BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Private detective John Justin Mallory is hired by an elf to find a stolen unicorn in an alternate Manhattan.
PROS: Mallory is a strong character; the book doesn’t take itself seriously; humorous dialogue and prose.
CONS: The villain is not at villainous as he is expected to be; despite the lightheartedness, this started to approach the limit of my charity towards Elf fantasy.
BOTTOM LINE: An urban fantasy story that offers a little welcome levity.
Pyr’s 2008 edition of Stalking the Unicorn is a reprint of a 1987 Mike Resnick novel. The reprint coincides with the release of a brand new sequel, Stalking the Vampire. While I haven’t read the 1987 novel before, I have read two of Resnick’s short stories that feature its protagonist, John Justin Mallory. (See the review for the collection New Dreams for Old, which contains both “The Chinese Sandman” and “The Amorous Broom”.) Stalking the Unicorn offers more of the same, which is to say that the novel and the stories are consistent and good fun.
The majority of Stalking the Unicorn is set in an alternate Manhattan that coexists with our own, just “out of the corner of your eye”. It exists all around us, but we never quite see it as we go about our daily lives. To get to it requires puzzling measures like going up and down one flight of stairs to arrive at some heretofore unvisited place. The alternate New York is populated with elves, trolls, leprechauns and a host of other magical creatures who all live in fear of the Grundy, a demon who wields magical powers. On New Year’s Eve, private detective John Justin Mallory, a resident of our Manhattan, is visited upon by an elf named Mürgenstürm from the other Manhattan. Mallory is hired by Mürgenstürm to find the unicorn (Larkspur) that was stolen from Mürgenstürm’s care, the absence of which will surely lead to his death come morning. And you can bet that the Grundy has something to say about that.
What’s interesting about this book, besides the lighthearted tone and wry humor, is how it overcomes my usual reservations about fantasy by blatantly flying in the face of everything that normally makes me want to roll my eyes. Magical Unicorns? Wisecracking elves? Scheming leprechauns? These are not usually the ingredients of fantasy that appeals to me.
So why is this different? The main reason is Mallory himself, who stands in for my suspension of disbelief. Mürgenstürm appears before Mallory while he’s on a bender and so Mallory naturally rationalizes that he’s hallucinating. He goes along with the elf — who I could not help but think of as a close cousin to the troublesome Martian in Frederic Brown’s Martians Go Home — but is initially skeptical, just like I would be. In short, Mallory takes the alternate New York in stride, and so does the reader. By the time Mallory accepts the illogical ways of the city, the reader does too. As a result, my suspension of disbelief is withheld. This is not a world that caused me to roll my eyes at the cavalcade of fantastical creatures. Instead, I welcomed them.
That said, my built-in fantasy digester does have a limit, and the continual encounters with the magical and zany residents, while satisfying in their own right, did begin to wear a little thin as the book progressed. More devoted fans of fantasy surely have a higher tolerance for this than I do; I don’t imagine this would be a problem for them.
A big plus of the book is the very likable Mallory. He talks tough and takes no guff from anyone, not even the Grundy, the most feared creature in that other Manhattan. Along the way, Mallory makes some friends (like the cat girl Felina, the unicorn expert Winnifred Carruthers, and the miniature horse Eohippus) a few enemies (some of whom are unexpected), but the whole time he is in control of his actions. The dialogue used by most of the characters is equal parts worldbuilding and comedy routine. Perhaps it’s the combination of that and Mallory’s confidence that the Grundy, who is reputed to be evil incarnate, comes off as someone whose bark is worse than his bite. On one level this is understandable: as Mallory’s arch nemesis, Grundy can come back again, in stories and sequels.
Stalking the Unicorn is a fun story when all is said and done, and I give credit to the author for making a palatable fantasy novel that even this hard-case fantasy reader could enjoy.