The wanderer is weary…
I had just finished reading THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy and was in search of something lighter to read — and what could be lighter than a book about unicorns, right? Well, Into the Land of the Unicorns is squarely aimed at a seven-to-ten year old reading range, but it manages to have a certain level of depth and darkness that certainly elevates it above the usual “rainbows and candy-floss” favour that usually surrounds the subject of unicorns.
Bruce Coville is a prolific children’s author, perhaps best known for his MAGIC SHOP books and MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN series. With THE UNICORN CHRONICLES he turns to the subject of unicorns (duh) in crafting a four-part story about a young girl and her adventures in a fantasy land called Luster. Comprised of Into the Land of Unicorns, Song of the Wanderer, Dark Whispers and The Last Hunt, you’re in luck if you’ve only just discovered this series, as there was a whopping sixteen years between the publication of the first instalment in 1994 and the eventual release of the last in 2010. I can understand why long epic fantasies for adults take decades to complete, but can you imagine starting this series in kindergarten and not finishing it until high school?
Cara is walking home from the library with her grandmother when she points out that a man seems to be following them. Her grandmother’s reaction is not at all reassuring: she grabs Cara by the hand and hustles her into St Christopher’s Church. In the whispered conversation that follows, Cara is given an amulet and instructed to climb to the top of the bell tower and leap from its rooftop before the bell tolls twelve. Against all her better instincts, Cara does so, and finds herself waking up in an unfamiliar world.
Aided by an assortment of humans and unicorns, as well as creatures that she can’t even identify: the Dimblethum (“he looked like a bear that had started to become a man but hadn’t finished the process”) and the Squijum (“a cross between a monkey and a squirrel”) Cara decides to travel to the Queen of the Unicorns in the hope of finding answers as to why she’s been brought to Luster and the secrets that her grandmother has been keeping from her all her life. On the way she must protect the amulet from a range of foes, including the man who chased her to Luster in the first place, and learn more about the world she’s been brought to: its history, its relationship to Earth, and its connection to her own family.
It’s fast-paced and easy to read, full of colourful characters and strange creatures, as well as a couple of twists — some clever, some predictable. Coville writes clearly and concisely, and though he’s prone to a few info-dumps that could have been better immersed in the flow of the story, there’s little that a young reader won’t enjoy here. Cara is a likeable young heroine, and the book’s antagonists are surprisingly complex, with a backstory that paints them in quite a different light from the usual “evil dark lords” that populate fantasy fiction. What’s at stake is the existence of unicorns themselves, but as it turns out, their mortal enemies have a good reason to despise them.
As I said, you’re lucky if you’ve only just decided to read this series, as you’ve been spared the lengthy waiting period between volumes, and the new cover art by Phil Falco is an extra bonus if you’re looking to invest in the whole set. Into the Land of Unicorns is slender enough to be read in one sitting, and ends on an open note that suggests more stories to come. They’re to be found in the next instalment Song of the Wanderer, though Coville also expands on this world in a short story found in the unicorn anthology A Glory of Unicorns.