A. F. Steadman, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, Simon & Schuster, April 2022, 400 pp., RRP $19.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781398512429
Forget everything you thought you knew about unicorns. The ones in this book are not pure, good, white creatures. They are vicious, violent, bloodthirsty, carnivorous animals which have to be tamed. They have to be bonded with a rider when they hatch to avoid becoming wild and dangerous and the only riders allowed are those thirteen-year-olds who pass the Hatchery exam. These candidates are then transported to the Island where they have to gain entry to the Hatchery. Inside, a bonding takes place with their unicorn as it hatches. All riders and unicorns are allied to Air, Fire, Earth or Water.
Skandar has always wanted to be a rider. His older sister Kenna failed the Hatchery exam the previous year so his Dad’s hopes are on him. But when he turns up to take the exam, he is told he is barred from doing so. So Skandar is shocked when an illegal visitor from the Island turns up at midnight to take him there. His name appears on lists and he gains entry to the Hatchery where the unicorn that hatches under his hand is black with a white blaze down its face – a Spirit unicorn, the fifth element which is associated with death and is banned.
After disguising the distinct mark, Skandar and his unicorn, along with his new friends, begin their training in the lead-up to the annual Chaos Cup. The previous year at the finish of the Chaos Cup, The Weaver had appeared and stolen the winning unicorn. The instructors and guards are constantly on alert for more evil attacks but it is up to Skandar and his spirit unicorn to right wrongs and determine who the Weaver really is.
This is an action-packed fantasy adventure with excellent world-building on an Island just off the coast of England. However, for seasoned fantasy readers, there are lots of familiar tropes employed – the boy who finds out his true identity when he reaches a certain age; the missing, presumed dead, parent who has gone over to the “dark side”; the four ‘houses’ in the training academy etc. For all that, it is still a good, gripping read of good vs evil – and movie rights have already been sold.
Reviewed by Lynne Babbage