Meredith Ann Pierce, Birth of the Firebringer (MacMillan, 1985; re-release Firebird, 2003)
Meredith Ann Pierce, Dark Moon (Little, Brown and Company, 1993; re-release Firebird, 2003)
Meredith Ann Pierce, Son of the Summer Stars (Little, Brown and Company, 1996; re-release Firebird, 2003)

I have to admit, I missed this series when it first appeared. I didn't skim it in the bookstore and decide against reading it; I had actually never heard of it until the 2003 Firebird editions arrived at the magazine for review. Consequently, the brief synopsis I was given — "a society of intelligent unicorns" — didn't inspire quite the ooooh, aaaah reaction it might have when I was just out of high school. Let me try it again on our adult readers: "a society of intelligent unicorns." Yes, just as I expected ... some eye rolling, some raised eyebrows, a few smirks. Pretty much my reaction, in fact.

Well, we're not as smart as we think we are, now, are we?

A brief rundown of the trilogy first. In Birth of the Firebringer we meet Aljan (Dark Moon), the prince of the unicorns. In true high fantasy tradition, Jan is high-spirited and wild, given to acting impulsively and desperately in need of some wisdom. His father Korr reluctantly allows him to join the pilgrimage to the Mirror of the Moon, a lake in the unicorns' ancient homeland. To view one's destiny in the Mirror is a rite of passage for young unicorns; the unicorns have been exiled from their homeland for 400 years, since a foolish unicorn ruler allowed the evil and sneaky wyverns to move in and then take over the land. Again being high fantasy, there is a prophecy regarding the ancient homeland:

But when at last the night-dark one shall be born among the unicorns, then the Mirror of the Moon shall grow sweet again, and the wyverns shall perish in fire. Our people shall call him the Firebringer...
As a side note, one might think that dozens of unicorns would be born "night-dark" but Pierce's unicorns have much more variety than standard fantasy beasts. They come in a literal rainbow of colors: pale yellow with grey spots, deep blue with white stars, dark rose, pale orange, pale blue, and so on.

As Firebringer progresses, Jan learns of the creatures the unicorns share their world with; pans (fauns), red dragons, wyverns, gryphons, and the "renegade" unicorns who live on the plains instead of in the Vale under the Prince's rule. His courage is tested, and he begins a romance. He battles the wyverns for the first time, and causes much destruction among them. The first inklings of who the Firebringer is begin to appear to him — though it is never a mystery to the reader, of course.

The story continues in Dark Moon, with Jan injured and amnesiac, swept out to sea after a battle and washed up on a distant shore, where he is held captive by humans. Treated reverently but confined nonetheless, he learns a bit more about his world and most importantly learns how to make fire. Escaping his planned sacrifice on the altar of a false god at the very last minute, he returns to the Vale with a friend — one shaped like a unicorn but hornless. Also in Dark Moon, Jan's wife, Tek, gives birth to twins and discovers that the pans are also sentient beings worthy of being treated as friends. On Jan's journey home, he also befriends a gryphon, one of the unicorns' deadliest enemies.

Finally in Son of the Summer Stars, Jan learns that his father has gone mad in his absence; when he confronts his father he learns a terrible secret which could destroy his own happiness and position among the unicorns. Meanwhile, Tek has discovered her own secrets. Jan meets with the renegade unicorns and learns their view of the world, and later communes with the red dragons, who show him visions which conveniently fill in some blanks in the story. Jan and his friend Illashar the gryphon at last lead their combined peoples in an attack on the wyverns, meant to free the unicorn homeland and at the same time let the gryphons return to their own homeland, the Vale. And, of course, they all live triumphantly ever after in a new world of freedom and friendship.

I'm not a huge fan of high fantasy; generally the writing is too overblown, the characters more caricatures, the plots dully repetitive, with no surprises for the reader. These books are what high fantasy ought to be, really. The Hero's Journey, with plot twists that aren't entirely telegraphed, well-developed characters who act in believable ways, and beautifully nuanced descriptive writing. Jan, Tek, Jah-lila the midwife, Jan's friend Dagg — very real, very substantive. The villains, the wyverns — believably nasty critters, but even they have a few sympathetic moments to make them real beings.

Alright, the candy-colored unicorns: perhaps a little too "Rainbow Brite" or "My Pretty Pony" for the adult reader. Consider the genesis of the Firebringer trilogy:

I began writing Birth of the Firebringer midway through the fourth grade... I worked on the unicorn story during grade school and all through junior high, then set the unfinished manuscript aside. Years later, after I finished graduate school, I found my thoughts returning to Firebringer. As I dug out the manuscript and begain rereading, my unicorn childhood flooded back. I set to work, determined to finish the tale this time.

Pierce goes on to say, though, that "what attracts me to unicorns is their heels and their horns, their power and speed. Creatures with such armature and such musculature, so I surmise, could only be warriors." And warriors they are, foofy colors notwithstanding. These are not the cutesy unicorns on 80's backpacks, pastel colored stickers and school supplies; they are not paired up with Strawberry Shortcake, and Care Bears. These unicorns have ... er, intestinal fortitude.

I imagine the creatively colored 'corns won't bother junior high and high school aged readers much, and those are the target audience of these young adult novels. Children could do far worse than these novels for a good solid story and a decent moral; adults will enjoy them as well. Don't miss this "society of intelligent unicorns"; there's more to these books than cotton-candy daydreams.

[Maria Nutick]

GMR has also reviewed Pierce's Darkangel Trilogy and The Woman Who Loved Reindeer. Pierce has a Web site here.