that removing choices from people—even the choices of people to do wrong—is evil and wrong. Tallis’ actual word is “monstrous,” and whatever the absurdity and impracticality of the original plan, it does lead to one of L’Engle’s most forthright defenses of the importance of freedom—and a discussion, even more relevant today, perhaps, of the choices between security and freedom.
It also leads, again, to a discussion of one of L’Engle’s favorite themes: the fear of science in the wrong hands. In this case, the threat that supposedly benign lasers can and will be used to remove free will—is at least somewhat more genuine than the threat in The Arm of the Starfish, and if the villains make the typical Bond villain seem like a rational, low key planner, that threat does add to the tension in the rest of the book. (A kidnapping and the potential burning of a city landmark also help to raise the threat.)
L’Engle’s plotting is tighter here than usual—a seemingly random statement about Coriolanus turns out to have an actual plot purpose later in the book, and dropped hints can show attentive readers that something is definitely up with Dr. Austin and the bishop well before the book’s characters are aware of it. And if some of the themes of this book, her saddened observation of a rising tide of violence and hatred in the 20th century, her focus on the ability to choose between love and hate—have made regular appearances in previous L’Engle books, and will appear again, here they are woven together in a relatively engaging plot. The appearance of familiar L’Engle characters—notably Canon Tallis, although Josiah Davidson and Mr. Theo will also return in future books—also helps.
Ignore the title, though. I don’t know who came up with it, but although the book has a genie, a very loyal dog, science fictiony laser things and a blind girl able to use echolocation, it doesn’t have any unicorns. The unicorns would have to wait for a couple more books—and then, they would not get mentioned in the title.
One more minor tidbit to continue the ongoing discussion in the comments: In the previous Austin book, The Moon by Night, the Austins refer to Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe as fictional characters. In this book, Dr. Austin is fully aware of Calvin O’Keefe’s research on starfish, and a few references by secondary characters show that the events of this book are meant to have occurred just a few months after the events of The Arm of the Starfish.
Mari Ness admits that she has occasionally rubbed lamps in antique stores, just to see what might happen. She lives in central Florida.