The Unicorn Road
by Martin Davies
Reviewed by Annis
"A long time ago I went on a journey . . ."
The Unicorn Road begins with a thirteenth century journey, made, like T'ao Ch'ien’s, "right to the corner of the Eastern Ocean. The road there was long and winding, and stormy waves barred my path.”
King Manfred of Sicily knows his reign is doomed unless he can placate his powerful, vindictive enemy, the Pope, with a gift beyond price, something like the legendary unicorn pictured in his magnificent Bestiary. Manfred's formidable lieutenant, Count Decius, leads the quest to find one. His party includes the venerable scholar Antioch, accompanied by his young English page, Benedict. Along the way they are joined by the renowned linguist Venn, who serves as their interpreter. King Manfred's company takes ship for the East, never to return.
Meanwhile, in provincial China, a young woman prepares to make a long journey from her home to the Imperial Court at Lin'an, where she is to marry an ambitious young general of the Imperial Chinese army. These two journeys are fated to intersect, with unforeseen consequences for all.
Many years later, Benedict's grieving, elderly father haunts the ports of southern Spain, seeking his missing son. Scraps of information about the lost expedition come to light, but no word of his son. Sadly, he returns to England, convinced the truth will never be known. The answer to Benedict's fate, however, may be revealed just when least expected.
Plangent as a troubadour's lament, Unicorn Road is a lyrical tale resonant with longing, loss and sacrifice. The darkness of random cruelty and suffering is illuminated by poignant moments of joy and happiness. Like the elusive unicorn, love which encompasses true communion of the heart is priceless, and must be treasured wherever it is found. (2009, 350 pages)
More about Unicorn Road at Powell's Books
Other historical novels featuring journeys to China:
Caravan to Xanadu by Edison Marshall (1972) More info
The Journeyer by Gary Jennings (1983) More info
A novel about the secret women's writing of China:
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005) More info
Nonfiction about Manfred, bestiaries and medieval journeys:
Urban IV und Manfred by Karl Hampe (1905), about the conflicts between Pope Urban IV and Manfred of Sicily; this German edition has not yet been translated into English, and is readily available only from academic libraries and through interlibrary loan.
Medieval Sicily, 800-1713 by Denis Mack Smith (1968). More info
The Mark of the Beast: the Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life and Literature by Debra Hassig (1998). More info
The Medieval Expansion of Europe by J.R.S. Phillips (1998), about a variety of medieval travelers before Columbus and their journeys to Asia, Africa and the New World. More info
The Medieval Bestiary
Wikipedia article on King Manfred of Sicily
“Unicorn Road” was partly inspired by the author's discovery of a secret ancient script used by Chinese women to pass messages to one another.
Article about Nu Shu, the secret women's writing of China, at Crystalinks.com
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