It’s probably not unusual to stand in a bookshop, flicking through the pages of a book, reading the blurbs and longing to be the one writing the stories as well as reading them. What’s probably less usual is to go straight home, ditch a well-paid career as a lawyer, take an internship answering phones at a literary agency and sign up to a two-year MA in creative writing. Oh, and then get a record-breaking seven figure three-book contract, along with a film deal with Sony.
‘It was a kind of epiphany, I guess,’ explains AF Steadman of ‘that moment’ in the bookshop that led, eventually, to Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, the first in her epic middle grade adventure fantasy series featuring bloodthirsty unicorns. ‘I’d always wanted to be a writer – I wrote my first novel, about pirates and spies, when I was 13 and I’ve still got the numbered notebooks. I was also a practical child and decided I needed a job that would be secure and pay me money. But I was quite miserable as a lawyer.’
Law’s loss is children’s fiction’s gain, with Steadman set to captivate with Skandar’s world through a five-book series. The first couldn’t be pacier as she introduces Skandar Smith, a lonely thirteen-year-old boy who has always wanted to be a unicorn rider and gains a coveted place at the elite island training camp for those who have passed the Hatchery exam. The apprentice riders hatch their unicorns, bond with them, discover which of the elements they belong to and learn to ride and channel the unicorn’s elemental magic, all with the goal of taking part in the annual Chaos Cup sky battle. But everything changes when a cloaked figure steals the most powerful unicorn and threatens to disrupt the fragile balance between unicorn and human, magic and earthliness.
Forget any notions of loveable fluffy creatures with glittery fur and rainbow poo. These unicorns are powerful, independent and prone to unfortunately timed bouts of flatulence, possibly as a result of the quantities of raw meat they rip into. And those are just the bonded unicorns – the wild ones are murderous, red-eyed skeletal ghouls, marked by ‘rancid breath, rotting flesh, the stench of immortal death’. As the prologue warns, ‘unicorns don’t belong in fairytales; they belong in nightmares.’
For Steadman, this seems a much more likely state of affairs: ‘I’ve always been quite suspicious of the idea that unicorns were friendly. Take rhinos – they’re not friendly and they have a similar kind of weapon on their heads,’ says Steadman. ‘And unicorns haven’t always been friendly in history – sometimes they are described as vicious and can only be tamed by particular people. I was always more of a dragon fan when I was younger and I liked the danger in mythical creatures rather than them being like a pet.’
And so, eight years ago, when she was walking along the street and suddenly had an image of a boy riding a unicorn, she ‘turned the unicorn into the kind I would have wanted to see rather than the fluffy kind’. She also started noting down possible unicorn names in a notebook (think Scoundrel’s Luck, Falcon’s Wrath, New-Age Frost and Silver Blade).
And then, nothing. The idea percolated away in Steadman’s mind while she unhappily trained and practised as a lawyer, and even while she did her MA and produced a short story collection and a book for adults. The adult novel was snapped up by an agent but rejected by multiple publishers so Steadman returned to the adventure that had captured her imagination years earlier.
‘I think Skandar was always the book of my heart. Whereas the other one was a little bit cathartic to write because it was about lawyers,’ she says, laughing. ‘I had to write it and I learned a lot from the experience. But it also meant that when Skandar sold, I didn’t take it for granted because I’d experienced the opposite. It felt almost even more magical after having had so many rejections for the other book.’
It’s not hard to see what caused the ‘really, really wild’ bidding war for the book. Skandar weaves in so many of the classic tropes of children’s fiction, whether the ‘chosen one outsider’ character, boarding school and house system of Harry Potter, the bond with a magical creature of Pullman’s daemons or the mythical creature training of the How to Train Your Dragon series.
Steadman namechecks some of the books she loved as a child, vividly remembering the feeling of escaping into those worlds.
‘I tapped into who I remember being at that age. I read a lot of the books again, that I’d read at 11, 12, to understand why did I like this so much? Why did it transport me? I’ve always loved books like Narnia where they go through the wardrobe – the number of times as a child, I went to a back of a wardrobe to see if it would really work! I also remember imagining a daemon following me around. I love those rich imaginative worlds for children to play in. I escaped into multiple worlds when I was growing up.’
Perhaps it’s a lingering remnant of the lawyer in her but she’s also keen on clearly establishing the rules of her magical world – what can and can’t happen and making sure the system holds up not only to the scrutiny of her editors but also the ranks of children who will, no doubt, read the books as obsessively as she once read Eragon and the Chronicles of Narnia.
‘I didn’t want at any point to feel like it was ‘just magic’. It was really important for me that the magic is in the island and the unicorns are magical beings but the riders aren’t innately magical. They’re only magical because they share in their unicorn’s power. It’s really tempting when you get into plot problems to make things happen magically but now I’ve got into the swing of it, I know when things feel wrong.’
Steadman has created an enchanting, action-packed world and, with four more books on the way, plus the movie (with a screenplay written by Paddington 2 writer Jon Croker), children who have gobbled up the first book will be delighted to know there is much, much more still to come.
Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A F Steadman is published by Simon and Schuster, 978-1398502710, £12.99 hbk.
Michelle Pauli is a freelance writer and editor specialising in books and education. She created and edited the Guardian children’s books site.