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Book Review: Stalking the Unicorn by Mike Resnick

* Genre: Urban Fantasy, Mystery
* ISBN: 1591026482
* ISBN-13: 9781591026488
* Format: Paperback, 310pp
* Publisher: Pyr
* Pub. Date: August 28, 2008
* Author Website

Stalking the Unicorn, by multiple fantasy award winner Mike Resnick, is Alice in Wonderland for the modern age. John Justin Mallory is a Sam Spade wannabe, a private detective out on his luck. His wife and his business partner are gone, he’s broke, and on New Year’s Eve he is rapidly drinking himself into oblivion. Then a rabbit appears. Well, not a rabbit, since Mallory isn’t fortunate enough to get cute little woodland creatures like Alice does. Mallory gets a little green man instead. Drunk as he is, Mallory takes what he sees for a hallucination. But the money this little green man offers is too tempting. And so Mallory embarks on solving the mystery that will make his career and reputation.

Written in the early 1980’s, Stalking the Unicorn is the very definition of the urban fantasy novel. A human is thrust into a parallel world of mythical creatures is forced to solve a crime in an urban jungle strangely similar to our own, but that operates by quite different rules altogether. With the help of an aged big-game hunter, a cat-person (in the literal sense), a cowardly wizard, and a shrinking horse, Mallory must find the unicorn before the demon that controls alternate New York can destroy him.

A rapid read (I read it in an evening after work) Stalking the Unicorn is funny and full of plot twists. The timeline of the story takes place all in one night, and the beginning of each chapter gives the time frame in which the following text is set. That makes the pacing of the events related all the more real to the reader, grounding this story of the fantastic in something real and understandable to the reader.

Adding to the fun is Resnick’s witty dialogue. The characters engage in witty repartee and banter, and readers will likely laugh out loud at Mallory’s no nonsense reactions to the words and actions of the strange beings from the alternate New York.

While Resnick uses what we would now consider tropes in his story, he manages to spin them in such a way that the characters and the setting never quite meets the reader’s expectations. In fact, the results far exceed the expectations. John Justin Mallory acts confidently and sometimes brashly, but he is a skilled detective, and the final conclusion to the mystery will surprise the reader in more ways than one. Along the way, readers will encounter standard features of the New York cityscape, such as the Museum of Natural History, The Stock Exchange and Wall Street, and laugh along as Resnick pokes a bit of fun at the bureaucratic governments of all big cities with his chapter regarding the Bureau of Missing Persons.

Younger readers may be confused by some of the references in the story. The war between VHS and Beta is brought up, for example. Rather than the iPod, Resnick references the Walkman – an innovation in its time – that now seems archaic. New readers who remember these events from the 1980’s will wax nostalgic (I did), but younger readers, especially those born in the nineties may wonder at some of the references. While this doesn’t lesson the power of the story to entertain, it may (or not) be jarring for the youth among us.

Mike Resnick’s Stalking the Unicorn is everything an entertaining story should be. Funny, full of action, adventure, dosed with a bit of mystery and the ridiculous. Mallory is the quintessential detective, a mixture of Columbo, Sam Spade, and Hercule Poirot. That his territory is a fantasy world only enhances the enjoyment. I highly recommend everyone read Stalking the Unicorn. As a special treat, this Pyr edition is also being released simultaneously with a new John Justin Mallory mystery Stalking the Vampire. So go, read them.