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Another book I’ve had for a long time and only recently got round to reading, The Well of the Unicorn tells the story of Airar Alvarson, a young man with some skill in magic who is evicted from his home and joins a group of rebels fighting against the land’s overlords and comes under the mentorship of an old sorcerer with ambiguous motives.

It took me a fairly long while to get through this early twentieth century novel, mainly because of travel. The writing is much more accessible than, for instance, the contemporaneous works The Worm Ouroboros or The King of Elfland’s Daughter, although it has a fair sprinkling of archaisms. Partly as a result of not reading the book consistently, partly because it’s never completely and unambiguously explained, I had some difficulty keeping track of the factions and the attitude of the protagonists to them. Airar and his fellow Dalecarles as well as nearby peoples are ruled by foreign Vulkings, but many welcome Vulking rule; there’s also an Empire, but what it’s an empire of was never clear to me.

As Airar gains experience, confidence and reputation, he gathers men and allies and becomes a leader. The story, then, is partly about this military struggle, but, more importantly, it’s about the clashes of personality between the freedom fighters and about Airar’s moral dilemmas (dilemmae?) and eventual tranformation into someone not unlike the rulers he strives against.

The Well of the Unicorn of the novel’s title is a pool of symbolic power (and probably not actual magical power – although, like much in this book, its true nature is ambiguous); when one drinks from it, one loses all desire to battle and war; it therefore functions as a way to absolve crimes. Although it’s an important theme and presence in the book, it’s an off-page one, described only through the tales of those who have drunk of its waters.

The Well of the Unicorn is an interesting and serious book with a well realised main character, great dialogue that has bursts of quite amusing banter and a believable world. It’s let down by the somewhat rambling story, the difficulty of comprehending the overall picture of the war and some slightly dubious protrayals of homosexual characters (although it earns points for having multiple gay protagonists). The ending is somewhat abrupt, but it’s ultimately a very effective conclusion to a very good fantasy novel.

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