Review: Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

unicorn-tracksAfter 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.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

  1. Wonderful review. This sounds like a great book. I was wondering if you could provide more information on how the word “crazy” was used. I’ve been treated for mental illness (GAD and depression), and I don’t find the word “crazy” offensive, depending on how it is used, but I also know that others do find it offensive. I worry about censoring words when the intent behind the use isn’t malicious, though there are certainly some words that are so offensive I believe no one should use them (particularly in the racial context). Thank you!

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    • One of the character says on page 88: “If we’re going to rescue my father and your crazy cousin, we need all the luck we can get.”

      The cousin is eccentric at most so while it’s not strictly used as an insult here, I felt it worth a warning since many people find the word offensive and hurtful regardless of context. I don’t believe it is censorship to warn people who could be harmed, nor do I believe it’s censorship to avoid words like that which come with the kind of baggage words such as “crazy” have for many people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! It’s certainly not censorship to warn people about the word, nor do I think it’s technically censorship when non-governmental entities dissuade people from using words. In principle, though, the idea that we shouldn’t use some words that have wide use and are not always used with the intent to insult is a type of censorship. At least in my opinion. There are definitely some words I will never use, but I worry when the list grows too long.

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      • Eh, intent doesn’t stop people from being hurt. I honestly don’t believe encouraging people to avoid words that have harmful baggage in order to avoid harming people is a bad thing.

        I also really don’t like using words like “censorship” against marginalised groups who don’t want harmful language used against them when, in many cases, those words were used to justify the physical violence they faced, e.g. many indigenous populations being dismissed as savages which eased settlers’ consciences in committing actual genocide. I use that example in particular because a few indigenous women have been harassed on Twitter recently for calling out books for using such terminology on fictional races very obviously coded to be like them.

        Slur reclamation is a different kettle of fish. If you want to use words like “crazy” for yourself, given you have diagnoses of mental illness, that’s totally your right. I use the word “queer” for myself at times.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree that impact matters, but to me, intent and context matter too. I tend to take the position Prof. Randall Kennedy takes in his book on the n-word in which he says it’s “the speaker’s aims, effects, alternatives” that should matter (of course, that’s a word associated with such an awful history, intent, & impact that I’d never use it).

        I am still thinking through this issue and trying to come up with a principle that works for me in my own speech. Certainly, everyone has the right to ignore or protest others who say words that offend them, and speakers should consider the impact their words have on others. At the same time, though, it is sometimes hard to know what will offend other people (for example, I am not offended by many things that offend other people with whom I identify). Where it starts to become even more complicated is when people who are offended by use of a word then argue that the book/speech should be banned, thus becoming censorship when a public entity follows the suggestion.

        I do appreciate that you’ve taken the time to respond to my comments. I’ll probably write a post on my own blog about it instead of continuing to take up real estate on yours! Thanks again.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Diversity Spotlight Thursday (April 13) | Ann Elise Monte

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