Book Review: A Plague of Unicorns

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A Plague of Unicorns by Jane Yolen

Middle grade/juvenile

Anything by Jane Yolen (and she writes a lot) is almost guaranteed to be excellent. This medieval fantasy (the unicorns are the only fantasy element) was a lot of fun, and if you’ve got a boy in the 6 to 10 age range, get him this book! Girls too will love it, but we know how hard it is to get many boys to read, so this book with a young boy as hero is perfect for tempting them.

Cranford Abbey is falling into disrepair. The new abbot plans to use the abbey’s apple orchards to prepare and sell wonderful cider to raise the money needed to make repairs. If only the unicorns didn’t eat all the apples every harvest season. What to do to prevent this? The monks are forbidden from violence or bloodshed, and just waving your arms and shouting “Shoo!” doesn’t chase unicorns away. Nor can they use the traditional method to tame unicorns, since no females are permitted on abbey grounds. The abbot has summoned many heroes, but all they do is decimate the abbey’s food stores and then back away in horror when they realize that “unicorns” means a whole herd of the unruly, dangerous beasts.

Meanwhile, young James, a duke’s son, is on his way to the abbey. Well, maybe he is actually the duke now — his father is away at the Crusades, and no one’s heard from him in quite a while. James’ uncle has been running the castle while the duke is away, and he decides that now James is about to be nine years old, it’s time he followed tradition and was sent to Cranford Abbey to be educated. Mainly, everyone at the ducal castle needs a break from James–the boy never stops asking questions, he drives even his mother into avoiding him. Only his teenage sister copes with him, mainly by taking him to the castle library to look things up.

James is at first excited about going to the abbey — there will be learned monks to answer all his questions! Of course, James doesn’t yet know about the rule of silence, nor that the monks are more interested in teaching him what they think he should know, not what he wants to ask about (which is everything). And the reality of homesickness sets in when James has to leave his family and home, which he’s never done before, and when he finds that the other boys at the abbey are not friendly to him.

But it turns out that James may be the answer to the abbot’s prayers when he suggests the perfect “hero” to solve the unicorn dilemma. Heroes don’t always have to be big and bold, sometimes they can be small and quiet and — smart.

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