Science fiction and fantasy blur together in this rolicking space opera about a half-unicorn and a down-on-her-luck spaceship captain. In the future, the US, India, and Oceania band together out of the ashes of a ruined Earth to form the Reason. With the help of omniscient alien beings called the Pymmie, Reasoners launch generation ships into space and “discover” the Bala, alien beings that inspired our mythological creatures. Unicorns, fauns, dryads, necromancers, and more inhabit the worlds around Earth… that is, until Reason colonizes the hell out of them.
Technically, Gary Cobalt is only half-unicorn, but it’s enough to send him to a harvest center after he’s released from prison on a murder rap. He escapes the clutches of Reason with the help of Jenny Perata, his nemesis who once held him captive and used his horn to power his ship’s faster-than-light drive. They’re joined by her cantankerous co-pilot, Cowboy Jim, and rebellious roustabout, Ricky Tang. Jenny and Gary have plans of their own, but when the Sisters of the Supersymmetrical Axion conscript them into making a delivery come hell or high water, they have no choice but to comply. They better get those boxes to the Century Summit before the Pymmie return to judge humanity … or else!
Despite the title, Space Unicorn Blues isn’t about Gary the half-human, half-unicorn ex-con. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a key player, but judging by screen time alone, Jenny Perata is the lead character. I really dug Gary and wish he got more to do. The major character development and the more interesting story arc went to Jenny, which makes sense given the anti-colonial themes. And, truth be told, Gary is such a Dudley Do-Right that he doesn’t offer much in the way of conflict. I think there are plenty of ways around that obstacle (I mean, his human half is Indian—colonization conflict ahoy), but I also acknowledge that the story gets vastly less explosion-y without him in charge. Still, if I had to choose, Jenny’s cool and all but Gary is literally a space unicorn. Also, asexual! Yay!
Ricky is another compelling character who didn’t get enough to do. She vanishes for several chapters at a time, long enough that at one point I was surprised to see her reappear—I’d forgotten she was tagging along. Not that she’s not awesome whenever she’s around, because she is fan-frakking-tastic, but she’s also not around enough to make much of an impact. As limited as she is here, I’m not entirely sure she was needed. If cutting her meant spending more time with Gary, well, I think you can guess how I’d vote.
How many science fiction or fantasy books have a disabled woman as a main character, much less one who’s also Māori, a lesbian, and an all-around BAMF? Jenny’s journey from eager colonist to bitter supporter of a supremacist system to passive guilt to active reparations is staggeringly well done. Throughout the novel we watch Jenny confront the system and the different ways in which it maintains the white cis male hierarchy, disenfranchises those who eek a modicum of privilege from the system, and oppresses everyone else. She is the fulcrum around which the fate of humanity turns. Gary and the Bala already recognize how horrifically skewed the system is. Jenny (and others like her such as Subedar Singh) is the one who has to break it. She’s the one who benefits from it, albeit less than men like Jim or Captain Wenck. She must reject that privilege and fight for equality.
Further complicating Jenny is her tumultuous relationship with Cowboy Jim. Western society is built upon the foundational twin ideologies of patriarchy and white supremacy. Both support each other. In Space Unicorn Blues, human men are above all, other humans next, followed by humans that co-mingle with Bala, then half-Balas, and Bala at the bottom. But wait: the book notes that Reason officers are generally white and grunts and corrections officers generally brown. Jenny tolerates Jim’s presence because she is Reason, and Reason was templated on Western colonialism.
As weird as it may seem at first for her to keep him around, think about all the ways we do just that with cis white men today. Think of all the years it took to take down Harvey Weinstein. Think about the ways in which we defend Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and countless others. Think about the ways in which even women, particularly cis white women, are willing to jump to the defense of abusive men, or at the very least continue to tolerate their presence and power. Yes, Jim is terrible, but in real life I know half a dozen Jims who people insist are “nice guys.” Western society is tailored for men like Jim, so much so that it’s often difficult for those not directly harmed by them to see how rigged the system really is.
There were two things that didn’t sit well with me. The first was the perpetual misgendering of Ricky Tang by Reason officers. Gary accidentally misgendering Ricky (and then correcting himself and later apologizing to her) when he didn’t know she had transitioned is one thing. Reason intentionally and continuously misgendering and deadnaming her is unnecessary. Look, I get it. Reason sucks. The entire book is about how awful they are and whether or not they’re capable of change. But misgendering and deadnaming Ricky felt like one step too far.
The second element is harder to talk about without spoiling the ending. Now, let me preface this by saying my discomfort is wholly personal. Structurally and thematically, it actually works quite well. The resolution and denouement are well-planned out, and the groundwork is laid early and often. If you’re paying attention, it’s expected and makes sense. That being said, I personally didn’t like it. The deus ex machina was fine, but the underlying reasoning for it—especially given what I know about the real world historical context of Redemption, the American Colonization Society, Paul Cuffee, Lincoln’s plan to send freed slaves to Central American jungles, the Back-to-Africa Movement, and the founding of Liberia and Freetown, Sierra Leone—left me cold. I wasn’t turned off the book, by any means, but for the ending and denouement didn’t quite reach the high water mark set by the rest of the novel. Hopefully the events of the sequel will smooth out this rough patch.
Author T.J. Berry has cited Firefly and Battlestar Galactica as inspiration points for Space Unicorn Blues, and you can see that influence specifically in the episodic feel of the chapters. I can easily picture the novel as a tv show, and I mean that as a compliment. In spite of the heavy themes, it’s an energetic book that starts at high velocity and never lets up. Reading it is one of those “just one more chapter” experiences.
Space Unicorn Blues is available July 3rd from Angry Robot.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.