A unicorn walks into a bar….
When the murderer Gary Cobalt trotted into the Bitter Blossom, he nearly gave himself away as half-unicorn within thirty seconds. He prison-issued pants were hiked up so high that his hooves stuck out the bottom, chopping across the tile, calling all sorts of attention.
So begins Space Unicorn Blues, T.J. Berry’s delightful debut. With a first sentence like that, what’s to follow? A whimsical romp? A crazy magical adventure? It turns out the novel is aptly named. It’s a little bit sci-fi. It’s a little bit fantasy. Like a fine blues jam, it’s a little bit sad, a little bit angry, and full of madcap energy.
In Berry’s universe, when humans finally reached the stars, they discovered not grey-skinned aliens, but magical beings once thought the stuff of myth—including unicorns. As humans tend to do, they attacked, exploited, and, finally, destroyed most of these creatures. The remaining unicorns (and even the half-unicorns like Gary) are especially vulnerable to exploitation because their horns can be used to power faster-than-light starship drives. Because of course they can.
Gary once had his own ship, until it was pirated by Jenny, a disabled former war hero, and her crew of misfits. Gary was kept captive so his horn could be shaved and used for fuel. But by the time the book opens, he’s wanted for a woman’s murder. The shrouded circumstances that led to his need to flee capital charges permeate the story, especially as Gary makes one last, desperate run with Jenny’s crew in order to deliver a cargo essential to influencing a decision soon being handed down by uber-powerful aliens, who will pass judgment on the war between humans and Gary’s people.
But, first, Gary has to get out of that bar. In a terrific opening sequence, Gary must pass three significant tests to earn enough money to get his ship out of hock; naturally, this leads to an all-out bar brawl that ends with everyone fleeing the authorities.
The only constant in this universe is change—save perhaps for Gary, who has already faced so much hardship, a little more isn’t going to phase him.
Nah, it’s the humans who need to change, and they do—especially Jenny, who is the other main point of view character. At first, she is essentially a villain, what with her history of piracy and her imprisonment of Gary. But she has layers. She would be a hero among humans, but they’ve discarded her due to her disability, much as they’ve discarded or abused so many magical beings. Jenny has no prejudice in that regard, and justifies her past actions as necessary for the survival of her ship and her crew. But one failure led to another, from Gary’s imprisonment to a death that haunts them all. Now, all that’s left is this last desperate cargo run. If Jenny can help pull it off, she’ll use her share of the take to rescue her wife, who was imprisoned for the simple crime of being not-human.
Every great space adventure needs a great ship, and the Jaggery fills the bill. It’s a stoneship—not so much a ship as a living being with its own ecosystem. Its caretakers are dwarves who live so deeply buried into the vessel, the humans who haven taken it can’t find or remove them. (Late in the book, the true nature of the relationship between dwarves and their stoneships is revealed, and it’s awesome.)
Gary has a loving relationship with his ship. The humans, not so much.
Gary ran his finger across the bare stone wall of the hold. When the ship had been his, there had been a thick layer of moss on the floors and all manner of flowering vines clinging to the walls. All of the ship’s foliage had been torn out by Jenny after Copernica, but it still smelled faintly of soil.
The race to find and deliver this last bit of cargo is on, with the galactic military in pursuit. The crew’s chances of powering the Jaggery‘s FTL drive slim, given Gary has only a sliver of horn left, and dissension is threatening to destroy the crew from within. Also in the mix: least two major space battles, acidic space worms, a spacewalk fight, and a chaotic prison break.
(All of that, and I haven’t even mention the primary antagonist, Jim, the husband of the woman Gary supposedly murdered. At first, he is sympathetic due to his grief over his wife, but he soon reveals that little matters to him save his hatred of people who are different, and that he is never going to change. (I couldn’t help thinking of contemporary parallels between Jim and certain cranky, older individuals who blame all their problems on those who don’t look like them.).
Not everyone gets what they want in this story, but most get what they need. It ends definitively, but with room for sequels—especially for Jenny, a prickly, fascinating, flawed creation. It’s a fast-paced and satisfying book, grounding its silliness in character and pathos. And did I mention unicorns in space?