Daphne Woodhouse jumps at the chance to join her college’s study abroad program at a Parisian convent. Although thrilled to immerse herself in French Art and History, she soon finds herself drawn into a hidden world of myths and legends come to life. There’s a mysterious nun guarding the convent’s secret garden, a glamorous nightclub owner soliciting Daphne’s musical skills, something sinister stalking her in the shadows… and of course, the handsome and chivalrous Derek Moon, who is determined to win Daphne’s heart. When the fate of a magical species is laid in Daphne’s hands, she must make a choice that will change her future forever.
The Mermaid and the Unicorn is Elizabeth Hajek's debut novel, and the first book in the Song of the Fay series.
I've known Elizabeth online for many years; she was the administrator of a forum for fans of Regina Doman's novels and we art both part of an intensely creative community which still keeps in touch. In high school, we were able to meet at a conference (where she premiered her film of Doman's book!) and she was just as wonderful in person and online. She encouraged younger forum members like me in our various pursuits, oversaw many collaborative stories, and was the first editor of the magazine Ink and Fairydust which introduced me to graphic design and comic writing. She owns an absolutely amazing costume business and runs two blogs, Elenatintil and Confessionsof a Seamstress. Lately she's been dealing with some serious health issues and her blog posts have opened my eyes to the struggles of chronic illnesses. All in all, Elizabeth is a serious role model.
But enough biography; The Mermaid and the Unicorn deserves to be judged on its own merit.
For those who dislike even the smallest of spoilers, I'll say that I almost pulled an all-nighter reading The Mermaid and the Unicorn. I simply couldn't put it down! It is unique and well-written, full of mermaids, unicorns, intrigue, romance, and all the charms of Paris.
Today is the worldwide release! The book is available in paperback and e-book (the paperback version comes with a free ebook!). It is also available for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Please visit GeekHaus Press and Elizabeth Hajek's blog for more information.
What if the medieval tales about fairies, elves, dragons and other magical creatures were real? What if they weren't allegories, metaphors, or mere myths, but part of a reality tangent to our own?
This is the question which Hajek explores in her novel, and to me, one of the most intriguing parts of the book. The Mermaid and the Unicorn takes place in modern Paris, but the world is the one of medieval legends where nuns and mermaids can exist together.
I’ve never been to Paris, but everything I know about it is absolutely magical. But the Paris of The Mermaid and the Unicorn is even more magical; cryptic encounters, hidden fairies, and graceful unicorns fill crevices of the city. A mysterious woman, Amelia, gives Daphne Woodhouse an invitation which draws her into a darker part of the city and leads her into an epic adventure. And what an adventure it is—it’s such a treat to read a story which is such rollicking good fun.
I especially loved learning about the fierce, fiery mermaids. These are not the creatures of Disney’s Little Mermaid; they bear much more of a resemblance to sirens or Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale.
You wouldn’t expect Daphne Woodhouse, a self-admittedly naïve, bookish girl to be the heroine of a thrilling adventure, but there is a lot about this book which is unexpected!
At first, the confluence of both Christianity and a magical realm caught me off guard, but Hajeck masterfully weaves the two together. Catholicism is so full of symbolism, and the Church was so important to the myths and legends which influenced the book that, somehow, it works, and works well. (In fact, it reminds me a little bit of the way C.S. Lewis approached his Space Trilogy!)
Hajek herself is not Catholic, and I honestly think that this adds extra depth to the story. She clearly has done tremendous research on Catholic history and devotions and is very respectful of the characters’ faith. But since she is a Protestant, aspects of Catholic devotion and culture must be foreign to her. Perhaps because of this, she manages to make Christianity as exciting and novel as the magical creatures—which is great, because the beginning of the book shows how the characters have deep faith and very real struggles, and I was afraid that this might take a backseat once unicorns and mermaids arrived onstage!
The Mermaid and the Unicorn gave me a little culture shock—and this despite the fact that I am a homeschooled Catholic myself! Daphne Woodhouse comes from a type of very conservative homeschool family which I rarely see represented well. I’ve seen authors use characters like Daphne either as a preaching platform or as the comically old-fashioned brunt of jokes. Hajek, however, presents Daphne just as she is: unapologetically Daphne. This goes for Daphne’s personality, too. How often do you see a reserved, bookish woman as the strong heroine of an adventure story?
Daphne’s college friends take her background right into their stride, and each of them is equally unique in their own way. They are an interesting bunch who discuss Joan of Arc and old hymns in the middle of ordinary conversation. (And their university, which sends students to spend a semester in a French convent with nuns full of personality, sounds nerdy and wonderful). But, again, Hajek gave each character a great personality and simply presents them as they are. (A couple characters don’t have as much complexity as I would like, but I strongly suspect we’ll be learning more about them in later books. Looking at you, Derek Moon. And you, spunky Scottish Katie.)
This is exactly why I will recommend The Mermaid and the Unicorn to Catholics, Protestants, and non-Christian lovers of fantasy novels alike. Those unfamiliar with traditional Catholic culture can simply be immersed into a different way of life (with a dash of fairytale magic and a good helping of Paris charm, of course).
There are a few paragraphs here and there which were overly expository, few characters I wanted to learn more about (DEREK MOON!), and a couple unanswered questions about the magical part of the world, but Hajek’s writing is absolutely compelling. As a college student, I find it really difficult to get drawn into novels the same way I did as a child—I’m so much more critical about what I read, and I’m so often too mentally exhausted to tackle tough books. The Mermaid and the Unicorn overcame both these problems, and I may or may not have pulled an all-nighter…
After all, who can resist a story which incorporates medieval art history, selfless unicorns, Parisian nightlife, bookworms, fierce mermaids, goofy friends, intense adventure, taekwando, courage, sacrifice, faith, love and magic? Every page of it is full of Beauty.
At the risk of getting into Really Bad Spoiler territory, I’ll say that there is one other aspect of the book which I really appreciated. One of the characters makes a surprising decision which few fictional characters struggle with, and in keeping with the rest of her book, Hajek presents the decision with the respect it deserves.
Available for $13.99 in paperback (comes with a free Kindle version), $2.99 for Kindle, and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
I did receive an advanced reader copy of the book to review-- the final version has been proofread and edited a bit since I read it.