This book was a total impulse buy for me. I was browsing in Mostly Books and didn’t really see anything that grabbed me in the YA or adult sections, so I made my way to their lovely kids’ section at the back, and picked this up more or less at random. I thought there was a chance it might be a bit twee (never having really had a horse/unicorn phase as a kid), but when I started reading it, I was really pleased to find that it’s a gorgeous portal to a magical world, in the best tradition of children’s fantasy.
Book: The Unicorn Quest by Kamilla Benko
Read before: No
Ownership: Paperback bought at local indie.
Firstly, look at that beautiful cover! The blues and purples are so gorgeous, and instantly create a magical feel. I feel completely dim that I didn’t realise that there’s a unicorn silhouette made of trees until I came to take this picture… Now I’ve seen it, I love the cover even more. Good job, Matt Saunders!
One of the biggest compliments that I can give a book, especially an MG one, is that I was engrossed in the characters even before the magic started to occur. At the beginning of the book, we meet Claire, an eleven year old girl who idolises her older sister Sophie. Sophie has been extremely ill (it’s not explicitly mentioned with what, but it’s shown very clearly to be both life-altering and life-threatening). The girls’ parents have moved them into a large and mysterious house, left to them by an elderly relative, and from there they discover a portal to a magical world… I almost wished this section had been longer! The house sounds awesome and I bet it has so many secrets that I’d love to see the girls explore.
This set-up of kids exploring a strange old house after prolonged illness is so classic. It’s perfectly Narnian or E. Nesbit-y, and made me feel all warm and fuzzy with familiarity. Claire’s voice is spot on – young, naive, headstrong, and eminently readable, so you can’t help but root for her. Sophie is more enigmatic, both to Claire and to the reader, so when she goes missing in the fantasy land, and is accused of a dreadful crime, Claire’s shock, and her confusion, are so realistic. How well does she really know her sister? And how does she function without her?
The object of Claire’s quest is simultaneously finding Sophie, and finding how Claire can be relevant to Sophie as they grow up. The former part, where the adventure is, is exciting and fun and daring, as any good fantasy quest should be. The latter part is thoughtful, and heart-melting. The sisterly relationship is just so perfect. It made me miss hanging out with my brother as kids. Even though Claire and Sophie are apart for most of the story, their connection is tangible throughout, and informs all Claire’s actions. Gah, she’s just so well-written!
The magical land of Arden is well-thought out and enjoyable to learn about. I got the feeling that there was so much we didn’t see – not in a bad way, just in a way that gave me the feeling of living, breathing societies which we only journey through. The concept of the four guilds of magic (Tillers – plants, Forgers – metal, Spinners – thread, and Gemmers – stone) reminded me of Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books, except here the different disciplines are at loggerheads, which creates a really interesting dynamic. There could be literally hundreds of stories set in this world (and I hope there are).
The actual unicorn content is pretty low until the climax of the book – they’re actually extinct, and the only remnants of them are legends and relics. This worked for me; again, it created another aspect to the society. Poetic and oral history! How cool!! Some of the plot centres around a long epic poem about the death of the last unicorn, and without giving you spoilers, I can’t tell you much about why it’s important, but suffice to say the inclusion of the cultural importance of epic poetry made my little classicist heart sing. These are the things that make a world realistic.
I haven’t even talked about the characters in Arden! Claire meets an array of people, but her questing buddies are Sena and Nett, two kids close to her age. Sena is the natural leader of the group, and she was really fun to get to know. I like my female characters bossy and confident, with hidden depths, so Sena was perfect for me. Nett is an over-thinking homebody who learns to be brave for his friends, and again, it’s great to see this characterisation in a boy. As a trio, these guys worked so well together, and their banter kept me paging ahead.
The end of the book is left wide open for a sequel, which I’ll be putting on pre-order as soon as I can. This is a modern classic of children’s fantasy and should be read by every child who needs a little magic in their life.
Five out of five cats!