Sunday, March 18, 2007

Book Review: Acorna: The Unicorn Girl

Exciting fantasy space opera without the excitement.

Acorna: The Unicorn Girl by Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball. Harper Torch, New York: 1997. ISBN: 978-0-06-105789-2.

There's been a lot of talk about unicorns around here lately. I was planning to save this review until I could discuss the whole series, but that's not going to happen anytime soon, so I'm going to get this out of the way. I can't discuss the sequels or the second series because I haven't read them, so this is about the first novel only.

The contents of Acorna: The Unicorn Girl are a lot like the cover art by John Ennis. The cover art features a beautiful picture pasted on a hideous CGI background. The novel features one solid gold idea pasted on a stilted storyline with an underdeveloped universe.

The solid gold idea is an alien who's half human, half unicorn, and all woman, whose horn has the power to purify water and heal wounds. The automatic association between unicorns and femininity, purity, and virginity makes this an appealing notion. Put a notion like that in the hands of Anne McCaffrey, however, and she's certain to mess it up.

Young Acorna is placed as an infant in an escape pod because her parents' ship is being pursued by a murderous race of aliens. Being orphaned at such a young age saves Acorna from growing up listening to dialogue laden with awkward exposition. Three human asteroid miners (asteroid mining is a popular occupation in space opera) find her and raise her as she grows up unusually fast. Besides the healing horn on her forehead, she has long silver hair and "hoof-like feet." (I'm not sure what hoof-like feet are; McCaffrey and Ball must be uncomfortable saying she has hooves, perhaps because they realize a human couldn't balance on a pair of hooves.) These three likable miners run all over the galaxy to protect Acorna from a number of villains who want her for various reasons. This builds up a complicated set of subplots, most of which end with disappointing and anticlimactic wrap-ups, as if the authors bit off more than they could chew and had to find deus ex machinas to take care of the complications.

In the end, the three miners and one anthropomorphic unicorn make it to the nefarious planet Kezdet, the economy of which is built on child slave labor. By the way, all the children working in the factories, mines, and brothels on Kezdet conveniently have a set of goddess religions centering around a beautiful woman who will one day come to rescue them. There's also an organization, half human rights group and half mafia, keenly interested in using Acorna to put a swift end to the planet's unjust practices.

How's the religion? And since Acorna is by default an archetypal figure, how is she treated?

One or two of the three miners are nominal Christians, but the religion that gets the most attention is Islam. One of the miners, Rafik, is Muslim. The depiction is silly, to put it mildly. In whatever year this story is supposed to take place, Islam has gone through some radical permutations: two more prophets have shown up and written sequels to the Qur'ān, and Hadith has gone out of favor. The major alterations to Islam that get mentioned are the elimination of polygyny and any kind of veiling for women, as well as a few other relaxations.

Islam views Muhammad as the seal of the prophets, the final one, the one whose message finally got passed on without distortion. The possibility of new self-proclaimed prophets showing up isn't unlikely, but a general acceptance of them among Muslims is, especially if they go altering established teachings and writing new holy books. Adding to the absurdity, Rafik's uncle Hafiz, always known as Uncle Hafiz, is a cardboard sheik/mafia don. The general impression I get from the novel is of two women authors who dislike Islam and go dreaming about how they would change it. The result is disrespectful and unbelievable.

As for Acorna herself, there's not much to say because she's underdeveloped. Though supposedly the central figure, the story really focuses on her three miner guardians. She is passive through most of the story; by the time she has anything to do, near the novel's end, it's too late: she is uninteresting, and even when she's championing children's rights, we don't care as much as we should. The problem is intensified by McCaffrey's and Ball's apparent uncertainty about how to depict her character's iconic elements. McCaffrey's bad habit of writing gross-out sex is restrained, but enough icky conversation pieces made it into the final draft to damage the book and Acorna's character significantly: for example, though this subplot goes nowhere and has little point, a certain character is infatuated with Acorna and says a number of things that should get him slapped, but which are treated as acceptable.

It's not bad. It's not great. It's yet another mediocre sf paperback, though in this case the mediocrity is tragic because the novel starts with a great idea.

The Sci Fi Catholic's rating for Acorna: The Unicorn Girl

Myth level: Medium (not the novel as a whole so much as its basic idea and some of the themes of the latter third)

Quality: Medium/Low (awkward exposition, several anticlimaxes, but some entertainment value)

Religion/Ethics: Medium (more restrained than some McCaffrey, legitimate outrage over child labor and sex trade, disrespect of non-Christian religion)
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