At first glance, Horn seems like a generic urban fantasy novella sprinkled with the noir genre. Digging deeper into the book, however, there’s a couple of subtle element that makes Peter M. Ball’s writing stand out.
First is Ball’s technique. While not quite in medias res, the reader immediately gets a sense that the main character has baggage, and it’s baggage that’s relevant to the current conflict. In the span of a few pages, Ball tackles two parallel dilemmas, the past and the present, and neatly resolves them by the end of the book. In this sense, there’s a compactness to the writing, accomplishing in a novella what might take other writers a novel or two (and this compression is reminiscent of another book Twelfth Planet Press published, Siren’s Beat).
The second element I want to point out is Ball’s presentation of the fey. Fitting with the noir atmosphere of the book, the fey in Horn are deceitful. What’s commendable is how the main character roots out this deceitfulness, satisfying both the reader’s knowledge of the mythical fey and remaining faithful to the tropes of noir.
The last element is the theme of subversion throughout the novella. There is, for example, our protagonist who is a female private investigator. While that’s not unheard of in fiction, it departs from convention in the fact that she’s lesbian. This detail is not arbitrary as this affects the relationships she has with others in the book, especially the fey. There is also the question of what it is to be a virgin, and this ties back into the gender of our main character as well as the patriarchal paradigm she lives in, and how she rebels against it. Third is the conceit of the book, at how unicorns aren’t romanticized creatures but feral and in this case, quite depraved.
Which isn’t to say that Horn is perfect. One significant complaint I have is the depiction of the rape scene which happens later in the book. For me, it’s not as potent as I imagined it could be, considering the build up to it. Contrast this to an earlier autopsy scene in the book which is simultaneously beautiful and gruesome, a better representation of the same tragedy.
Horn for me is impressive as it shows what innovations can be accomplished with the commercialized urban fantasy genre, and this is one of the books where it’s both guiltily entertaining and sophisticated in terms of technique.