Review: Unicorns of Balinor

Unicorns of Balinor is a series of children's books by Mary Stanton, who was one of the writers for my favorite cartoon, Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders. I learned about it after reading a review on the Jewel Riders Archive. The unfinished series consists of eight short chapter books about a girl named Ari who leans she was once a princess from a magical land called Balinor. The story contains elements of Anastasia, Jewel Riders, and Wicked. Though it helps to read them in order, any of the books can easily be enjoyed on its own. Each one tells a complete adventure story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is not the only Jewel Riders-inspired book series from the turn of the millennium. Avalon: Web of Magic by Rachel Roberts was another series of chapter books about girls from the real world who also learn that unicorns and magic exist in a different realm. Her books incorporated lyrics directly from the original Jewel Riders soundtrack. The Jewel Riders references in Unicorns of Balinor were more subtle but still present.

The Road to Balinor is the first and only book in the Unicorns of Balinor series that takes place in what appears to be the real world. Ari wakes up in recovery from a horrible accident and realizes that she can't remember anything that happened before it. All she knows is that she has a close bond with her beloved horse, Chase, whose bronze mane and coat matches her hair. When her caretakers insist on selling Chase to Lori, her spoiled bratty neighbor, Ari decides to run away with Chase when she discovers the magical land of Balinor. There, she learns her true identity as their missing Princess Arianna and Chase's true identity as Sunchaser, the unicorn Lord of all Animals. Unfortunately, Lori follows her and manages to stick around for every subsequent book despite being completely useless. Ari is then given a series of quests to prove her worth as the High Princess, leading up to her defeat of the wicked Shifter in Night of the Shifter's Moon, the second to last book in the series.

I could tell a lot of things about Mary Stanton from these books. She is clearly an animal lover. Her biography reveals that she based many of the unicorns in Balinor on real horses that she grew up with, and her real-life farm experience went into her descriptions of Glacier River Farm, where the story begins. Dr. Bohnes, the human wisest sage in the book was also a veterinarian. All the animals in Balinor can speak just as well as any human, and they are treated as equal to humans or sometimes even superior, in the case of the Celestial Unicorns. The first book foreshadows a threat to Balinor that wanted to take away the animals' voices, similar to the plot of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, but this evil scheme was never mentioned again. In fact, there were a lot of things that seemed to be conveniently tacked on or forgotten in each book. It seems that Mary was more focused on making the books more enjoyable individually than on telling one overarching epic story.

My favorite human character in this series was Ari for her kindness and humility. My favorite animal was Atalanta, a beautiful violet and silver unicorn known as the Dreamspeaker, who watched over Ari and came to her in times of need. I felt like Lori's character was a missed opportunity as Ari's foil. We've all seen the bratty girl archetype in movies and shows, but those characters can turn out to be the most interesting if done correctly, such as Violetta from Mia and Me. Lori eventually becomes Ari's lady-in-waiting out of sheer greed, but even then she never grows as a character, learns from her mistakes, or does anything remotely interesting. The character who did manage to surprise me was Lincoln, Ari's pet dog who started talking when she crossed over the gap into Balinor. In the final book, Shadows Over Balinor, he turns out to be a great deal more than he appears. Another great "character" is the magic scepter that Ari retrieves in Valley of Fear. The scepter has a sculpted unicorn head on it that talks in the way as the bird on Mary Poppins' umbrella. However, it only answers direct questions in the most generic way possible. This worked much better for comic relief than Lori's predictable reactions to everything.

Overall, Unicorns of Balinor is a fun series in doses, but it doesn't work well as an epic princess story because the main plot of Ari finding her family and recovering all her memories never gets resolved. The quests Ari is given in each book seem conveniently tacked on for the sake of adding another book to the story instead of progressing her goal to return to her former life and restore peace to Balinor. Even when the Shifter is finally defeated, a new villain is quickly introduced for the sole purpose of continuing the series, which turned out to be fruitless because the stopped after the eighth book. If you love princesses who talk to their animal friends, you will probably enjoy this series. However, I don't think it's necessary to read all eight books unless you become attached to the characters because each book is very similar in both story and tone.


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