Author: Steven R. Boyett
Genre: Speculative Fiction (Sci-Fi/Fantasy), Post-Apocalyptic
Publication Date: January 1983 (original) / August 2009 (re-release)
Paperback: 448 pages
Stand alone or series: When Ariel was first published in 1983, it was intended as a stand alone novel – and remained so for many years (and as such, can be read on its own). But in November of 2009, author Steven Boyett returns to the world of The Change with a sequel titled Elegy Beach.
Why did I read this book: Because Ariel has become something of a cult hit in the SFF world, as a formative years classic novel. I had not yet read Ariel, so when we were offered a shiny new re-released version, I jumped at the opportunity! Plus, with the upcoming release of the long awaited sequel, Elegy Beach, I had to see what all the hullaballoo was all about.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
At four-thirty one Saturday afternoon the laws of physics as we know them underwent a change. Electronic devices, cars, industries stopped. The lights went out. Any technology more complicated than a lever or pulley simply wouldn’t work. A new set of rules took its place—laws that could only be called magic. Ninety-nine percent of humanity has simply vanished. Cities lie abandoned. Supernatural creatures wander the silenced achievements of a halted civilization.
Pete Garey has survived the Change and its ensuing chaos. He wanders the southeastern United States, scavenging, lying low. Learning. One day he makes an unexpected friend: a smartassed unicorn with serious attitude. Pete names her Ariel and teaches her how to talk, how to read, and how to survive in a world in which a unicorn horn has become a highly prized commodity.
When they learn that there is a price quite literally on Ariel’s head, the two unlikely companions set out from Atlanta to Manhattan to confront the sorcerer who wants her horn. And so begins a haunting, epic, and surprisingly funny journey through the remnants of a halted civilization in a desolated world.
The world has changed.
One day, modern technology simply stopped working. Cars would not start, electricity failed, guns would not fire. In the chaos resulting the change of the laws of the physical universe as humanity knew them, the world became a place where magic is real and mythical creatures roam the streets. Pete Gary was fifteen when The Change occurred, and in the five years since he has lived in the wasteland of Florida, foraging for food and trying to stay alive on his own. But then, he sees her – a beautiful unicorn, with a broken leg. Unicorns have reputations as rare, skittish creatures that do not allow humans to come close to them or touch them, but immediately Pete and the unicorn form an undeniable bond. He splints her broken leg, and the two become inseparable. And, from a book he sees in a library, Pete names her Ariel.
Together, Pete and Ariel travel around the southeastern United States, stopping in libraries for maps and books, gathering what food they can, and avoiding any confrontation. When they reach Atlanta, however, Ariel draws unwanted attention – someone wants Ariel’s horn, the source of her magic and power. Though they find friends and help, danger surrounds Pete and Ariel. After a fight with a gryphon and its powerful rider leaves a man dead and another friend in pursuit of a powerful necromancer in New York City, Pete and Ariel have no choice but to head north, to confront the threat head-on.
Ariel is one of those books that I wish I had discovered as a younger reader – written by author Steven Boyett when he was nineteen years old (around the same age as protagonist Pete), Ariel is a fantastic debut effort that obviously resonates with those who read the book at around the same age. Still, even though I’m a little older and it has been over twenty years since Ariel‘s initial publication, it is a novel that stands the test of time and a solid book in its own right. Blending elements of fantasy (unicorns, swords, necromancers, and magic) with a post-apocalyptic setting, Mr. Boyett creates a vivid, jagged landscape where magic triumphs over the crumbling ruins of civilization. Like the best works of the post-apocalypse genre, Ariel isn’t so much about the why of the apocalypse, but rather about what happens to the people in the aftermath. As such, a number of familiar themes appear – the scarcity of resources leading to the development of gangs and power hubs that rule with violence and fear, for example. But Ariel takes these themes in a slightly different direction by virtue of its fantasy elements – technology like guns or even vehicles no longer work, and magic becomes commonplace. Swords, crossbows and blowdarts are the weapons of choice; horses and hang gliders the preferred methods of transport. And of course, there are unicorns, necromancers, and animal familiars in the mix too. Though the combination might sound unorthodox, Mr. Boyett pulls off the blend smoothly, and with great flair – what can be more striking than images of a shimmering white unicorn and her human male partner walking along the cracked remains of freeways, doing battle in the Empire State Building with katanas and hooves and horn flashing? The juxtaposition is original, memorable, and totally rocks.
Beyond the intriguing premise, the strong setting and visuals that Mr. Boyett paints in Ariel, it also just happens to be a pretty damn good story. The plot is a journey/road quest story, tinged with a little bit of old school Star Wars (Malachi in particular makes a great Obi Wan mentor character to Pete’s Luke). As Ariel and Pete travel north, and meet others who join them (a young boy out to prove himself to his father, a woman who is enamored with Ariel at first glance), Ariel leads up to a dramatic, epic battle in the tradition of high fantasy.
That said, Ariel is also clearly the work of a young, debut author – which is both good and bad. Ariel is rife with literary allusions, both explicit in the form of direct quotes from Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and (of course) Peter S. Beagle himself, as well as implicit allusions (with character names like Ariel and Faust). In this sense, the book feels very much like a debut novel from a young author, trying to establish a place in the literary cannon, drawing upon the works of admired authors before him. And for the most part, I think the literary references are well done.
On the negative side, Ariel suffers from a number of first-novel flaws; there are a few indulgent scenes that really didn’t need to be as long as they were (step by step hang gliding instructions, for example), and scenes that should have been longer were sadly truncated. The ending in particular felt sadly rushed – kinda like the ending of The Karate Kid. You know after Daniel crane kicks Johnny in the face, he grabs the trophy and freezeframe on a coy Mr. Miyagi THE END! in about forty-five seconds flat? Ariel felt rushed like that, missing the necessary emotional release I felt the book really needed.
The pacing of the story felt uneven at times as well, complete with some clunky dialogue and cumbersome writing, and the plot was sprinkled throughout with some inconsistencies that didn’t quite add up – food seemed waaaaaaay too easy and convenient to find, and people willing to share goods without any struggle or too much mistrust; blow guns can’t possibly be so strong as to stop a grown person in their steps and knock them backwards; people in general seemed entirely too scarce (even though I intellectually know that most of the population has simply vanished, it felt strange that the roads were so open and free of conflict for the most part, but then at other junctions cities were blockaded by a border patrol of sorts). Also, the Japanese samurai sword ninja dudes were a bit over the top – how the heck did everyone 1) become sword-wielding jedi/samurai master?; and 2) where did they get these wonderful Hattori Hanzo-esque blades in the first place? Especially when the folks using them are (from what I can tell) white, southern men? I’m not gonna argue the point too much though, because frankly, who doesn’t love some samurai swords with their fiction, cheesy or not? But, I digress.
So far as characterizations go, there are also strengths and weaknesses. Pete, as the protagonist and narrator, certainly came off as incredibly genuine and fully-dimensioned, completely believable as a normal young man in a situation much larger than himself. He’s flawed and very human, and very real because of it. As for Ariel, her relationship with Pete is central to the book and it’s complicated – the two love each other, but can only be together as familiars and share a deep bond, beyond death, so long as Pete remains pure (read: a virgin). Virgins and unicorns have been tied throughout mythology (usually to female characters), and while I think Diana Peterfreund explored the gender roles of virginity from the female perspective very well in her unicorn novel this year, Rampant, I think Mr. Boyett does an interesting job of approaching this issue from the male perspective. The only character I had serious issue with was Shaughnessy, the woman who joins Ariel and Pete on the road to New York. Shaughnessy never felt real to me as a character – she was more of a caricature than a well-rounded person. She seemed more like a convenience of plot for Pete, a foil for Ariel, and it’s somewhat unsavory to me in the way things settle towards her character. As I was telling Ana in an email, the way Pete’s narrative progresses (and wraps up) is such a dude’s way of thinking (Ariel is noble/pure/perfection versus Shaughnessy’s flawed/impure/temptress). Then again, Ariel is told from Pete’s perspective, and he is a young man who really has no idea what he wants (nor does he take responsibility for any of his own actions, I might point out), so in that sense it’s actually completely genuine – unrealistic and unfair portrayal of Shaughnessy included.
One final note I should discuss is the ending itself…well, I’ve seen some negative reactions to the way it all went down. But I disagree with these reviews – I do think the ending is inevitable; it was a conclusion the story was built towards since the beginning. And I do think that the book could not have ended in any other result (even if the ending itself was rushed and lacking grace).
Overall, Ariel is a strong debut novel full to the brim with promise and imagination, and while not without its flaws, is an enjoyable book. Recommended, especially for those looking for a post-apocalyptic book with a different fantasy bend.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
What is your substance, whereof are you made
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
—Shakespeare, “Sonnet LIII”
I was bathing in a lake when I saw the unicorn.
The water was cool and clear; the pollution had vanished years ago. I’m young, but I can remember the times before the Change when the filthy water would catch fire by itself. Now, though, I could leave my clothes next to my blowgun on the shore, grab a bar of Lifebuoy, and wade on in. It was clean enough to fill my drinking flask from.
I was scrubbing myself, enjoying the feel of slippery lather. It was a quiet day — as quiet as it ever gets, only the wind and the rustling of leaves, the accompanying insects. I usually sang when I bathed, to fill up the silence, but that day the silence was fitting and right, and I remained quiet.
I had just scrubbed my face, and I ducked under to wash off the soap. When I came back up, I brushed wet hair from my eyes and spat out a sparkling stream of water. I shook my head rapidly and rubbed my eyes.
There was a unicorn pawing at my clothes on the shore.
I had seen unicorns before, fleetingly. They were shy, cautious creatures that usually bolted when they sensed me, like quick flashes of sunlight on metal. In the five years since the Change I had become used to seeing fairy-tale things, living myths, but as I looked upon this creature I knew I had seen nothing to compare to it for sheer beauty. I felt as if some cold fish had slid across my belly as I marveled in the cool water.
It is an injustice to say merely that its coat was white. Oh, it was white, all right, but it was more than that. It was a white like I remember the best vanilla ice cream, but finer and smoother. Sometimes the sun hit it just right and bright rainbow crescents fanned out like light through a fine spray of water. The hooves were mirror-bright — platinum or silver, I couldn’t tell. A distant lighthouse beacon on a lonely night, the spiral horn rose from the noble head: milky white, warm and welcoming.
I can’t say how long I watched it. Seconds, minutes, hours. Its tail swished randomly. Its nose was pressed against my backpack, but suddenly the majestic head lifted and it regarded me with two paralyzingly black eyes. Eyes full of life and intelligence. Eyes I could fall into. Lover’s eyes. As it moved, the mane shimmered on its muscular neck like a road on a hot day.
We looked at each other. Why did I suddenly have the feeling that I was the one who had no place in the world, that it was more real than I was? I was afraid to move, thinking I might frighten it away. Instead, I did the only thing I could think of to do:
“Hello,” I said.
You can read the full chapter online, along with excerpts from chapters 2 and 7 online HERE.
It’s been a year for unicorns! Well, kind of. It’s not too often unicorns make it into fiction these days – certainly not ones that are beyond the Lisa Frank trapper keeper version. Having just finished Diana Peterfreund’s original take on unicorns as savage, blood-thirsty, rampaging beasts that need to be slain by a contingent of female teenage virgins in Rampant, I was even more excited to read Steven Boyett’s take on the mythical creature in Ariel. And though Ariel herself isn’t much like Bucephalus or Bonegrinder in Rampant, this version of the unicorn has some really powerful, neat tricks of her own, tied to unicorn lore. Her magical abilities, her ability to speak, her very powerful horn, her affinity towards virgins, for example. Pretty cool stuff. Some other (non-girly) unicorn books for your perusal:
- The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
- Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
- The Firebringer Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (well, both have a cool unicorn somewhere in the story)
- Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepard
Are there any other notable unicorn books anyone would care to suggest?
Also, author Stephen Boyett has a great website dedicated to Ariel, including sample chapters (audio too), interactive maps you can follow as you read about Pete and Ariel’s quest northwards, forums, and some background history about the book. Go forth and check it out!
Verdict: I highly enjoyed Ariel. Though it does have its flaws and drawbacks, Ariel‘s strengths are more than ample to recommend it – especially for fans of post-apocalypse literature.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Also, remember to stay tuned as later today we will have a giveaway of TWO autographed copies of Ariel, along with some cool book swag!
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