Monday, December 7, 2015

Riding The Unicorn Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Paul Kearney
Publisher: Solaris
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Standalone
Pages: 336

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(An advanced copy was provided by the publisher).

Riding the Unicorn was first published in 1994, and is now being re-released in the hopes that it finds a new audience … something this book certainly deserves.  The final of three standalones, before he would write the Monarchies of God series that would earn him his success, Paul Kearney’s Riding the Unicorn meshes the realism of our world with a traditional medieval fantasy while still managing to turn something out that resists a number of cliches that are so commonly associated with the fantasy genre.

Kearney’s book revolves around the character John Willoby – Willoby being a last name that sounds like an animal that lives in the Australian Outback and is a lot of fun to say with an Australian accent.  Willoby is a middle-aged man, a war veteran, and currently employed as a prison guard.  One day he starts hearing voices and getting brief glimpses into a world that is not his own, fearing madness he seeks psychiatric help.  In Willoby’s hallucinations he starts getting drawn into a medieval world where a bastard prince named Tallimon plans on using the unsuspecting Willoby in a plot to gain control of the kingdom.

The first half of Riding the Unicorn focuses on our world, where Willoby works at a prison, has a marriage that’s falling apart, and has a daughter that doesn’t talk to him. As a character Willoby holds it hall together, and just because he’s the protagonist doesn’t mean that he’s that great of a person.  He hits his wife, he neglects his daughter, and he has a history with the bottle and violence. Despite his issues he can be sympathetic in his self reflection.  Willoby realizes his flaws and he does make the effort to try and fix the dieing relationships in his life. The problem is he doesn’t know how, and he now has the added burden of madness. Willoby’s visual hallucinations eventually start to become one of the few pleasures in his life.  It allows him an escape from the real world, and really starts to make this a book that’s not about one man repairing relationships, but about a man who’s trying to feel what it’s like to be happy again.

In the fantasy world Willoby visits, Tallimon is a true Machiavellian in his quest for power. His best friend Cardillac, his wizard Aimon, and his lover Merrin have had long meaningful relationships with the prince, but his lust for power compromises their safety. As Tallimon disenchants himself from his closest friends, Willoby begins to charm them. At the same time though Tallimon’s plot puts a huge barrier between them as well. Watching Willoby and Tallimon’s allies trying to work with each other despite their forced opposition to one another holds the fantasy portion of the book together nicely.

However, the back-half does feel like it’s getting rushed at times.  There’s a lot happening in the plot, and just not enough time to get everything down on the page. I also found myself wishing there was more talking about how similar and how different the two worlds were, once Willoby enters the fantasy world, but this aspect is mostly glimpsed over.  Despite the real quick pace, Kearney manages to still tell a great story. Even more important is the fact that he ends his story real well, leaving open ends where they need to be, and concluding the parts of the story that need to be concluded.  This may seem like an obvious statement, but I believed throughout the book Kearney was going to mess this ending up – a lot of other fantasy author’s would have – but he doesn’t and that’s something that definitely deserves mentioning.

Kearney’s fantasy is an interesting take on world within world fantasy stories. It plays with the cliches of the genre, but manages to avert following them completely, creating a story that really feels like its own.  If you’re looking for a quicker fantasy read, that’s geared towards adults and manages to stray from typical conventions, Riding the Unicorn might be just what you’re looking for.

Score: 8.7

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