My daughter is a voracious reader, but sometimes a book seems to resonate a bit more than others. She reads it even more intently than normal. She talks about it a lot. Elements of the story show up in her own play.
The latest such story to hit that particular nerve was The Unicorn Quest trilogy by Kamilla Benko. I read it when she was done, and I found it really appealing and well-written. Despite the acclaim it has gotten in various circles, it seems to mostly fly under the radar; I thought it was worth giving it a wider audience.
The Unicorn Quest features two sisters from our world climbing a ladder in a fireplace and finding themselves in the magical world of Arden. Benko has done an excellent job building Arden into a believable place, giving it a sweeping history and vivid landscape. In this world, everyone is born as either a Tiller, a user of plant magic; a Forger, metal magic; a Gemmer, the magic of stone and gems; or a Spinner, the magic tied to cloth and thread. Benko spends some time talking about the theories of magic that underlie the world, and imagining rich magical objects and skills wielded by each guild. While the four guilds used to mingle their talents, in Arden’s present that’s considered illegal and offensive, and the guilds coexist in a tense peace.
But a whole separate story of the world’s magic and its history comes from the unicorns that used to roam in huge numbers but haven’t been seen for a hundred years. The people of Arden feel that the unicorns increased their magic and long for their return, and this is a key part of the plot (which, given the name, can hardly be surprising).
The books would be enjoyable for Arden alone, but they also encompass a story that twists and turns in wholly surprising ways, especially for a middle grade book. People aren’t always who they seem and the land’s history has numerous gaps and errors crucial to the plot. Assumptions you make early on are often derailed in believable ways. Any example I give would be a spoiler, but my daughter and I both had several “oh my gosh, what?!” moments.
Claire Martinson, the protagonist, is a believable, well-drawn-out girl, who struggles with wanting to be independent from her big sister — and not babied by her — but also wanting to be with her and help her. The trilogy’s conclusion had me in tears as the girl’s navigated their new lives, though, to be fair, that happens pretty often.
So if your kids (or you!) want a well-written middle grade book featuring a believable fantasy world, I recommend this series.