Tor.com content by

Judith Tarr

To Tame the Untamable Unicorn: Diana Peterfreund’s Killer Unicorns

A chance reference in a comment on an earlier article led me to Diana Peterfreund’s Killer Unicorns, and I could not be more grateful. Which is saying something, because the comments on this series so far have been both entertaining and enlightening. Thank you all, and please keep them coming.

Meanwhile, I have had a splendid time with the two volumes of what we can hope will be at least a trilogy. Rampant and its sequel, Ascendant, have a certain air of Buffy Meets (and Slays) The Last Unicorn. But like all really good homages, they take off in directions that are entirely their own.

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Beauties Which Pierce Like Swords: Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn

Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart…

C.S. Lewis wrote these words about Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but they’ve always resonated with me when I think of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Both are classics and both are splendid. I love them without moderation.

I’ve often reread Tolkien over the years, and of course the Jackson films and the new Amazon series have kept it front and center in the fantasy universe. Beagle’s much shorter novel has had one film, back in 1982, and the book has endured through the decades, though a series of unfortunate events has meant that the digital version could not be published until last week. That it’s still in print and still beloved is a testimony to its quality.

I had not reread it in many years. There’s always the fear when rereading a childhood favorite, that it won’t hold up. That it’s not as wonderful as one remembered.

It is. Oh, it is.

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SFF Bestiary Considers the Unicorn

The unicorn is one of the most iconic of all the mythical creatures our culture knows. It’s a myth and a legend. It’s a metaphor and allegory. It’s an entire marketing category aimed predominantly at preteen girls.

It’s ancient. It’s not just a Western phenomenon: the first we know of seems to have appeared in Mesopotamia. It’s been seen in India and China. The beast with the single horn may be an accident of perspective—a profile of an ox—or a fluke of perception, a rhinoceros as seen by an observer from a far country. It may even be a mistranslation of an original text, so that the Hebrew aurochs becomes the Greek monoceros and the Latin unicorn.

As the late Western Middle Ages shaded toward its Renaissance, the unicorn as we now know it came close to its final form. White, for purity. Armed with a long, straight, spiral horn, just like a narwhal’s horn. Cloven-hooved and tassel-tailed, more like a goat with a single horn than a horned horse. The horse came somewhat later, probably because it was perceived as nobler (and larger).

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Welcome to SFF Bestiary!

Since the beginning of February 2017, I’ve been tuning in every other week to talk about all kinds of horses in and around the SFF genre. SFF Equines, aka the Horseblog, has had a long and happy run. But I’ve been getting the urge lately to expand my nonfictional universe.

Tor.com admin has agreed that this is a worthy endeavor. And, they asked, might I turn it into a weekly column? Hence, the transformation of SFF Equines into the SFF Bestiary.

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SFF Equines Revisits the Classics: Black Beauty

Somehow, through this long series, though I’ve read and reread numerous classic horse books, I never got around to rereading the mother of them all. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty is a staple of every horsekid’s library. It’s iconic. It’s classic for a reason.

I had not realized how long it’s been since I last reread it. It’s an essential part of who I am as a reader. I was sure I had revisited it sometime in the last decade or two. But when I actually sat down and read it, it dawned on me that the last time I immersed myself in it, I owned neither a horse nor a farm.

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A Master Class in Writing Horses: Horse by Geraldine Brooks

In one of those happy coincidences that often befall the writer-by-trade, while I was pondering the nature of the racehorse and the psychology of the stallion, I happened across a review of a new book that looked as if it would focus on both themes. Geraldine Brooks’ Horse is the work of a famously meticulous researcher who is also a devoted horse person. And it shows.

I did not know anything about the author when I read the book, except that this is far from her first novel, and she’s won a Pulitzer Prize. Therefore I expected some of what I got: highly polished prose, visibly topical characters and themes, and a familiar device of literary novels, the interweaving of a carefully described past with a present that explicitly reflects it.

What I also got was an engrossing read, with twists and turns that left me breathless. Wild coincidences and bizarre connections that actually, historically happened. And a deep, true knowledge of and love for horses.

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SFF Equines Revisits the Classics: Walter Farley’s Black Stallion Books

All the drama around this year’s Kentucky Derby inspired me to do some rereading of favorite fiction about horse racing. Of course I had to revisit the Black Stallion series, the first dozen or so volumes of which I read as a tween and a teen. I can’t say I outgrew them as the rest of the series appeared through the Seventies and early Eighties—I was still and always irresistibly drawn to books about horses—but I had moved on to other authors and genres. [Read more]

The Messy and Complicated Fairy Tale of Horse Racing

On the first Saturday in May, in the third year of the Great Plague, a fairy tale unfolded on a racetrack in Kentucky. A horse entered the Kentucky Derby literally at the last minute, after another horse was withdrawn, or scratched as they say in the business. He was sold from his breeding farm as a youngster, came in dead last in his first race, and was disposed of in a claiming race, where anyone who pays the set price can claim the horse. It’s a trope in horse novels, the driver of many a desperate plot, trying to save the horse from this sad fate either by keeping him out of the claiming race, or scraping up the funds to pay the price.

Once this horse was claimed, he ended up in a small-time stable as such things go, with a trainer who had never won a major race, and a jockey who had never ridden a horse at this level. No one expected him to do more than show up. All the attention was on the favorites, the stars with illustrious records and famous trainers.

[Then came the race.]

Writing in the Language of Horse People

I’ve written a ream or two about understanding horses, but it’s also really important for the writer to understand horse people. If you’re one yourself, you get it. If you’re not, there’s a whole world out there, and you can be sure it will let you know if you’ve missed the mark.

If you are a passionate aficionado of anything, you know what I’m talking about. Fandoms have their own language, their own codes for everything from attitudes to behavior. As the lament for Gandalf goes, In their own secret tongues he spoke. If you aren’t a native speaker, you can still be a Gandalf. You can learn enough to get it right.
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Transcending Words: The Real Fantasy of Human-Animal Communication

I’ve been reading a number of books lately that feature telepathic animal companions. In all of them, the animals communicate with humans in words. They may not have the physical capability for speech, but when they speak mind to mind, it is speech. Words. Concepts expressed in ways that humans can understand.

That’s the fantasy. That if we’re born with the talent, or magically endowed with it, we can finally, fully communicate with our animals. They’ll tell us what they want and what they mean. We’ll finally interact as equals.

But will we? Or are we demanding that animals meet us in our territory, on our terms?

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Understanding Horses: Changing Seasons

Changes of seasons are hard on a horse. There are plenty of challenges in the dead cold of winter and the gasping heat of summer, but the seasons between run a sometimes impossible gamut of temperatures and conditions. When it’s 95F/35C and ferociously sunny on Sunday and 50/10 and pouring cold rain on Tuesday, the horse’s system may not be able to keep up.

The main defense a horse has against extremes of temperature is its coat. The short, close coat of summer allows heat to escape and lets the horse sweat freely to cool itself off. In winter, most horses grow a thick, long coat with an insulating underlayer and a protective outer layer. Rain and wind can flatten it and eliminate its protection, but dry cold and snow are what it’s made for. You can see horses in snow country standing happily out in the storm with snow piled on their backs, warm and comfortable inside their coats.

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And So We Make an End: The Andre Norton Reread Reaches Its Conclusion

It’s been a long voyage since the first post in this series. Five years! It’s a tribute to the range and extent of Andre Norton’s work that I’m still here and that you all are still here with me. I haven’t loved every book of hers that I’ve read or reread, but I have loved the journey, and I have even more respect for her now than I did when I began.

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Why Do Writers Abandon the Ordinary Horse for the Extraordinary Fantasy Animal?

As I was wrapping up my other long-running series, the Andre Norton Reread, I mentioned a theme that’s been niggling at me for a while. That is the way in which Norton’s horse-savvy collaborator, Lyn McConchie, portrays horses as opposed to the magical and, at least physically, horselike Keplians. I mentioned in my post that I’ve seen this before in another favorite author’s works, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsdawn, when the horse trainers become dragonriders. Once the fantasy creatures take over, the horses get dropped cold.

Of course there all kinds of reasons and excuses. Dragons are predators on steroids, and herd animals are their natural prey—and the “runnerbeasts” of the early books get retrofitted to become slightly mutated descendants of the original colonists’ horses. Of course once you become a dragonrider, you have to abandon your horses for their own safety. Otherwise they’ll get eaten.

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The Last Key in the Last Door: Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie’s The Key of the Keplian

I see why this one of Andre Norton’s numerous collaborative novels is so dear to so many. It’s just about pure fan-service, and reads as if written by a devoted fan. It revisits one of her all-time favorite worlds, the Witch World, and uses one of her favorite narrative devices, the Earth person passing through a portal into an alien universe. That Earth person is Native American, which was Norton’s favorite non-generic-white-American ethnicity. There’s war and wandering and horrible monsters and subterranean adventures and ancient ruins with their equally ancient and still functioning inhabitants and, of course, the great battle between Light and Dark.

And, which is particularly relevant to my interests, there are animal companions. Wonderful ones. Better yet, they’re creatures who in Norton’s solo novels are completely of the Dark, the terrible and beautiful horselike Keplians. Here however, we’re shown that Keplians weren’t originally designed to be evil. We learn their real history and their real purpose.

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Writing Horses: Bridles and Bits and Getting the Details Right

As often happens when I’m coming up with topics for this series, the universe has obliged by offering just the thing. Commenters on my other series, the Andre Norton Reread, got to talking about the cover of one of her books, which features a woman on a horse. The horse is wearing a bridle without a noseband, which led to questions about what kind of headstall it is, and is it a bridle or is it something else?

Bridles and headstalls, like saddles, are rock-solid basics in the horse world. There are people who ride without anything on the horse’s head, either Gandalf-style with no tack at all, or with some form of rope or wire around the horse’s neck or chest. For the most part however, when a human wants to control the horse, they do it by controlling the head.

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