Year of the Unicorn is one of the first Witch World novels, published in 1965. From the perspective of 2017, it fits into the larger picture in interesting ways. It was the third book of the series to be published, after Witch World and Web of the Witch World and before the trilogy-within-the-series featuring the Tregarth triplets, but reading it after the Gryphon books clarifies quite a few details.
This is the story of war orphan Gillan, who came to High Hallack on a ship of Alizon. She has no memory of her past. She was first adopted by a lord of the Dales and his lady, then after they died in the war, Abbey Norstead took her in.
When the novel begins, the war is over.
Lord Imgry and his fellow Dalesmen have defeated the Hounds with the help of the Were Riders, and now it’s time to pay the mercenaries for their service. The price is thirteen brides for the riders, who will then leave the Dales and never come back.
Gillan has been living in Norstead for about a decade, and is profoundly bored. She has no interest in taking vows. When the opportunity arises to take the place of a particularly pretty and terribly fragile bride who happens to be related to Imgry himself, Gillan lets herself be persuaded.
By the time she’s caught out, it’s too late for her to be sent back, as she and the instigator, another noble guest in the abbey, have planned. She’s left out in the Waste with the other twelve brides, and presented with a test of sorts. Each of them has to choose from an array of cloaks belonging—as we soon discover—to the Were Riders.
Gillan is not like anyone else in the Dales. She looks different, and she has certain gifts which she has somewhat desultorily tried to develop. One is the ability to see through illusion. She sees the real, rather bleak setting, instead of the green fairyland that presents itself to the other brides.
Likewise, when she goes to choose a cloak, she’s drawn away from the main group to one set off on the edges. It’s made of white cat fur, and she doesn’t know why, but she goes straight to it.
This cloak turns out to belong to a person who is even more of a misfit than Gillian, the young rider Herrel. Herrel was not supposed to be chosen by a bride, and there are consequences. The rider Halse is furious. He is arrogant and a bully, and he sets out to make both Herrel and Gillan regret her choice.
It turns out that the Weres were exiled from their own country, but may now have earned the right to return. They take their brides, all but Gillan bedazzled and enchanted, to the dead end of the road, which is a portal into the land of Arvon. (Could this be the same one Kerovan keeps running into in the Gryphon books? Or are there several?)
On the journey to the gate, Gillan discovers that Herrel knows what she is. She’s a witch of Estcarp, and has the powers though not the training. This means that Herrel won’t consummate the marriage, because witch powers require that the witch be a virgin.
Halse meanwhile is determined to get a bride, and Herrel is known as a screwup. His powers are weak and he gets no respect. Halse lays a magical trap that causes Herrel to shift into a cat while in bed (chastely) with Gillan. Gillan already knows what Weres are, and has made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t matter, but she forgets all of that and freaks completely out.
By the time the company reaches the portal, Gillan’s ability to see through illusion has been outed, and she’s spent a great deal of time in weird dream landscapes. She’s also been wounded by another of the traps set for Herrel. When the gate opens, she is left behind—partly.
The Weres have worked a spell to separate her witch self from her human self. The latter, now totally absorbed by the illusion that binds the other brides, rides off into Arvon. The former, much weakened and dazed, stays behind, but is drawn by a compulsion to reunite with the rest of itself.
Gillan has no choice but to try to get into Arvon. The portal is shut; she sets out to find another access. In the process, she is captured by the Hounds of Alizon.
This interlude recalls several episodes in the first two Witch World books, with leering males gloating about how to rob a witch of her powers. There’s bonus grossness that makes me wonder if Andre had read Tolkien before she wrote this book. It was still a couple of years before the paperback editions (pirated and legitimate) took over the US, but both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had been out for years. The Hounds are rather orc-like, complete with guttural or overly comical names. (Smarkle? Really?)
In any case, Gillian escapes by using her powers to dump a sleeping draft into the Hounds’ water supply. Then she sets out across more weird phantasmagoric landscape, with illusions and magical traps, until she finds her way into Arvon.
Arvon is also hidden behind illusion. Gillan sees an empty country, but with effort can penetrate the spell and see its towns and inhabitants, enough to steal food and drink from an inn. To the people of Arvon she is a much of a wraith as they are to her.
One thing is not a wraith, and it is horrible. That Which Runs the Ridges makes its first appearance in the series. We know from the Gryphon books what it is and how it will be defeated. We recognize Car Re Dogan, too, and the ancient judges who let her pass. But for Gillan it’s all a mystery.
She manages to survive the supernatural hunt, but is growing weaker. She has to find her other half before she turns permanently into a wraith.
She clings to the memory of Herrel. Occasionally she manages to rejoin her human half, but the Weres keep driving her off.
Eventually they send Herrel to kill her. He’s as helpless as she is, but she manages to defeat the spell—not freaking out over his change into cat, for a change. He wounds her, but manages to transform back into a man and invoke, among others, the healing power called Neave. He’s furious at what’s been done to him, and frantic to heal her. He explains what’s happened to her and why it’s urgent that she find her other half and reunite with it before she fades. He also explains Car Re Dogan and the elder kings, though not in the detail we saw in Gryphon’s Eyrie. That would be written many years later.
And, he finally explains to her why he’s such a misfit. His mother was a noblewoman, and his Were father captured her with a spell—apparently that’s standard procedure for Weres. The lady’s father ransomed her back, and Herrel was raised as a human noble until he changed shape. Then he was sent to the Weres, but was never fully accepted.
All through this, he makes it clear to Gillan that they have to get to the Were stronghold, the Gray Towers, before she disappears. The Weres throw up obstacles and illusions, but Gillan has powers against those. When they force a confrontation, Herrel challenges Halse using both sword and sorcery.
Gillan insists on being part of this. If she can spot Halse through a cloud of illusion and name him, she can challenge him. Then she can name Herrel her champion.
It’s all rather complicated and quite dangerous. Gillan has a secret weapon: a bottle of moly, which breaks illusion. She has to time her use of it exactly right, or she’ll miss the window for spotting Halse.
She succeeds, which sets the stage for Herrel to defeat Halse in single combat. When Herrel demands that Gillan 2.0 be reunited with the Gillan who’s there with him, the Were leader tells him they’re no longer connected. He can’t help.
Gillan is fading fast into another long, weird dream sequence. She spends many pages wandering aimlessly and wondering who she really is, with Herrel doing his utmost to keep her from vanishing.
When she finally does find her other self, she has a terrible time reuniting with it. Herrel has to kill her to make it work, but in spite of all his explaining and clarifying and knowing so much more than she does, he can’t deal with the fact of having killed her. She has to chase him down, with many pages of “Who is Herrel?”, until she finally convinces him she’s really Gillan and he really saved her.
It’s all very confusing and quite fraught. But in the end they get it together rapturously, with a detour through the start of a double funeral with full Were honors. The Weres assumed they were dead, and has finally shown Herrel actual respect.
But they’re alive, and Herrel repudiates his whole heritage, Were and human. They ride through another portal into the unknown, in search of their own true home. One hopes they’ll be as successful at that as Simon Tregarth.
So all the fuss and fret about virgin witches disappears in a hazy of romantic love, and as far as we can tell, Gillan either doesn’t remember or doesn’t expect it to make a difference. Of course having read the Jaelithe story, we’d know it doesn’t, so she can be a sexual being and also use her witch powers.
So that’s something.
This is a story about loners and misfits and people who don’t have any team or tribe until they find each other in a heterosexual relationship. Herrel is a sort of proto-Kerovan without the demonic bargain. He’s half Were and half human and doesn’t fit into either. Even though he repudiates his Were half, he must still be a shapechanger, so the repudiation is of the tribe rather than the abilities. Like Kerovan, he determines to make his own way, though he doesn’t know how or where that will be.
Gillan is even more inchoate as a mate for the magical misfit. She has more native magic than Joisan does, but she spends much of the book drifting here and there under others’ power. She latches on to Herrel sort of blindly, after breaking previous and subsequent character to reject him for shapeshifting in her bed. That’s plot in the driver’s seat, and it doesn’t quite fit the rest. It needs a little something—a magical push, maybe. A little mind-bending that she overcomes by the time he shifts again.
All through the novel she’s pushed around from place to place and from crisis to crisis. She’s talked into joining the brides. Her choice of Herrel comes from an external and never quite defined source. The quest into Arvon is a life-or-death proposition brought on by the Weres’ dividing Gillan into two parts; she’s pulled along by the connection, and then by the need to survive, until even that fails and it’s Herrel who keeps her going. She doesn’t have Joisan’s pure grit and stubborn refusal to give up on her man. If anyone has that, to any extent, it’s Herrel.
I can do without the dream sequences and the long questing through weird landscapes. Andre loved those, and wrote a lot of them. Here it feels as if she was circling and circling, trying to find her way out of the plot. Also she seems to have been trying to touch on profundity in all the “Who Am I?” sequences. There’s a real concentration here on identity and self.
I’d have liked a lot more development of the female characters (some of whom have actual agency and could be interesting to get to know) and the emotional relationship between Gillan and Herrel, but that’s not what Andre was interested in. She glosses over all that in favor of long, long passages of dream wandering and questing.
This is not my favorite Norton book. I like Herrel and the insight into the Weres and the people of Arvon, and I’m interested to see how the world unfolds. Though I keep wondering, is Arvon on the same world as Estcarp, or is it another portal world? Sometimes it seems as if it’s like Tolkien’s Valinor, part of the world but sundered. Then there’s a sense that people are going through gates into a different world. It’s all very mysterious.
I’m on to The Jargoon Pard next. As for how I’m working out the reading order, I found this listing some time ago. Thanks to commenter Marron4Gateau for reminding me to point everyone else toward it. I’ll be skipping past the shorter works and the collaborations, at least for now, and concentrating on the solo Norton novels, following the sequence in the wiki.
Judith Tarr forayed into the Witch World with a novella, “Falcon Law,” in Four from the Witch World. Her first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.