In the Iron World which constitutes our reality, John Willoby is going comprehensively mad. He hears voices and sees visions - things which have no place in the monotonous desperation of his life as a prison officer. Once a soldier, he chafes at the constrictions of civilian life, yearning for the easy camaraderie and simple truths of his army days. The hallucinatory glimpses of a rough, pioneering life in a green land beyond savage mountains seduce Willoby, and he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his uneasy truce with his wife and daughter. The visions are becoming more regular and it’s only a matter of time before his patronising psychiatrist locks him away in an asylum that will be as much a prison as the one he patrols daily.
Meanwhile, in the Green World, the unlikeable bastard prince Tallamon - ‘a real Machiavelli’ - is laying his plans for a king-slaying. The mage Aimon protests this abuse of his magic even as he redoubles his efforts to bring a man from another world to do the foul deed. Tallamon’s icy ambition, however, knows no bounds; he will sacrifice all whom he holds dear to achieve the kingship. Even Merrin, the woman he loves, is made into part of the trap that Willoby should find impossible to resist ...
Riding the Unicorn describes the fulfillment, and the failure, of men’s dreams; while the women in the tale are portrayed with clarity and even sympathy, their importance is only as tools or symbols. Merrin is an independent woman, but her actions are still driven - wittingly or not - by the men who surround her. This is a male world of warriors and politics, of masculine friendships and unity in the face of adversity, in which love and beauty are of secondary importance to the grim fight for survival, and honour is a luxury few can afford.
Kearney’s style is harsh yet evocative; no long poetic descriptions here (and, indeed, no unicorns). He conveys a real sense of the unpleasant realities of a medieval warrior society. There are no heroes either; acts of heroism, perhaps, but only those demanded by the situation. And there is no neat resolution; the novel ends on a curiously inconclusive note (perhaps indicating a sequel). Not a nice sweet fantasy, but a powerfully-drawn conflict.