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Horn by Peter M. Ball

Horn by Peter M. Ball
Book Name: Horn
Author: Peter M. Ball
Publisher(s): Twelfth Planet Press
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy / Noir
Release Date: June 2009

Unicorns. They’re a staple of the fantasy genre, and while there are many works that treat the unicorn with respect, they are also regularly dismissed in popular culture as being representative of the flighty, whimsical, and escapist character that, in the eyes of opponents of the genre, make it possible to take fantasy seriously. Or, as the tongue-in-cheek jacket copy of Zombies vs. Unicorns puts it: “Unicorns are sparkly and pastel and fart rainbows.” (An awareness of why it can be hard to write good unicorn stories is part of what makes that anthology so much fun.) Unicorns, the argument would go, belong with fairy godmothers and magic spindles and princes-turned-into-frogs, the objects of fairy tales, which we put aside along with the rest of our childish things, once we grow up, once we become adults and the world loses its luster, the wonder in our souls replaced by a gnawing cynicism.

But what if we take the concept of the unicorn, and re-imagine it within the confines of the “adult” world, a seedy world of crime and debauchery, where innocence is a technicality and the only happy endings belong to the man with the gun? What if we take a unicorn, and place it into a piece of noir fiction?

What you get is Peter M. Ball’s Horn, published by Twelfth Planet Press.

“There’s a dead girl in a dumpster and a unicorn on the loose – and no-one knows how bad that combination can get better than Miriam Aster. What starts as a consulting job for city homicide quickly becomes a tangled knot of unexpected questions, and working out the link between the dead girl and the unicorn will draw Aster back into the world of the exiled fey she thought she’d left behind ten years ago. All in all, Miriam Aster isn’t happy. The last time she worked a case like this it cost her a badge, a partner, and her life.”

Engaging Subversion

Horn was well received by critics when it was released. It was shortlisted in the Best Fantasy Novel and Best Horror Novel categories of the 2009 Aurealis Awards, and was included in lists of recommended reading from both Locus and the Year’s Best Horror 2, and was praised by Jeff Vandermeer and Charles Tan. It’s easy to see why — Horn is engagingly subversive in a way that not many other works of fantasy dare to be.

The most obvious point of departure from fantasy as we know it is the depiction of the unicorn, which retains its magical properties, as well as its affinity for innocent young maidens, but in a manner that makes it a creature of horror rather than whimsy. The unicorn in the novel is treated as one of the creatures of the fey, but while the fey are common subjects of modern and twisted re-imaginings, this is the first story I’ve read to apply the same strategy to the unicorn.

Second, and more central to the story, is the subversion of the typical noir protagonist. Aster is a lesbian woman, and this factors into almost all of her relationships with the characters of the book, from her former peers in the police, to her fey lover, and even to the villains of the tale. While Aster is a different type of noir protagonist, however, what she has in common with her male/straight peers is that she is an engaging narrator. Noir stories, especially those told from the first person perspective, must have a protagonist with a strong personality, one whose (usually cynical) outlook can color the narrative and set the tone for the story. Aster has that world weary nature in spades, and you can feel the weight of her sins and regrets suffuse the text.

Horn is a novella, of about 20,000 words. It’s a credit to Ball that he’s created a character who feels so solid in the space of such a short story. Ball achieves this by choosing his words carefully, and making sure his sentences do more than just one thing at a time. In one sentence, Ball can reveal a piece of Aster’s history, show the reader her personality, define her attitude toward her current situation, and sketch her vices. “I used to work Homicide back when my life made sense and insomnia’s one of those bad habits I picked up on the job, right up there with the cigarettes and the tendency towards one glass of gin too many.” Sometimes, Ball slips, and a sentence lands awkwardly, or information is made available too explicitly, but for the most part Ball’s prose technique is very good, with punchy dialogue, interesting turns of phrase, and an awareness of noir stylings.

Straight and Narrow

While Horn has style and character to spare, it falters a bit in terms of plot and setting. The plot is linear and, once the unicorn’s role and Aster’s autopsy scars have been revealed, fairly predictable, the final confrontation falls flat because there doesn’t seem to be any reason that it absolutely has to happen at that point in time, and because the villains are the weakest characters in the story, types we’ve seen many times before.

The setting would have benefited from more clarity as to whether or not society at large was aware of the fey, since that would allow the reader to know the scope of the protagonist’s prospective courses of action. More explanation of the nature of the fey magic used would also have helped, especially because a rather ambiguous spell plays a key role in the climax of the story. The characters act as if there are rules, even when it comes to fey magic, but I don’t think readers are given the proper context to appreciate what magic can and cannot do in this world, as well as what that magic will cost, so sometimes it’s unclear why characters have the reactions or make the assumptions that they do.

Bottom Line

I’m not sure if Horn will appeal to reader well versed in noir or who have no interest in that style of story, but for anyone else looking for something darker than your usual urban fantasy fare, with a distinct heroine and a dash of subversion, Horn is worth the quick read.


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