With editing and writing last week, I was feeling a little romanced out. (Shh, don't tell anyone, I think they'll revoke my membership.) I decided to pick up a little mental refresher off my bookshelf and I pulled up a novel which I first got back in middle school. (In a Scholastic Order, take a moment to remember the thrill of new book day each month.)
Meredith Ann Pierce's Birth of the Firebringer.
The characters in this story are all inhuman. Mostly unicorns, though we also meet gryphons, pans and wyverns. This is a real challenge for an author. Certain descriptions can't be used (no unicorn is ever going to say 'on the other hand' to describe something). The culture is entirely alien but has to be kept close enough to human for a reader to relate. The characters simply can't do some things a human could but are capable of things which we can't.
Pierce does a really good job keeping descriptions consistent but also using them to remind us that the characters aren't human. She's obviously very familiar with horses and uses a lot of riding terminology. Characters canter or shy or gallop rather than walk or run. They use their teeth to manipulate things, dragging heavy objects together. She even provided a mechanism for sharp horns and hooves, the unicorns are able to sharpen them by rubbing hoof and horn together. The plains are described as rolling like the hair on a mare's back.
Pierce manages to balance the familiar and the exotic. The social structure of the unicorns is a feudal one common to most high fantasy. There is a king who rules the unicorns, with a patriarchal line of descent. But Pierce also pulls in herd dynamics, with the queen and princess acting as the herd mare, keeping the others in line and serving as a buffer between the ruler and ruled. The challenges used to settle disputes sound much like the challenge-combat done by stallions in wild horse herds.
I remember when I first read this story, I assumed the characters were human and the first few chapters confused me greatly. I had to stop and go back and re-read them when I finally realized that these people were not like me. (The unicorn on the cover should have been a giveaway, but I figured the people were in there somewhere.) As a writer, now I come back to it and realize how much work Pierce put into creating her world and characters.