It's a rare high fantasy which attracts my attention. While I enjoy just about anything set in Medieval lands where sorcery and dragons are commonplace, I tend to favor the grim and grittier side of the spectrum. Rider, with its fair-maiden next to a unicorn in a pastoral paradise, didn't exactly inspire me to believe this would that kind of story. However, it's by Jim Bernheimer, a man who I have come to trust as the writer of such gems as Confessions of a D-List Supervillain and Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery.
And I'm very pleased I decided to pick this up.
Rider is a Young Adult fantasy novel set in a picturesque kingdom where one of the greatest honors a young woman can receive is to be picked as a Battle Maiden or Unicorn Rider. Such women, chosen at thirteen, gain the ability to wield magic and are the vanguard of the war effort against the brutal desert nomads surrounding the kingdom.
This is the story Kayleigh grew up with and, as we'll find out later, is not quite the truth she was led to believe. The bonding with a unicorn is, however, and Kayleigh manages to achieve it with a battle-worn survivor named Majherri. The only problems are Kayleigh is sixteen rather than thirteen and Majherri is the survivor of a previous unicorn rider's death, something which should be impossible. The two misfits are a mismatched pair, one veteran and one naive, but come to rely on each other as they prepare for what is likely to be a new war with the nomads.
Rider is an interesting book: part Harry Potter, part boot-camp, and part magical unicorn story. However, I enjoyed it a lot. Part of the reason is the fact, despite its somewhat filly premise (*rimshot*), the events are never taken as anything other than deadly serious. The reason the latter Harry Potter books were so successful, in my opinion, is because it didn't talk down to readers and I have similar feelings regarding the Hunger Games and other YA successes.
Poor Kayleigh is worked twice as hard to achieve half as much because she's considered inferior due to everything from her social standing to her lack of training and a large amount between. The fact Kayleigh's unicorn was the mount of her superior officer's sister also makes things more difficult for her. Captain Lynch believes Majherri should have died with her sister and the fact he didn't is an insult to her memory.
I like how Jim Bernheimer writes unicorns as Majherri's perspective occupies a large part of the narrative. The unicorn perspective manages to be human-enough to be relatable while also being distinct and well, horse-like, enough to be alien. I like how the unicorns are more like the creatures of myth, wild and war-like, versus the softer presentation they're given in modern days. Unicorns are a race of warriors and a proud one at that, which went a long way to selling the series to me.
A great deal of attention went into this world's setting with Jim making ample use of "show, don't tell." We get a sense of how magic in the world works, its politics, how the people see the monarchy, the traditions of the Battle Maidens, Unicorn ecology, and the class divisions affecting the people all without anyone ever having to give us an info-dump. It's a traditional fantasy setting but it's a well-written fantasy setting and that can make all of the difference in the world.
The ending of the book is a cliffhanger and readers hoping for a self-contained story will be disappointed. However, while the initial twist didn't surprise me, the subsequent results of this twist were genuinely shocking. Jim Bernheimer isn't afraid to shake things up and I was genuinely interested in heading to the next book immediately thereafter. So, despite the traditional fantasy nature of the story and I'm not a big fan of YA, I actually loved this book and recommend it to fantasy lovers interested in something lighthearted.