Tuesday, 20 February 2001

Paul Kearney: Riding the Unicorn (1994)

Edition: Gollancz, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 760

Kearney's third novel is extremely like his first, The Way to Babylon. It has the same premise, with a man's visions of a fantasy world being like madness, with him and those around him doubting his sanity. In the earlier novel, it is the death of the central character's wife and his subsequent depression which triggers the visions, which are of a world about which he has written two novels. This is both a powerful motivation for mental illness and a reason for the particular visions he sees, from a psychiatric point of view' he has been unable to write the concluding part of a successful trilogy.

Here, though, the motivation is far less. Willoby is a disillusioned, ex-army prison officer, alienated from his wife and daughter. The most interesting thing about him is that, in late middle age, he is far older than most heroes of fantasy novels. His visions of another world are diagnosed as schizophrenia, an illness whose symptoms are difficult to pin down, prompting the quotation comparing it to a unicorn printed at the front of the novel which supplies its title. There is no specific episode which prompts the visions, and their content has no very clear connection with the rest of his life.

This makes Riding the Unicorn a rather less satisfying novel than The Way to Babylon, and being so similar to Kearney's d├ębut is also a disappointment. There are good ideas in it - Willoby is being summoned as a person with no connections to any of the political factions in the fantasy world to commit a crime which can then be safely disavowed; the nature of the crime turns out to have interesting psychological resonance, as does his relationship with the slave girl set to tempt him to follow the wishes of his summoners - but it is an idea about which Kearney doesn't have enough that is new to say to make this novel equal his earlier standard.

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