Sunday, January 22, 2023

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief - A. F. Steadman

This was one of the most keenly publicised children's books of last year, and we're pushing it hard at work. With the paperback due to be released and the second installment in a planned series of five books due out later this spring, I thought I ought to read it. It's given me a lot to think about, especially in the week when 'Spare' was going crazy.

Now 'Spare' was always going to be big, but even so, I don't think anybody had any real sense of how big it was going to be. I assume the leaks weren't accidental and the final early January publication date was lucky too - it's so obviously the distraction so many want to deal with the grimness of January generally, and this January in particular. But there's still been something organic about the way interest has grown around it since it was published. Everybody, buying it or not (and it does feel like everybody) has an opinion they want to share. Booksellers aren't having to put any work into selling this one. It's all been done for us.

Skandar is the opposite - Simon and Schuster went to town on it, the film rights have been sold, and as booksellers we've been invited to share the hype and excitement. As far as I know, 3 of us at work have read it, the other 2 enjoyed it - their recommendations are genuine. I didn't hate it, but honestly, I don't think it's a match for the hype, and I wonder if interest will be sustained for the full series. 

The elevator pitch for this was it's the next Harry Potter - I don't think it is, though as the hand full of other bewildered 1 and 2-star reviewers on amazon suggest, there are a lot of similarities. In some ways that's unfair, Harry Potter followed a well-trodden path and is now so entrenched in popular culture that it would be hard to avoid. Comparisons with How to Train Your Dragon are maybe more to the point. 

My biggest issues with Skandar and the Unicorn Theif are how uneven the tone is and the lack of internal logic to the world-building. I'm not the target audience and 9-12 year olds almost certainly find fart jokes funnier than I do but if you want your unicorns to be fearsome, vicious, wielders of elemental magic which present a genuine threat, having them light their own farts seems at odds with that. 

Then if you have immensely powerful magical creatures that can control the elements and give their riders access to the same magic you'd think maybe they would do more than just race and fight each other. But that seems to be all they do so despite there being genuinely interesting ideas and themes here, they get lost. Or at least that's my opinion. I think there are better children's books out there, and I wonder how one of them might have done with the same marketing power behind it? 

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