Saturday 25 October 2014

Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

Willoby is a middle-aged prison guard, a husband and a father. But at heart, he still pines for his days as a soldier. His job is not his calling, there is distance between him and his wife, and his teenage daughter resents him. When he starts having visions and seizures, his first fear is that losing consciousness would be very dangerous in his job. For the first time ever, he takes time off for sickness. Then, his visions start to affect not just his job, but his family life.

In his visions, he is pulled into another world, first as an observer through the eyes of a prince, but then physical transfers between worlds start to happen. The other world is medieval, filled with a people who have just fled from their former homelands across icy mountains into a new land, keen to start new lives. But intrigue is afoot, and for complex reasons, the bastard prince Tallimon needs an outsider. He needs Willoby.

Riding the Unicorn is not your average fantasy novel, nor even your average person-from-our-world-goes-into-fantasy-world novel. For one thing, our protagonist is a flawed man. He's quite rough. In fact, he is a thug, and not just because his language is tough and he works in a prison.  In fantasy novels, you don't get many working class protagonists who occasionally hit their wives.

The world he enters, meanwhile, may have some fantastical elements - some magic, some monsters - but the magic is understated, the monsters just fauna, really. Today's readers might be tempted to compare this world to Westeros, except this novel was originally published before Game of Thrones, so it definitely isn't derivative.

This is an intelligent, authentic novel. Willoby is not the type to have a mid-life crisis, but his glimpses of that other world trigger one: suddenly, his own life seems pale by comparison. He's afraid that he is losing his mind, but even more worried about the prospects of talk therapy and psychiatrists. His feelings for his family are decidedly mixed - there is fatigue and exhaustion, but also a stubborn determination to make it work. Meanwhile, in the other world, there's intrigue and powerplays and politics, and the sort of scheming we have come to expect from gritty, realist fantasy fiction (all the more impressive for having been written 20 years ago: the book must have been way ahead of its time).

Riding the Unicorn is never boring. It's very readable, consistently entertaining and intelligent. It could just as easily be marketed as "lit-fic" as fantasy - there is enough focus on characters, character development, and thoughtful treatment of all kinds of serious themes in this novel to satisfy even readers who never touch 'escapist' fantasy literature, while there's enough swashbuckling adventure and grit for fantasy fans not to get bored. This book truly has the best of both worlds - but it is a serious novel, steering clear of comedy or light relief.

The title, however, is poorly chosen. No unicorns appear in the book at all. (Apparently, 'Riding the Unicorn' is a colloquialism for 'going mad'). Putting a unicorn in the title of a fantasy novel might set up the wrong expectations in readers: this is not a frivolous novel of sparkly merriment.

Rating: 4.5/5

PS: You can read an excerpt of Riding the Unicorn online.

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