The third of three resplendent reissues of Northern Irish author Paul Kearney’s very earliest efforts completes the sinuous circle described in his dreamlike debut, A Different Kingdom. Riding the Unicorn is a darker fiction by far—it’s about the abduction of a man who’s likely losing his mind by the conniving by-blow of a hateful High King—but it’s as brilliant a book as it is brutal, not least because our hero, Warden John Willoby, is a horrible human being; fortunate, in fact, to find himself on the right side of the cages he keeps his prisoners in.
He has, in the first, a truly terrible temper. To wit, he’s wholly unwelcome in his own home, where his wife and daughter strive each day to stay out of his way. Willoby isn’t an idiot—he’s well aware of their disdain—he just doesn’t give a two bob bit.
There was a wall between his family and himself. It had been growing silently for years, a little at a time, and the little things that would have helped break it down had been too much trouble. Now it was a high, massive thing. He was no longer sure there was a way through it. Worse, he was no longer sure he cared.
Still worse, Willoby is worried that a few of his marbles might be missing, so fixing things with his family is hardly his highest priority. He’s been seeing things for some months—inexplicable visions of a luscious landscape—and hearing voices in his head; talking nonsense, no less, in some untold tongue.
He should see a doctor, obviously. His wife Jo certainly thinks so. But Willoby, in his infinite wisdom, refuses to face facts, presupposing a diagnosis delivered with “a bottle of pills and a pat on the head, some medical gibberish about stress, or insomnia. Bollocks, all of it.” That said, he can’t shake the suspicion that a crisis is coming, “some crux of events inevitably advancing towards him. The sense terrified him. It was like a dark cloud always in the corner of his eye.”
Before long Willoby’s family have had it, and he’s had to jack in his job. Utterly untethered, he descends into something like schizophrenia, awakening in another world where he’s the pivotal player in a plot to kill the king, and regularly beds a raven-haired whore who looks an awful lot like his fourteen year old daughter.
Where to go from there, eh?
Well, onwards and upwards. Though the fact that the object of Willoby’s affections in the lands of his imagination and Maria in all her rebellious splendour are essentially doppelgangers is indeed distressing, the remainder of Riding the Unicorn documents his redemption, in a sense. Rest assured that the problems we’re within our rights to have with him as a human being are addressed eventually, and in advance of that, Willoby is used and abused by men and women still more malicious than him. Take Tallimon:
The bastard son of the High King [was] a young man, not yet thirty, lean and fast as a hunting hound. If he shaved off his thin moustache, he could pass for a girl—and a comely one at that. But Aimon had seen him ride into winter camps with the bleeding heads of his enemies garlanding his saddle. Men admired him. Women adored him. And he cared for none of them.
Just as Willoby is a “big bad screw” at the beginning of the book—as much a bad man as he is a mad man—before being vindicated by his behaviour later, Tallimon occupies the opposite role over the course of the story. We see him as an underdog initially, and root for him reflexively, but his calculated actions—especially the wicked way he manipulates Maria’s fantastical counterpart—utterly alter our perception of him as Riding the Unicorn races towards its devastating denouement.
Coupled with challenging characters and a secondary world which is “bright and interesting and alive,” this fascinating dynamic elevates the text from the fine to the fantastic, so though there are things I wish Kearney had done differently—the significance of Willoby’s job as a warden, for one, is underdone, and I was disappointed with the decision to leave the family angle dangling—the experience of reading Riding the Unicorn is so striking and exciting that its odd oversights are easy to overlook.
A Different Kingdom was, in a word, wonderful, and The Way to Babylon, whilst poorly paced at points, proved pretty good too, but Riding the Unicorn must be my favourite of Kearney’s enrapturing first fantasies.
Riding the Unicorn is available now from Solaris.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.