It’s unusual for obscure mass market paperback originals from a quarter century ago to get a second life. But when the books in question are lost little gems that richly deserve such a life, it’s most welcome. And it ought to serve as a wake-up call to all of you: just how many hidden gems are on the racks right now that you haven’t noticed? More than you might think. Look deeper.
Ariel was first released in 1983, when mass market originals were a much more common format for first-time publication than they are today. Back then, pricey hardcovers and trade paperbacks were largely rationed to established names dropping surefire bestsellers. To those lucky enough to discover it at the time, Ariel was a real prize, the kind of book that makes rummaging through the racks and taking a shot on something unfamiliar worthwhile. But it didn’t have more than a couple of printings. And its author, a natural talent named Steven R. Boyett, disappeared to pursue other interests for over two decades after releasing a second novel, The Architect of Sleep, in 1986. In 2000, Ariel emerged from the mists as an e-book with a new afterword. And in 2009, Boyett’s original publisher Ace killed a few trees and gave us a new paperback with expanded chapters (but without Ariel herself on the cover? WTF!), and the stunning announcement of an all-new sequel to follow (Elegy Beach, published 2009). Lucky you, it’s your turn to make the discovery.
It’s a post-apocalyptic boy-and-his-unicorn story, and echoes of its influence can be felt in a number of novels today. The tender relationship between Laurence and Temeraire in Naomi Novik‘s books is very reminiscent of that between Pete and Ariel here, though Boyett‘s odd couple snark one another far more mercilessly.
SF and fantasy peddled no shortage of post-apocalypse rubbish during the Reagan years, from Stephen King‘s The Stand (there, I said it) to an absolutely endless stream of alarmist “The Russians are coming!” jingo-machismo fantasies. But Boyett’s take on the concept was fresh. On an otherwise fine day, without warning, an event called the Change alters the world forever. All at once, technology stops working, magic is real, mythical creatures roam the land, and people discover to their dismay that survival will be no easy task. Does this premise sound familiar to you? It should. Two decades later, S.M. Stirling would pretty much swipe it wholesale — except for the magic part — for his own “Change” series, beginning with Dies the Fire. (To be fair, Stirling acknowledges the debt, as he offers the new edition its most prominent blurb.)
But beyond the superficial elements of its premise, which launches readers into another Campbellian Hero’s Journey epic, Ariel is really a coming-of-age allegory. And it’s on that basis that it is best appreciated. On its fantasy elements alone, Ariel is a little too rough-hewn for its own good. Its stock arch-villain — a hissable baddie known only as the necromancer, who’s set up shop high in the ruins of the Empire State Building surrounded by grimy redshirt flunkies on loan from the set of Mad Max — is one-dimensional and ill-defined. We have no idea who he is or where he came from. We’re told that he wants Ariel’s horn for its amazing magical properties, but we never learn quite what he intends to do with it, nor do we get the idea he even knows himself. On top of that, the quest narrative wanders and often digresses into colorful but frivolous subplots until it finds its focus about halfway in.
And yet, what Ariel does not do is develop a fanboyish fascination with its own mythology, as so many epic fantasies have done. All of 19 when he wrote it, Boyett mostly wanted to deliver a story that resonated on a human level. By rooting Ariel so deeply in character, he infused his tale with so much heart that, paradoxically, the fact that much of the actual story is so rough comes across as endearing rather than a crippling flaw. Like its hero, 20-year-old virginal Pete Garey, Ariel is a novel striking out on its own, a little unsure of itself, but undaunted by its own mistakes and determined to overcome them and see itself through to its goals. Had the novel been a little slicker, more polished, it somehow would have felt less honest.
The bond between Pete and the unicorn Ariel is one of the most touching in modern fantasy, always steering well clear of cheap sentimentality, and it allows the reader total emotional investment in the tale. Mindful of the mythology of the unicorn, Boyett makes Ariel a symbol both for Pete’s innocence and his unreadiness to take on the mantle of adulthood and all of its responsibilities fully. Ariel is in many ways Pete’s first “girlfriend.” They banter, they tell jokes meaningful only to themselves, they argue and cuss each other out, they can’t live without each other. Their love is, perhaps, idealized, but that’s the idea. Pete in one scene wishes aloud that Ariel could be a woman, which might seem weird. But the point is that Pete is an arrested adolescent, whose continued innocence has been enabled, you might say, by the transformation of the entire world into a fantasy realm. A woman is the Unattainable about which Pete can only dream (mainly because there aren’t many left), thus making Ariel a safe surrogate for Pete’s insecure capacity for affection. Boyett sees Pete’s innocence as sweet and enviable — in the way many of us rhapsodize about our own youth, when life was simpler, or so we like to think — but, ultimately, as a barrier to his growth. There is a time to put away childish things. Ariel is about Pete confronting that painful time.
The act of deliberately going to New York to confront the necromancer head-on — a trek that involves wandering the desolate post-Change American landscape starting in Atlanta — is, though Pete doesn’t know it, the first step on his voyage from overgrown boy to man. Along the journey, Pete reads to Ariel from Don Quixote, which is a cute touch, but not one that’s really metaphorical to their own travels, as Quixote was deluded, and Pete is simply a young man in transition.
Pete and Ariel encounter other travelers. One mirrors Pete in a way, a boy named George who has been thrown out of his house rather rashly by a blustery father, who won’t let him back until he’s proved his manhood by killing a dragon. (George. Dragon. You got it.) George achieves his goal, but not by any real skill or courage of his own, and eventually returns home, victorious but only in a hollow way, having not really learned anything or become a man from his experience at all. There is also a girl, Shaughnessy, who (too obviously at first) represents the temptations of adulthood that only throw Pete into frustration and confusion. Boyett — in a long and rather bloggy afterword that amusingly shows us his gift for dramatization extends to self-dramatization — admits his treatment of Shaughnessy’s character is harsh, and indeed she stands in such stark contrast to the tenderness Pete and Ariel feel for one another that it threatens to undermine the book’s thematic goals. Yet this is, again, kind of the point. Childhood is more appealing than the fraught adult world in many ways. The transition may not be pleasant. But it must come.
Boyett offers some inspired setpieces and mounts a undeniably thrilling climactic battle sequence that puts a smart spin on fantasy’s routine dark-lord-in-his-dark-tower cliché. (Boyett correctly chose not to change the Manhattan landscape to reflect post-9/11 realities in the 2009 edition. Ariel belongs to its era.) Violence gets a bit excessive — The Last Unicorn this is not — but Boyett knows the emotional resonance to be had in calm-before-the-storm moments, such as a sequence in which our heroes are towed on a boat to New York by a school of humpback whales that just blindsides you with lyrical beauty.
So it’s rough. It stumbles before getting its legs. But in the end, Ariel remains one of the genre’s truly remarkable debuts. It skillfully uses heroic fantasy conventions in the service of a classic bildungsroman, and it has a perfect ending many of you will hate, in which what must happen does. It’s a story that will stay with you, because it will remind you — with perhaps a bittersweet tear or two — of your own innocent years, while making you appreciate that eventually, the time came to move on.
This review by Thomas M. Wagner is reprinted from his website SFReviews.net by special arrangement.