The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies

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The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An expedition departs Sicily in search of mythical beasts; a young warlord falls in love with a merchant's daughter and takes her to the Emperor's court; and years later an old man is traipsing the southern ports of Spain trying to find out what happened.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-0340896365

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In the middle of the 13th century Manfred acceded to the throne of Sicily. His country was prosperous but the mainland was rife with power struggles involving not just the noble families, but the Church. Successive Popes waged their vindictiveness against Manfred and he, perhaps naturally, sought allies from the non-Christian south and east to aid his cause.

At the same time Europeans were exploring ever Eastwards searching after mythical lands, lost legends, and fantastical creatures…and bringing their stories home.

This is the backdrop to Martin Davies' gentle mystery-tale-come-love-story The Unicorn Road.

The old scholar, Antioch, is brought before Manfred and shown a sumptuous book depicting and describing the fabulous creatures: the basilisk, the leocrota, the satyr, the unicorn. The book is a gift. But also it is meant as a guide. Manfred means to seek peace with the latest Pope by offering him a settlement, a price beyond his dreams, the most amazing additions to his famous menagerie. Antioch is to be tasked with travelling to the far lands to find them.

With him will travel Benedict, a child, a page, eager to prove his worth; Decius a general of some renown but a hidden past and his captain Pau, whose tongue is even more silent, whose history more dark. And there is the interpreter Venn, a quick study in any language.

Meanwhile in the far eastern Empire of Lin'an a young girl wanders the water meadows with romantic dreams of adventure and escape. In true fairy-tale fashion, a handsome warrior passes by, and her life changes for ever. For better and for worse.

Clearly these two stories will follow paths destined to cross at some point in the future.

But there is a third strand. A strand from even further ahead in time. An old man haunts the Moorish ports of southern Spain seeking knowledge from returning travellers. He is looking for his son. Benedict of Lincoln left with his scholar master many years ago, was traced as far as Damascus and then lost to the mists and silence. What became of Manfred's despatch is the subject of ever wilder speculation, but the old man patrols the quaysides and the taverns sifting fact from fiction hoping that eventually he will know the truth.

Davies' tale was sparked by a news report of the death of the last-surviving users of nushu in 2004. Like generations before her Yuang Huanyi had learned the secret script from her mother. It was the women's script. Its words spoke only of their lives, and loves, and fears. Matters so inconsequential in the lives of men intent on forging an Empire that messages could be posted in the public places where women might pass or gather, the roadsides, the markets, and be ignored by the men.

Women travellers would read these letters, memorise their contents, and copy them down again later to post them at a destination point. Greetings crossing a continent of land, and unknown spans of time.

The script forms the pivot around which the two main stories spin into a single one.

China at the time is a place of equally feuding lords and factions as is Europe; it is a dangerous place where privilege is concentrated in a few hands. Subjects are at the whim of their Emperor and travellers from distant lands face even greater risks.

Such a story of travel and myth would not be complete without the treasure. What is in the strongbox that Decius guards so closely? Where does it come from? Is it all of the class of the ruby he so casually tosses into the lake? More importantly, what does he mean to do with it?

Is Antioch's journey a genuine quest, or a cover for some other ignoble expedition?

Davies' mixes his characters well, with a fair few turning out to be not at all what they seem, and sufficient of the others being no more nor less than their presentation so that while you might question everyone's motives, you'd be wrong to do so.

The Unicorn Road is a romance in the traditional sense. It conjures the brutality and beauty of the lands it crosses and speaks of love, honour, greed and power. In its final unfolding it comes down to the importance of words: their power and their limits…and how much can be said without them, and how far they can be trusted. A few philosophical questions are raised along the way, but mostly it is a story, to be enjoyed in and of itself, and not to be analysed too deeply.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman or In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield.

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