Fletcher Pratt may be better known for his naval wargames than for his work in science fiction and sword and sorcery. If so it’s a pity. In The Well of the Unicorn Pratt created an epic fantasy with a hard-boiled attitude toward war, politics, and sex.
The tale concerns young Airar Alvarson, a Dalecarlesman dispossessed by the relentless taxation of the Vulkings. Airar joins the rebellion and we learn of his fortunes as he progresses from raw youth to hardened war-leader while trying to retain his innate decency in a world dominated by ruthless totalitarian fanatics and sleazy opportunists.
The supporting cast is rich and acts as Airar’s Greek chorus. Principal among them are the Star Captains of Carrhoene, a group of exiled mercenaries who join the Dalecarles’ revolt for their own ends. They are a violent, lusty lot and much of the novel’s conflict is about Airar’s struggle to keep a rein on his followers. Airar’s untrustworthy consigliere is Meliboe the Wizard, an outlaw by reason of his use of sorcerous arts. He and Airar have a series of agons where the nature of political power is dissected and found wanting.
The politics of sex get a look in too. Airar’s loves and friendships are repeatedly tested by the tendency of the powerful to exploit the weak. The Well of the Unicorn takes a politically incorrect view of pederasty in these instances. More than one of Pratt’s sword swinging warlords has a fondness for young men. To be fair heterosexuality is shown as scarcely less exploitive and Pratt ain’t depicting the kind of fellows you bring home to mama, unless mom organized slave auctions for the Roman army.
This is not to suggest that Well of the Unicorn is a series of dull conversations. There are battles by land and sea. Pratt has some excellent set-pieces of battles on siege works around a beleaguered castle.
Well of the Unicorn does not have the wide-eyed idealism of Lord of the Rings or the unbridled love of battle for its own sake found in The Worm Orobouros. What is does have is sweeping movement and a sharply defined character caught up in the tides of war and a lucid sense of what that means.