Riding the Unicorn
by Paul Kearney
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 332 pages
Cover Art: Pye Parr
Release Date: October 28, 2014 (reprint of 1994)ISBN-13: 978-1781081914
John Willoby is being pulled between worlds. Or he is going mad, ‘riding the unicorn’ as his prison officer colleagues would say. It’s clear to Willoby it must be the latter. Disappearing in the middle of his prison shift from among convicts, appearing in a makeshift medieval encampment for minutes before tumbling back to the real world, Willoby believes his mind is simply breaking apart.
He finds no solace at home, with a wife who has grown to dislike him and a daughter who can barely hide her disgust. He’s realised he isn’t worth anyone’s time, barely even his own, and falls into drinking and violence guaranteed to bring about his downfall. Except in this other world, in this winter land of first-settlers he is a man with a purpose, a man upon whom others must rely. Persuaded to kill a King so as to save a people, Willoby finds that in another world, with a second chance he may be the kind of man he had always wanted to be after all.
I quite enjoyed this book a lot. But then that is hardly surprising as I am a big Paul Kearney fan. Having finished this book, I have now read every book by Kearney except for a tie-in novel. Kearney’s early novels are a bit hard to find so I’m glad that Solaris decided to reprint them. These three novels, The Way to Babylon, A Different Kingdom, and Riding the Unicorn are a little different from his later stuff as they are all stand-alones and all contain some element of portal fantasy.
While the first two novels are pretty typical portal fantasy, the portal element in Riding the Unicorn is a bit more ambiguous. I’m sure the reader of this review is wondering about the odd title of the book? As suggested in the synopsis it has nothing to do with unicorns, rather it refers to a term and expression regarding schizophrenia. Indeed, for most of the book, the main character of Willoby cannot tell if the world he is being pulled to really exists or if it’s just a figment of his imagination, though it does become a little clear at the end. But the possibility of madness and of dealing with it is a very strong theme in this book.
There is another interesting thing I want to note about Kearney’s work; it’s how he has a group of people endure an extremely arduous trek over snow-covered and nearly impassable mountains. It happens in the prologue of this book, in The Way to Babylon, Ships From the West, This Forsaken Earth, and The Ten Thousand. It seems to be a writing trick he comes back to a lot.
MINOR SPOILERS for those who have read The Way to Babylon: the alternate fantasy world in this book is the same world of Minginish, albeit set very early in its history around the time of its founding.
Paul Kearney is probably better known for his Monarchies of God series, and to a lesser extent The Sea Beggers and The Macht, but Riding the Unicorn and his other two early novels are definitely worth a look. Strongly recommended.