The Lady and the Unicorn opens for readers a fascinating world of medieval people. Review by S.K. Slevinski
Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, shows her strength and skill—as more than simply a skilled historical novelist. The Lady and the Unicorn is one of the better novels, of any sort, I've read in the last year.
The impetus for this historical tale is a surviving set of medieval tapestries in France. Chevalier speculates on their creation by weaving a cast of fictional characters in late medieval Paris and Brussels—many of whom find their way into the tapestries. Paris artist Nicolas des Innocents is called to the home of a newly-elevated nobleman to discuss a commission; he is to paint the template designs for a set of six tapestries to hang on the bare walls of the nobleman's grande salle. After accepting the commission—and flirting with nobleman's eldest daughter—Nicolas is called by the nobleman's wife, who demands that he change the plans for the tapestries from battle scenes to something more appropriate for the daughter's tastes—a lady and a unicorn. The templates Nicolas paints for the tapestries are only the beginning. His ongoing flirtation with the nobles' daughter leads her powerful, and traditional, mother to take action to keep them apart. Nicolas insists on going to Brussels to visit with the tapestry weavers, and assist in the drawing of the scaled-up, tapestry-sized templates. He finds the weaver's family no less intriguing and complicated than the nobleman's—not least of which the weaver's blind daughter who is to be betrothed to a stinky wool dyer for the sake of procuring enough blue wool to finish the tapestries. When the nobleman's wife demands to speed up the betrothal of his own daughter, he in turn demands the tapestries to be completed sooner. Tensions run high in the weaver's household under these new restrictions, leading all members of his family to take unorthodox measures to meet the new time limits.
The Lady and the Unicorn offers the best of what historical storytelling has to offer. With extensive research into medieval life, and especially the art of weaving tapestries—from floral background fillers to guild politics—Chevalier creates a fictional likelihood of medieval people and their daily lives. Readers will enjoy making the journey through this carefully crafted world, and enjoy the author's skills in recreating a Middle Ages that is realistic, both in its researched details and in its characters' emotion. Unlike many fantasy authors—who also work in a medieval setting—Chevalier's prose is economical. She does not burden the reader with excessive historical detail, but rather makes it tangible and relevant by showing it through the expert eyes of her characters. The characters, more than anything, shine in this story. Its plotline—while organized by the creation and completion of the tapestries—is ultimately guided by the motivations and decisions of the characters. Action and reaction make for intriguing character interaction, allowing the reader to explore the lives of characters who are original, accessible and realistic. Their story is not contrived, and they don't always get what they want—or what the reader would expect. The twists and turns of their stories are unexpected but unsurprising—for the characters are drawn with such richness and believability that the conclusions of their stories are satisfying with a sense of inevitability, but not predictable as too many plotlines in modern popular fiction.
I would recommend The Lady and the Unicorn for any reader, including readers of mainstream fiction and genres outside alternative reality fiction. Within the scope of alternative reality genres, fans of fantasy and historical fiction will especially enjoy this novel.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.