Content Warning: there are a few scenes that describe sexual situations — attempted rape, masturbation, consensual sex — but the narrator is so ignorant that she doesn’t know what’s going on and has trouble describing it. Therefore, readers know, but the details are vague at best, so it’s easy to get through these parts.
Mary Brown’s traditional fantasy novel, The Unlikely Ones, comes with a witch, knight, dragon, wizard, unicorn, talking animals, a protagonist who doesn’t really know who she is, an arduous journey, and an attempt to return home (though we all know you can’t go back again). Originally published in 1986 by Baen Publishing Enterprises, my first-edition copy has a number of typos that may be corrected in newer editions.
The novel begins by setting up several problems that will bring the characters together for a journey. A dragon’s treasure is stolen, and without it he’ll die. A unicorn is tricked into severing his horn and his prince companion is killed. A knight is cursed to wield a broken sword and rusty armor for denying a beautiful woman. These tales of woe have a common villain: the witch.
The witch possesses a girl, toad, crow, fish, and kitten. She uses them to hide a treasure — clearly stolen from the dragon — on each of their bodies in such a way that cripples them. For instance, the kitten has a large diamond embedded in her paw so she can’t run. Each has also forgotten his/her origins — part of the witch’s spell. Eventually, the knight and unicorn join the group to embark on a long Tolkienesque journey to the dragon in hopes of ending their suffering.
Mary Brown chose to add some interesting aspects to her novel. Because the witch’s five creatures are always together, they develop the ability to “think speak.” In fact, the girl (named Thing) has been doing it so long she’s practically forgotten human speech. Each animal has a unique voice, a fact that made The Unlikely Ones even more enjoyable to read aloud to my husband (yes, I do voices). Because the characters are so different, the dialogue exchanges can get quite funny. After the knight joins Thing’s group, he’s unable to get used to her name, calling her Thingy, Thingumabobby, Thingumy, and Thingamajig.
While Mary Brown gives clear indications of time passing, something screwy seems to happen: no one ages, which you’d think would be obvious given how fast kittens grow. Someone is playing with the passage of time in Thing’s reality, and it was interesting to read the lovely but painful truths of what happens when seven years catches up with them all in a second. The larger setting is something near Britannia at the dawn of Christianity. Imbolc is mentioned a few times — so possibly 500 to 1500 A.D.
I didn’t care for how often Thing mentioned she’s ugly, though instead of incessant whining, it’s a fact, and she wears a leather bag over her head. Thing is an independent person, and creatures and people listen to her. The knight doesn’t automatically attempt to usurp her authority in the hodge-podge group, either. While she’s behind her mask. Thing’s gender isn’t the focus of the story: her mental makeup is, so I appreciated that we didn’t get tasks or abilities separated by gender.
The wording seemed out of order in places. I’m not sure if this is an editing issue or an attempt by Brown to sound antiquated. It’s possible the sentences would read smoothly in one’s head, but tripped me up during to my oral antics (it’s hard to switch from ribbet-toad to soft kitten).
There was a rhythm Brown attempted to create by having each character on the journey — seven in total — do the same task. Each character is the individual brains behind a problem at one point, so there are seven mini-stories, if you will, on the journey. Each of the seven will voice opinion, or display happiness, etc. Likely, some readers will find the repetition tedious, but the deja vu factor is common in fantasy.
Currently, I’m reading another Mary Brown book, Pigs Don’t Fly, to my husband. Goodreads indicates that it is the second book in a series (I didn’t know The Unlikely Ones was the first). Set hundreds of years later, book two is not really a continuation. You could start there after reading a couple of spoilers of The Unlikely Ones on Goodreads (basically, why the main character has a unicorn ring and some gold). Already, Pigs Don’t Fly is more clearly written so, I suggest you start there instead.