The much-hyped fantasy series opener Skandar and the Unicorn Thief breaks new ground in unicorn lore.
Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A. F. Steadman. Simon & Schuster, 2022, 418 pages.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-14
Mythical and Deadly
Any reader who visualizes unicorns as sparkly magical creatures making rainbow poop will be disenchanted in the first few pages of this new fantasy series. Unicorns are indeed magical, but extremely deadly. And immortal, but rather than live eternally, they die eternally: skeletal beasts with rotting breath and savage teeth and hooves. That is, unless they bond and remain with their rider, the one human who was destined for each unicorn from the time they were still in the egg.
Skandar Smith has been watching the annual Chaos Cup, a unicorn cage match, since infancy with his family, but never dreamed he might be one of those special humans. All 13-year-olds have to take a Hatchling exam before they can go to the Island and get a chance at the Hatchery, and Skandar can’t remember all the facts he’s supposed to know. Besides, his much-smarter sister took the test a year before and failed it, so what chance does he have?
None—until a unicorn rider named Agatha knocks at his door and proposes to take him to the Island directly, bypassing the test and all official scrutiny. He is special, as events will prove. All unicorn riders possess an affinity for one of the four elements, which their bonded beast represents: either earth, air, fire, or water. But Skandar is one of the rarest riders: a spirit wielder, meaning more powerful but also more dangerous. A fearsome figure called the Weaver, who is now threatening Island and Mainland and the unicorn culture itself, is also a spirit wielder. Is Skandar doomed to follow the Weaver’s dark path, or can “spirit” be wielded for good?
Does it live up to the hype?
The world-building is an unusual mix of fantasy, medieval, and modern elements, in a setting (the Island) hypothetically located in the Irish Channel. The plot follows a familiar course: the bickering allies molded into a unit, the snooty rivals getting their comeuppance, the surprising successes and inevitable failures, and a final confrontation with the villain that includes a big reveal. Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is one of the most-hyped books of the season, and doesn’t quite live up to it, in my opinion. Don’t expect depth or reflections on what “spirit” might be.
That said, there’s enough action to keep the pages turning on a slow summer afternoon. The characters are likeable, if not memorable, and unicorn lore is prolific. There’s nothing objectionable, but keep in mind this is the first volume in a series.
Some intense violence: the first few pages should let a reader know whether it’s to his or her taste.
Overall rating: 3.75 (out of 5)
Worldview/moral value: 3.5Artistic/literary value: 4
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Also at Redeemed Reader:
Reviews: Betsy reviews three popular Middle-grade fantasy series: Wings of Fire, The Unwanteds, and The Magic Thief.Resource: Check out our Mega-Sci-Fi and Fantasy booklist!
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