Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A.F. Steadman
Publication Date: May 3, 2022
Summary from NetGalley:
Skandar Smith has always yearned to leave the Mainland and escape to the secretive Island, where wild unicorns roam free. He’s spent years studying for his Hatchery exam, the annual test that selects a handful of Mainlander thirteen-year-olds to train to become unicorn riders. But on the day of Skandar’s exam, things go horribly wrong, and his hopes are shattered…until a mysterious figure knocks on his door at midnight, bearing a message: the Island is in peril and Skandar must answer its call.
Skandar is thrust into a world of epic sky battles, dangerous clashes with wild unicorns, and rumors of a shadowy villain amassing a unicorn army. And the closer Skandar grows to his newfound friends and community of riders, the harder it becomes to keep his secrets—especially when he discovers their lives may all be in graver danger than he ever imagined.
ARC provided by Simon and Schuster via NetGalley for an honest review.
Most middle grade books with unicorns in them, portray unicorns as glittery pretty things with kind hearts and as docile as a newborn horse, or as grumpy yet lovable grouches. So how refreshing to find a story where unicorns are feisty, blood-thirsty killing machines that need to be bonded with a human to keep them from killing us all! That is definitely my kind of unicorn. This debut book has some issues but overall is a nice addition to the mythical beasts genre and will be enjoyed by many.
Skandar is of course our main character and chosen one. I like him a lot, although he does tend to doubt himself a little too much. He does fall into the victim role a little too easily although he can at times stand up for himself and others and do it well. When push came to shove, he did choose the correct path even when it was hard. He often felt alone, even when with friends, because his new powers are different from theirs and he has no one to turn to for help in controlling them. He does try hard and with the help of his friends gets his power somewhat under control.
The three friends that Skandar makes are also wonderful, although a little flat and typical of the genre. Mitchell is the angry one who is trying to live up to his father’s expectations. Flo is shy and timid and doesn’t even want to be a rider, and of course she ends up with the most powerful unicorn. Bobbi is confident on the outside, and a bit of jokester, but has panic attacks and isn’t as confident on the inside. But I liked them all and they all play their roles well.
The unicorns of course have to be mentioned. They all have personalities that could have been fleshed out a little bit better, but for a series there is room for that to happen. I loved that they all had names like Scoundrel’s Luck (Skandar’s unicorn) and Falcon’s Wraith. They also have elemental magic which they share with their riders through their bond. Some of the magic is pretty amazing and the battles are well written and pretty exciting. I do have a slight issue with them hatching out of eggs, but that is just me and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of them as they bonded with their riders.
The plot is very typical of the genre and held no real surprises. But there were some twists that made things a little bit different and interesting. The world building was good, but I found it confusing at times, especially some of the descriptions of the island and the Eyrie, where they trained and lived. There will be maps in the final book, which should help with that, hopefully. Some of the timeline was a little bit confusing as well as the motive for the Weaver, (the evil rider). The writing was pretty solid, though there were some slow areas, but the descriptions and seeing the world through Skandar’s eyes was well done.
Overall I think this is a nice addition to the middle grade fantasy genre. I think there will be many kids excited by bloodthirsty unicorns and will devour this book just like they do others that are similar. A solid start to what I hope will be series kids will be excited about.