Unicorns have appeared in folk literature for generations. They are described as horselike in stature, having a single horn in their forehead that carries with it the hope of healing. Unicorns traditionally are said to have the power to fly through space and time. Only those humans who are honest in heart are able to see them.
Coville clarifies this collection of stories as something different than the sweet innocence of those in traditional fables, "This is not a book about sappy unicorns. The writers of the stories . . . know magic is tough, love hard and demanding and unicorns are not as easy as some of us might like to think; neither safe, nor sweet, nor simple." For those who are believers, "unicorns expect sacrifice from those who love them - and from those they love in return."He proposes that a group of unicorns would not be a herd, as one would suppose, but a "glory." "One unicorn is glorious in and of itself. But when you have several of them together - well, that is something else indeed, a thought (or a sight, should you be so lucky) to lift the heart and make it sing."
The 12 stories in this anthology do make you want to sing, sometimes joyfully, sometimes a little sadly.
According to tradition and these present-day writers, unicorns are extinct for various reasons such as being hunted by man or simply human disbelief, which causes them to disappear. But they always can appear when they are most needed. In "Story Hour" it is the trusting heart of a child that causes the unicorn to return. Michael, in "Stealing Dreams" finds one in the wallpaper that has covered his room since he was a baby. When his room is redecorated, further magic helps save the creature from extinction for him.
Sometimes unicorns return under magical conditions such as when Mikel releases several from a glass ball in "The Unicorns of Kabustan." In this case, sparks of gold and silver fell from the tip of their horns that melted the snow, and they "lifted off the ground, rising like a constellation to the sky. They flew north and rose above them mountaintop."
In "Song for Croaker Nordge," an old man teaches his granddaughter to sing a unicorn to life. When she achieves the feat, the animal carries Croaker away leaving behind a unicorn gift, a luminous strand of mane. The strand of mane is also magical as it is spun into yarn for a rug in "Beyond the Fringe."
In "The Ugly Unicorn," a lovely Chinese story, Liu-mu is not a wondrous animal at all but "a homely silver-hairy creature like a one-horned jackass." Because Kwa Wei is blind, she has no idea of the animal's ugliness. A wizard realizes that by killing the unicorn and grinding the horn into powder, it will become a healing medicine for Kwa Wei's eyes. Two cubes of sugar are poisoned and intended as treats for the unicorn. In a turn of events, the child cries, "I'm a selfish girl, so I'll eat one myself." In folk tale fashion, all's well that ends well.
The most involved story is Bruce Coville's "The Guardian of Memory," an excerpt from "The Unicorn Chronicles," a series of novels about Luster, the unicorn world. In this a dwarf named Grimwold records the stories of unicorns at the season when one, the Guardian, is chosen to return to Earth (for only one is here at any time). The author is skilled at describing these mystical creatures while setting them in a "real" world. "Quietly, on hooves that could cross a field of flowers without bending a stem, the glory of unicorns entered Grimwold's underground home . . . passed through the door like a sudden surge of moonlight, manes and tails shimmering, horns like spears made of pearl and ice." "The Guardian of Memory" is a tender story full of love and a message that leaves little doubt in the reader what unicorns do on Earth during the sojourn.