SKANDAR AND THE UNICORN THIEF
By AF Steadman
Ooh, more unicorns? The mythical creatures have been all over picture books in recent years, making young readers thirsty with their wide eyes, fluffy coats and candy-colored manes. These stories usually lean on themes of being unique and special and believing in magic. The unadulterated sweetness is enough to make you stab your eyes with a sparkling unicorn horn.
So it’s easy to imagine that tweens and young teens ready to put away childish things will be captivated by the radical reinterpretation of unicorns in this middle-aged fantasy novel, the first in a new series by the young, Cambridge-educated debut author AF Steadman. “Rancid breath, rotting flesh, the stench of immortal death” – these are characteristics of the evil wild unicorns who roam “the island” they call home. Steadman’s gaunt, red-eyed flying monsters are killers. Honestly, it’s kind of refreshing.
The novel is set in a modern England (“the mainland”), where boys and girls dream of earning the privilege of training as unicorn riders on the island and competing in the prestigious Chaos Cup, a kind of Super Bowl of unicorn fight competitions. . While the creatures that humans ride, known as “bound unicorns,” are tamer and more loyal than the aforementioned wild beasts, they are still bloodthirsty and unpredictable, capable of firing deadly bursts of fire, water, earth, and air. .
The story follows Skandar Smith, a lonely, motherless, unicorn-obsessed 13-year-old who, chosen to train, finds himself fighting an evil entity called the Weaver who kills humans, steals unicorns, and threatens destruction.
Steadman reportedly earned a seven-figure deal for the first three books in her series, which has already been selected for a movie. It’s easy to see why. In addition to the well-crafted terror and suspense, there are some memorably joyful moments, such as the scene where Skandar lovingly hatches his unicorn (you didn’t know they hatch from eggs!): “Boy and unicorn stared at each other… he didn’t think so that he might feel it: a tight tug in his chest, as if his heartstrings were now connected elsewhere, outside himself.’ There are also plenty of more traditional high school comforts: camaraderie with new friends, cozy late-night sandwiches, cool secret tunnels, tree houses.
That said, it’s impossible to read “Skandar and the Unicorn Thief” and not immediately make a mental list of all the bits and bobs that renew the path of past fantasy franchises, from Percy Jackson to Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle to “The Hunger.” Games” to “The Last Airbender” to Pokémon to (most obviously) Harry Potter. In fact, Harry Potter’s beats are so obvious and so familiar (the maverick hero with a dead parent, the magical boarding school, the students sorted into four different departments, the awakening of an elusive evil), it’s like Steadman that is not. even feign originality, but treat JK Rowling’s lyrics as if it were Homer’s “Odyssey” or a Grimm fairy tale—an archetypal tale that’s fair game for authors to re-spin. (The excellent “The Marvellers,” by Dhonielle Clayton, about a kind of global Hogwarts, is another example.)
Yes, there are some plot holes. Yes, I wish it was funnier. But Steadman’s novel is still rising. The tantalizing breadcrumbs she dropped make me long for the next part. And that’s not a load of rainbow poop.