Bloody Unicorns: AF Steadman Talks About Skandar and the Unicorn Thief
Oh man. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a fantasy novel that wasn’t associated with someone whose name rhymes with, oh I dunno, “Mick Miordan” get as grand a publicity push as today’s featured title. If you traipse even lightly in the world of children’s books, you may have heard whispers and discussions surrounding Skandar and the Unicorn Thief. It was released just yesterday and plotwise? Here’s the deal via the publisher:
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.
Kirkus has so far called it, “Unexpected, suspenseful, and heartwarming,” which ain’t half bad. So I had a question or two for Ms. Steadman, the debut author in question:
Betsy Bird: Annabel! Thank you so much for joining me here today and answering my questions! So the first and foremost one is a simple one. One does not usually encounter the term “murderous unicorn army” when reading a plot synopsis. Care to tell us what the inspiration for the book was and what, precisely, possessed you to create bloodthirsty unicorns at all?
AF Steadman: Eight years ago, walking home, an image of a boy and a unicorn flying ahead of me soared into my mind. I’m a visual writer and often play out scenes in my imagination and I remember very clearly thinking: This unicorn doesn’t look like it belongs in a fairy tale. This creature belongs in nightmares. When I came back to the image years later, I thought about the kinds of stories I’d loved growing up, and it was the ones that felt like they could really happen to me – like discovering a world where I had a daemon or finding an entrance to a faerie realm at the end of the garden that really stirred my imagination. I think that’s why the idea of writing about a mythical creature felt exciting. Mythical creatures are wonderful because when they’re as established as unicorns or dragons or mermaids there are so many accounts of them. There are descriptions that are hundreds of years old, there are renaissance paintings and sculptures spread through museums, and these often make them feel more real than imaginary. As I developed the idea of a world where unicorns were in fact not mythical at all, I wanted to play with our perceptions of them; I wanted to ask the interesting questions. What if unicorns were real but also bloodthirsty? What would we do? How would we react? How would it change us? And what if some children were destined to ride unicorns to keep the world safe?
BB: Well, you’ve talked a little bit about it already but, as a kid, what kinds of books did you like to read? And did any of them, in any way, include unicorns?
AFS: As a child reading was what I loved to do the most and thanks to my amazing school and local libraries I managed to read widely and extensively. That being said, I always veered towards the fantasy shelves. The Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin had an enormous impact on me, particularly because of the scale and depth of the world building. I also devoured The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce and loved the strong female lead, almost as much as the magic. I also grew up with The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini and His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman and I loved the pure escapism of those books, along with the way they showcased the bond between humans and animals. I remember reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman and being intrigued by the unicorn in that story, but I have to confess I never sought unicorns out in particular. I think I may well have been put off by their friendly, fluffy image, and veered instead towards books about dangerous dragons and fearsome fairies.
BB: So how did the book change over the course of writing it? Was there anything you had to leave on the cutting room floor (as it were) that you regret having to lose?
AFS: The fundamental core of the book has stayed the same but the editing process has improved it immensely. My editors are wonderful because they ask all the right questions to dig deep into the mythology and the back stories of the characters. Some world-building aspects haven’t made it into this book, but because it’s a series I’m excited to say most of them will make an appearance at a later date. I remember I did have to cut out a grey cat called, Raincloud – I think that’s the only thing I ever feel a little sad about!
BB: I was sent a neat little insert with your book that helps you find your ideal unicorn’s name. Mine is apparently “Tempest’s Bane” (a good name). You created this book and all the names inside, but let’s get real. If you were to have a unicorn of your very own, what would its name be?
AFS: If I went by the same insert as was sent to you, my unicorn name would be “Crimson Earth’s Solstice” which I actually really like! But a true unicorn name? I’m afraid unicorns are far too powerful and majestic to be named by humans. I wouldn’t dare. If I ever manage to open the Hatchery door and find my destined unicorns, I’ll tell you…
BB: I couldn’t help but notice the prominent “Book One” displayed on the spine. How many Skandar titles will there be in total?
BB: Five! That’s impressive. Well, I think I already know the answer to this, but what are you working on next? Anything beyond unicorns?
AFS: At the moment my life is very unicorn-focussed! I’ve written the second book in the series which I’m currently editing, and I’m starting to work on the third Skandar book too. Sony Pictures have also bought the film rights to Skandar, and I’m expecting to read a first draft of the script from the screenwriter very soon!
BB: And THAT is very cool.
Big time thanks to AF Steadman and the good folks at Simon & Schuster, like Tara Shanahan, for setting up this interview. As I mentioned before, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief just hit bookstore and library shelves everywhere, so go on. Give it a go!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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