East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Karavansara Free Library: The Well of the Unicorn


I’m writing a story.
Big deal, you say.
But no, wait, because it’s interesting.
The story is set in some unnamed American town, somewhere in 1948 or maybe 1949. As the story opens, the main character works as a reader for an old lady who’s losing her sight. My character spends three afternoons every week in the old lady’s parlor, reading her aloud from a book.
What book?
The_Well_of_the_UnicornNow, the book is not essential in the story. It’s just a prop, something my character can cling to as the events in her life suddenly start twisting in a whole new direction.
A hardback, then.
A good solid hardback she’ll be able to clutch to her chest like it’s an armor in that single scene right at the beginning.

And so I did a quick check.
I just needed a hardback published in 1948.
And Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn was published in that year.
There is something good, for me, about a young woman reading aloud from The Well of the Unicorn, and then embarking on a life-changing adventure.

The Well of the Unicorn is one of my all time favorite fantasy novels. And granted, my list of faves is pretty long, but Fletcher Pratt’s story of rebellion and war and passion and politics is up there in the top five.

7086563The plot?
Young Airar Alvarson loses everything he has on page one, and from there begins a journey through a land torn by rebellion. He acquires a band of fighters, joins the revolution, and slowly rises in fame and power, acquiring allies and enemies, and becoming the object of the machinations of the sorcerer Meliboe, and finally attracting the attention of the Empire itself.
And as the story unfolds, the titular Well looms over the lives of the characters. A well that deletes memory, grief, responsibility.

When I read The Well of the Unicorn, thirty-five years ago, it made a lasting impression on me.
I had bought it because I knew Fletcher Pratt for his collaboration with Lyon Sprague De Camp, and because there was a Viking fighting a deep one on the cover.
The actual book was quite anther story.
images (5)It was light-years away from Conan, and it really did not play the same game of Tolkien. And despite being Pratt, it had very little of the humor that had captivated me in the Incompleat Enchanter novels, or in the Tales from Gavagan’s Bar. There was something of Moorcock in it, and Meliboe reminded me of Melnibone.
But it was different. It was very grown up, and yet accessible to a sixteen-years old kid whose grasp of the English language was growing, but was still very shaky.

I liked it a lot.
I liked the characters, and the world, and the politics. I liked the distinctive lack of magic and yet the sense of impeding doom that the Well represented.
I liked – and I still like today – that Pratt’s novel is a novel about responsibility.

I have two copies of it – the Ballantine paperback and the recent Fantasy Masterworks reprint whose covers I posted above.
And while I looked it up, for my story, I found out the book is in the public domain in Canada, and you can download a copy for free, in a number of different formats, from this link.
What a wonder!
I can’t recommend The Well of the Unicorn highly enough.
It’s one of my favorite books, it’s a source of inspiration and a fine yarn, and it will be featured in my next story.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Karavansara Free Library: The Well of the Unicorn

  1. Since we’re talking about the 80s, I suppose in those days there weren’t other sources to buy foreign-language books excepts english bookstores located in the major metropolitan cities


    • Exactly.
      In Turin, where I lived, I ordered my books through a bookstore called Luxembourg. And then I was lucky enough to have a SF-specialist bookstore 20 minutes from where I lived, and they carried a lot of English-language paperbacks.
      Lots of old DAW paperbacks, and the like.


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