After a savage attack drives her from her home, sixteen-year-old Mnemba finds a place in her cousin Tumelo’s successful safari business, where she quickly excels as a guide. Surrounding herself with nature and the mystical animals inhabiting the savannah not only allows Mnemba’s tracking skills to shine, it helps her to hide from the terrible memories that haunt her.
Mnemba is employed to guide Mr. Harving and his daughter, Kara, through the wilderness as they study unicorns. The young women are drawn to each other, despite that fact that Kara is betrothed. During their research, they discover a conspiracy by a group of poachers to capture the Unicorns and exploit their supernatural strength to build a railway. Together, they must find a way to protect the creatures Kara adores while resisting the love they know they can never indulge.
I wish this book had been my first read of 2017, because it is vastly better than what my first read actually was. As such, I’m counting this for my Diversity Bingo 2017 free space square, rather than the racist trashfire that originally had that honour.
While the society of Nazwimbe–an analogue for South East African culture as The Bookavid notes–where Mnemba lives is patriarchal, the other nation, Echalend, that Kara hails from is much the same, only in a different manner. I was glad the author was careful to point this out so as to not paint Nazwimbe as some kind of backwards society. The book is full of lascivious men and there is a near-rape, in addition to Mnemba being a rape survivor from events prior to the beginning of the story, and it would have been all too easy to have tarred a South East African-based nation all with the one brush.
The worldbuilding wasn’t particularly expansive, but I felt it served the purposes of the story. Julia Ember has a knack for succinct but effective description and for conveying worldbuilding information with limited words. The magical wildlife was woven seamlessly into the environment.
I also felt–in my admittedly limited knowledge–that Mnemba’s experience as a rape survivor was handled delicately and realistically, and the way her cousin Tumelo offers her a way out of her village where it happened adds an extra layer to his character rather than him just being the one-dimensional greedy tour guide that he easily could’ve been. It’s an interesting contrast, given many characters who would be considered more “moral” were powerless to provide Mnemba a way to deal with such a stifling environment. Tumelo, unlike some of those characters, understood that she had to get out.
In terms of the plot, I did feel it was a little unbalanced in favour of the first section of the story. It dragged here and there and the end was rushed. The romance between the two women was a little underdeveloped. I wouldn’t quite so as far as to call it instalove, but it wasn’t far off. Fortunately, I liked both characters anyway so it didn’t bother me too much. The plot and romance issues could have been solved if the book was a little longer. Kara did get on my nerves every so often, I will admit.
What I really liked about the way Kara was written, however, was that she was a beautiful and athletic fat woman. She was allowed to be loved not in spite of her weight, but because it was just another part of her that Mnemba adored. The only judgement comes from Kara herself, talking about the way her homeland views her weight in a less positive light than the residents of Nazwimbe do.
Overall, this was a good book that could’ve benefited from having a little more space to develop. I’m still giving it a high Goodreads rating because I really enjoyed reading it.
EDIT: I neglected to mention that the word “crazy” is used once in this book. It’s the only incident of ableism as far as I can tell, but I’m not disabled and therefore not an expert on that.