There’s a lot of “urban fantasy” out there, and I’ve only experienced small handfuls of it. I’ve devoured The Dresden Files, caught a few episodes of Buffy, delved into the lore of World of Darkness, and even gotten into Monster Hunter International. So when I got asked if I wanted to be a beta reader for a book about supernatural shenanigans in Paris, I was already onboard.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was provided with an advanced review copy of the book.
Author’s Note: I previously made reference to a “foreword” in the story. I have been informed that this was removed from the final version of the book, but the details are present in an Author’s Note at the end of the book. I would also like to note that this book also saw our very own Matt Bowman playing a pivotal role as an initial co-author and a huge factor in the development of the plot.
The Mermaid and the Unicorn is Elizabeth Hajek’s debut novel, and it mixes drama, fantasy, and a bit of romance in a modern setting. I found it to be immensely enjoyable, and I’d like to take some time to explain exactly what I liked about it.
What the Book is Like
This book is a story about Daphne Woodhouse, a college student on her study abroad semester in Paris. She and the other students make their home base at a Parisian convent, taking courses in culture, language, and history. The city’s sights, denizens, and stories weave in and out of the book, acting as the backdrop for a mysterious supernatural drama that unfolds.
At the same time, I was surprised to find a very personal, mature story about coming of age. Daphne goes through a fantastic character arc, not just moving from naivete to experience. She also grows as a person, gaining self-awareness, determination, and a larger view of the world. This provides a fantastic companion to the adventurous parts of the book–and this book is most certainly an adventure.
A Delightful Parisian Adventure
The greatest strength of The Mermaid and the Unicorn is its setting. The story shows us a Paris both old and new, textured with history but also breathing in trendy new life. If you’re going to set a story in Paris, that’s no less than what I’d expect. Many famous landmarks make their presence known (and some not-as-famous landmarks!), and it feels both grounded and fantastical at the same time. I don’t have any particular attachment to the city, personally, but the book captures the magic of that place so strongly that even I felt it!
The bit of the setting I enjoyed the most, however, was the people who populate the city. Everyone in Paris, from a seamstress to a nightclub owner to a strangely-informed museum guard, sparkles with their own personality. While the main characters are the ones who get the most strongly-developed, the supporting cast gets detail in just the right ways–they’re vibrant, memorable, and enjoyable to interact with.
The plot of the story is fairly straightforward, which makes it easy to follow–and it’s not without some surprises! It’s not filled with twists and turns, but I feel that helps focus the narrative back on Daphne and her own growth, as she encounters many new worlds previously unknown to her. The fantasy aspects of the story take some time to arrive, but they’re fittingly impactful, and it’s immediately clear why the story takes so much time to establish the mundane world: it makes the fantasy all that more striking.
Ultimately, it’s a very fun story, and it never forgets to delight in itself. There’s action scenes, romantic scenes, scenes of grand spectacle, and some truly magical moments–some of them fantastical, some of them human. The conclusion of the story is incredibly satisfying, and the stakes of the climax are wonderfully personal while still feeling impactful within the world.
But Wait! There’s Catholicism!
Given that the story is set in Paris and features a whole convent of religious sisters, addressing the Catholic elements is probably very granted. As the author explains in an author’s note at the end of the story, she’s a Protestant, but devoted immense amounts of research to the book, along with consulting multiple Catholics. The end result is a portrayal of Catholicism that feels spot-on. Topics like vocation, guilt, and even the Christian aspects of some myths make their way into the story without feeling intrusive. Instead, they work to add authenticity to the entire thing.
Wonderfully, the convent itself is populated by a great assortment of sisters, who have personalities, jobs, and backgrounds independent of their vocation. These aren’t always delved strongly into, but they serve as a marvellous background for the story–and when things get rough, they accordingly get down to business. They don’t steal all the scenes of the book, but they certainly get some of the most touching moments.
The presence of the Faith in Daphne’s life extends beyond that, of course. There’s a very interesting bit of contrast, for example, when she goes to Notre Dame and then the basilica of Sacre-Couer. While both places have a strong spiritual aspect, you can feel a sort of unique sacredness in Sacre-Couer. Prayer is a regular component of the story, and there’s even a character who I can only describe as…uniquely holy. As in, Michael Carpenter-style Good. It’s not a preachy story, but a story that is rooted in a strong spiritual goodness.
I had a great time reading through The Mermaid and the Unicorn. There’s a lot of elements that blend really nicely together in it, and I give it a solid recommendation for anyone who has even a passing interest in fantastical fiction, Paris, and good stories. Also, it’s getting followed up by a prequel novella and a sequel novel, and I expect to see many more stories in the world that the first book has begun to develop.