Year of the Unicorn (Witch World Series 2, High Hallack Cycle, #1) - Andre Norton Year of the Unicorn is a typical Norton set up: An outsider is forced to make a journey where she discovers hidden abilities, overcomes threats to life and personal integrity, and ends up with the promise of a new life.

Unicorn takes us from the Witch World’s original setting in Estcarp/Escore across the seas to High Hallack, inhabited by a fair-haired race of humans who deeply mistrust witchcraft and studiously avoid the sites of magic scattered across their dales. Our hero is Gillan, a young woman who survived shipwreck as an infant and now endures a life immured in Abbey Norstead (it’s not a bad life, but it’s a very limited one). From her physical description – dark haired, fair skinned and thin – readers of Norton’s other Witch World novels will immediately recognize her as one of the Old Race. This means, of course, that she has some measure of Talent and sensitivity to uses of Power.

High Hallack has just thrown back an invasion from Alizon, the kingdom that lies north of Estcarp. But the country suffered greatly and the only way the Dalesmen could defeat their enemies was by allying with the Were Riders of the Wastes. The price was 13 maidens who would become the Riders’ brides. The bridal party passes through Abbey Norstead on its way to the Riders, and though Gillan is not one of the maidens she contrives to take one’s place (with the tacit approval of the nuns, who do not trust her foreignness) and sets out with the party to meet their new husbands.

The Riders have set up a glamor where the girls are attracted to the cloaks of the men best suited to them. Gillian’s senses let her see through the illusion but she’s nevertheless drawn to one particular mantle and so meets Herrel. Like her, Herrel is an outsider amongst the Riders as his mother was a fully human woman and Hyron, his father and leader of the pack, barely acknowledges him. Worse, if anyone else realizes who and what Gillan is, she may very well be killed; the Riders what brides and mothers of future sons, not woman who might rival them in Power.

Gillan’s identity is uncovered eventually; and Halse, the novel’s chief villain and a thoroughly unlikable and vindictive one, puts her soul at risk in an effort to eliminate her threat. (With the willing connivance of the other Riders. While the Riders aren’t corrupted by the Shadow, they are not exemplars of virtue. A fact that makes them one of the more interesting antagonists from a Norton story.)

This is one of the better Witch World novels. For one thing, Gillan is an interesting protagonist and engages the reader’s sympathy. She’s intelligent, resourceful and strong willed. This latter trait is important in Norton’s work. The author always challenges her heroes with threats to their personal integrity – their souls. And the worst thing that anyone in Norton’s moral universe can do is invade someone’s mind and force her to do things against her will. Another plus is that the author manages to create real tension. You know Gillan and Herrel will prevail in the end but you don’t know how far Norton will let Halse go before they do. She can be pretty brutal to her heroes. A third thing I liked about the novel were the Were Riders. As I mentioned above, they’re not evil men but their goals are so far removed from Gillan’s that the two can’t help but clash. Their deceptions anent the brides is inexcusable but they don’t intend to harm the women; they want to keep them pacified and unthreatening.

I’ll wrap up with a recommendation to “read” if Andre Norton is your cup of tea.