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Annabel Steadman on Skandar, ancient burial mounds and why you should never trust a sparkly Unicorn

Updated: May 5, 2023

It's safe to say that we loved the best-selling children's book 'Skandar and the Unicorn Thief'. In our review last year, we proudly proclaimed that the book had a "fast-paced narrative that holds great potential for further exploration". And now, with 'Skandar and the Phantom Rider' released today, we have the opportunity to further explore the fantastic - and fantastical - Unicorn-powered world that author Annabel Steadman created.

Best-Selling Author Annabel Steadman

In fact, so eager were we to learn more, that we just couldn't hang around and wait for the launch of 'Skandar and the Phantom Rider'. Oh no, we decided to interview Annabel immediately and learn more about all things Skandar. Unfortunately for you dear reader, we were sworn to secrecy about everything we learned until today. As long as today is the 27th of April. Otherwise, it may well be yesterday, a fortnight ago, or four months ago last Tuesday.

Or tomorrow if you are a time traveller.

Anyway, enough pre-interview waffle, let's get stuck in, shall we?

First off, as big fans of Skandar and The Unicorn Thief, what, if anything, can you tell us about the next book in the series, ‘The Phantom Rider’?

Skandar and the Phantom Rider is the second book in the Skandar series, set in a world of warrior unicorns, elemental magic, and courageous heroes. In Book 2, someone is killing the wild unicorns – and it’s causing havoc with the magic of the Island. The elements themselves are turning on its inhabitants, and it isn’t long before the riders inside the Eyrie are affected too – the bond behaving in strange and disturbing ways. And as the only spirit wielder in the Eyrie, the suspicious whispers around Skandar Smith only grow louder. Meanwhile, Skandar’s sister, Kenna is on a journey of her own. But is she in more danger than she realises?

When tragedy strikes, making Skandar look more guilty than ever, Skandar, Bobby, Flo, and Mitchell, like the rest of the Eyrie become obsessed with finding the tomb of the First Rider. According to legend, the tomb holds the key to rebalancing the Island’s magic. But the trouble is, nobody has the slightest clue where the First Rider is buried. And who really is killing the wild unicorns? Is it the Weaver? Or is it someone worse?

How excited should we be, on a scale of one to one million about the twists, turns, and adventurous daring-do that await us in book 2?

I think you should be very excited! I don’t want to give too much away here but you’ll get to visit new places on the Island – inside the Eyrie and outside it. You’ll meet the Peregrine Society and plenty more characters – human and unicorn. You’ll learn more about Jamie’s family and the bards. And more will be revealed about the spirit element, as well as the art of elemental jousting.

Nice! We can’t wait to experience it! Moving on to the intensely serious questions now, where did the idea for writing a story based around Unicorns come from?

Nine 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. Those two characters became Skandar Smith and Scoundrel’s Luck.

Did you look into real-world Unicorn mythology to help tell your story? If so, which bits of Unicorn mythology did you decide to keep, and which had to go?

I don’t think I could point at any particular real-world unicorn mythology that helped me tell the story but I think mythical creatures are wonderful because when they’re as established as unicorns or dragons or mermaids there are so many different accounts of them. There are descriptions that are hundreds of years old, and 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 throughout history; 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?

Blood-thirsty Unicorns are very unique, how did the idea come about? Normally Unicorns are thought to be kind and friendly animals, but not these guys, they can be wild and dangerous!

It sounds odd to say it, but I’ve never particularly liked unicorns – at least not the ones that have become more prevalent in modern times with glitter, sparkles, and friendly personalities. If I’m going to be completely honest, I suppose I have always been a little suspicious of the friendly image of unicorns today. Especially as they have a sharp horn – a deadly weapon! – right on their heads. And us humans haven’t always seen unicorns as friendly either – there are historical accounts of “unicorns” being extremely vicious – okay so maybe they were rhinos but still! Their past hadn’t always been rainbow-filled.

The Uffington White Horse helped inspire the world of Skandar.

The lore of your world is amazing – the use of elements and the secret Island are particular standouts for us. Which aspects of history, mythology, and culture inspired your world-building?

Thank you for saying that! I suppose one major part of human history and culture that inspired me was setting exams or testing children. I asked myself, how would adults respond to the idea that they had to send their thirteen-year-olds to an Island to train as unicorn riders? What would make them feel more secure in the whole thing? And I came up with the Hatchery exam. It certainly isn’t a perfect solution for the Mainland, but it makes everyone feel calmer.

The White Horse – or unicorn as it’s referred to in the Skandar series – at Uffington also inspired part of the world-building. It is based on one of the many white chalk horses cut into hills all over the UK – in particular the one at Uffington in Oxfordshire. These white horses are ancient and when I was planning Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, I remember thinking the prehistoric hill figure at Uffington looked quite like a unicorn. And for the story that seemed like the perfect place for children to be picked up by helicopters and taken to the Island to start their adventure amongst the wild unicorns. Furthermore, when they arrive on the Island, they reach the Hatchery, and that is based on the shape of ancient burial mounds that can be found dotted around the UK too.

Annabel visiting Dunvant Primary School.

You visit lots of schools, could you tell us why it’s so important to visit schools as an author and how these visits can inspire the next generation of writers?

It is vitally important for children to meet authors. I’ve seen first-hand how it can bring books alive for them. It can get some children to try a book they might have previously been too worried to pick up – because it’s a different genre or length from what they’re used to. It can get others using their imagination in such a way that it inspires them to read, when it’s never been something they’ve enjoyed before. And it is really very important for children to see that authors are real people, not mythical creatures! That way, those who develop a passion for reading and writing their own stories, can see a path to becoming an author one day – rather than it being a dream for others, it can be one for them.

Finally, where next for Skandar?

At the moment, I’m finishing off my edits on Book 3 in the series. It will be five books in total – one for each element. And the script for the film of Skandar and the Unicorn Thief has been written by Jon Croker – and it’s brilliant! Sony Pictures are in the process of finding a director at the moment. So I hope that ferocious unicorns will be coming to the big screen sometime soon!

Awesome! Bring it on!

A huge thank you to Annabel for taking the time to answer our questions!

To pick up your copy of 'Skandar and the Phantom Rider', click on the link here to head to


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