But while it lacks for nudity and dragons and bloody upheavals, this new series makes a solid argument for the exercise of power as the stuff of compelling drama in its own right. The first chapter of this daring chronicle of the rule of King “Bling” Bleys of Amber remains gripping across the entirety of the 10 episodes made available to critics, finding both emotional heft in Bleys’ election, ascension and unexpected suspense in matters of courtly protocol and etiquette. Led by a complicated and star-making performance and an ensemble primed to fill Emmy categories, Children of the Unicorn is surely one of the strongest push yet into the realm of prestige drama.
The story begins with King Oberon’s expected demise with the Regent of the Day Prince Gerard presiding over an unruly family of old and young rascals. There are dark rumours that Oberon is still trying to claw for his throne beyond the grave through his favourite grandson, young Marcus who has been given control of the notorious secret police and Star Chamber, the Intelligence Committee and its arm of the Secret Service. He is given a monopoly of control over the pink gunpowder and control of the ordinance in Amber Castle and Oberon’s highly secured villa in Southern Amber in the “olive belt” – Sans Sulci
We see King Bleys newly elected then his rapid coronation marrying his beloved ice maiden Elizabeth Channicut. We see Bleys’ fraternal twin sons, the stiff upper lipped Prince John who is the Royal Secretary and consolidated royal power behind his highly flamboyant father. We see Princess Royal Fiona who is the conniving spider at the centre of the web who with John, does most of the palace’s day to day operations. However we see Fiona as not only politically ambitious but damaged following the death of her late husband and nephew Gaius from the Civil War. She is fierce in protecting her main sons by Gaius – Isaac, Liam and Icarus among others.
There is the heart breaking scene where Ian, separated from John and his father and raised under the supervision of Bleys’ previous wife, the Princess Swayvanna, his mother in Tenterden where he was isolated from his family. We see Ian’s frustration with the flash and glamour of his father, hungry for more substance behind the pageantry, pomp, gilding and gold braid, seeking only to get to know his father and have a beer with him. Bleys, into planning another parade and festival, another grand party or even a new Winter capital in the tropics, hides behind his fall of smiles and good times causing pain to all who know him.
The third brother is Brand, currently in the story in the ‘vegetable crisper’ in a coma following his injuries at Patternfall and hidden wars with Corwin. On the verge of a somewhat controversial occupation of Parys, the insufficiently stationed Jasra, Brand’s wife by Suhuy is willing to reduce the occupation under a friendly son of Corwin. Dara’s son, Christophe, is considered – he is an urbane witty and a light hearted fellow most known for his drinking parties with hundreds of bottles under the young royal section of Amber Palace – the Northwest Wing.
Christophe is barely considering the crown of Parys, but it isn’t long before he is thrust atop the tenuous monarchy of Parys with Jasra and Brand’s girl scientist daughter, Princess Jorrah.
Brand’s many sons include at this time, his eldest Geran, his hard right wing triplets of Dalt and Dieter. Dieter was involved as an ultra totalitarian rival later father in law to Ian. Geran had a younger brother the difficult and mouthy son of Brand Matthew who’s mother is Elizabeth Channicut. Matthew is also the main student of Dworkin who arranges for a Sovereign Principality of Garnath to be carved out of Amber’s Medway River Valley
The first season stretches only Bleys’ first years, on the brink of the Remban War, and builds its drama on several fronts, cleverly balancing episodic spikes in action — the Cabra Crisis- for example, is the backdrop for an hour sure to warrant award consideration for its cinematography — with numerous ongoing struggles including the waning health of King Swayville the Eternal and the greedy machinations of Prince Mandor of Sawall; Ian’s feelings of marginalization; sister Deirdre’s rule-breaking love life with Mandor and her sons; and the periodic intrusions of ghost of King/Prince Eric who remains adored by the citizenry of the most of Northern and Eastern Amber even if his usurpation nearly crushed the House of Barriman in Amber.
It’s a story of overwhelming privilege and, in most cases, the least relatable of dilemmas, but the series’ great gift is in foregrounding the characters’ choices in ways that feel universal. You might not think you’d care about which lavish residence Bleys calls home or whether or not his children take their father’s name, but Children of the Unicorn makes you understand the stakes for Bleys and then possibly the stakes for Amber even after Bleys is poised to inherit the Grand Duchy of Helgram which is a powerful support base.
The vast writing is masterful, even if it’s probably a wholly theoretical empathy for real people who hardly are in the business of confessing their innermost insecurities to the public.
These are characters who are symbols for many in Amber, Chaos and the Golden Circle and abstractions for most in Shadow and the series makes them prickly, complicated, frequently unlikable and always justifiable in their own heads, to the benefit of the actors, if not to hero worshippers.
King Bleys starts the series as an intentional cipher, unreadable and unknowable because the eyes of the world needed him to be merely a light weighted son, a prince and a dilettante. In those initial episodes, Children of the Unicorn is dominated by Bleys’ story.
When he becomes King and maintains Bleys as his regnal name, Bleys is able to split into two entities, constantly in conflict — the fun loving man fighting his inner demons and not wanting to wreak vengeance on those who murdered his sons and the Crown with the obvious needs for national unity and cohesion. He’s simultaneously a deer-in-headlights, educated mostly on the art of swordsmanship, war and horses, and instinctual and ready to learn. Bleys is punctuated by moments of fierceness with uncertainty and moments of doubt with cleverness and he parries wonderfully with his siblings, children and nephews.
Armed with the Charter, produced by Dworkin in exchange for Garnath, Bleys’ Crown is threatened by younger brother Random who is armed with a Jewel of Judgement given to him by a demon disguised as a Unicorn. War is inevitable with Random backed by the Abyss loving Rembans.
In a cast without weak links, I’d also single out the performance of Random as a snivelingly vindictive and also righteously indignant little weasel, the no-filter Queen Mother Clarissa, especially Prince John the no-nonsense royal secretary and Princess FIona, whose take on the Chatelaine of Amber will be revelatory to audiences who only know her later years as a cherished intellectual and academic icon.
Much has been made of the high budget for Children of the Unicorn, which is evident in all facets of the production. Directors situate the tremendous performances within layers of varied opulence. The production design celebrates the differences between Amber Palace, Port Royal Palace, Guildhall against the Brass Cat and Boar’s Head Pubs, between the wealthy and the absurdly wealthy, with contributing marvelous frocks, gowns and uniforms that outshine Bleys’ real forces themselves. The score accentuates grandeur, but, like the direction and overall pacing, is never stuffy.
The costume drama done right because for all its scope, the audience’s fascination has always been process and the clash between individuals and institutions. This series favors brainy intimacy, and even a royal wedding and coronation are negotiations of power. That’s probably why it’s left to the imagination to carry the aspects of fairy tale romance. Bleys and Elizabeth talking dirty isn’t something that worked for me at all, but they keeps it to a “These are real people and of course they had sex” minimum.
With its literate affluence and clear-eyed treatment of the compromises and conditions of power, Children of the Unicorn is positioned to appeal to fans of both Downton Abbey and House of Cards, without the blood and murder of Game of Thrones. I was consistently impressed with how they kept the story interesting even in episodes without big historical events. The coronation and the tour of great powers make for rich hours, but the plot is as confident building an episode around Julian studding a prize horse or the Prince Dave’s trip to a shadow kingdom I found the first season of Children of the Unicorn to be surprisingly bingeable, and knowing some of the historical events to come and having settled into the performances, I’m eagerly anticipating season two