Despite what I said in my By Fire, By Moonlight review, the plot of this came back to me very quickly as I started reading it--though the fact that I so completely forgot it offers quite the hint into what kind of impression it made on me when I first read the book.
In Search for the Star, Princess Arianna of Balinor has recovered her Scepter and passed the trial by fire and the ordeal by moonlight, so things are seemingly back to normal in Balinor. Seemingly. Because the oh-so-very-evil Shifter isn't one to quit that easily, and he runs off to retrieve the only talisman more powerful than the Scepter, something called the Indigo Star that's been guarded by the dragon Naytin in the Blue Mountain for the last thousand years.
So... Random new MacGuffin appearing out of nowhere with no previous mentions? Check. Random new characters and locations also appearing out of nowhere with no previous mention? Check. An overwhelming sense that the author is making this up as she goes along? Big ol' check, and par for the course with the Unicorns of Balinor series.
I am now more than halfway through the series, and I haven't the faintest idea what Ari's supposed to be doing to defeat the Shifter. Neither, for that matter, has Ari. There's no ultimate goal to the series beyond "defeat the bad guy by doing... something, maybe?". Instead of your typical "you must gather ______ to defeat the ___________", each book plops another "gather ___________ because something needs to happen in this book" in, slaps a cover on it, and calls it a plot. And it's not a plot; it's the literary equivalent of busy work. It's annoying.
But it's not the only silly thing going on here. Ignoring the extreme! overuse! of! exclamation! marks!, the strict black and white morality and wildly stereotypical villain/hero characters are laughable. Ari and Chase are good because they're a princess and a unicorn, respectively. Entia is evil because he hates everything that's good and happy. And that's not a joke; his motives are that juvenile. At one point, the book actually says that he's trying to enslave the Celestial unicorns because "The Shifter hates the colors of the Rainbow herd." Seriously?
And let's not forget the narrative's sanctimonious bullshit: the Shifter is evil because he's a cardboard cutout of a rejected Disney cartoon villain, and the protagonists are good because they're a pretty princess and a magical unicorn... and when one of the Shifter's oppressed and enslaved maids says she wishes she had the courage to kill him, our magical, sweet, noble, totally and utterly perfect little princess Ari makes it clear that KILLING IS TOTALLY BAD, YOU GUYS.
So this is a series about a war... that's trying to tell me killing is bad...? How exactly do you intend to stop this murder- and enslavement-happy-for-no-good-reason villain, then? Maybe hit him with some magic pixie dust and then he'll learn to love ponies and rainbows? Or are we just going to imprison him for the rest of his (possibly immortal) life, making sure he spends the rest of his years being hated, ridiculed, enslaved, etcetera? All of which will make him hate you and want to destroy you even more?
No one sees a flaw in either of these plans? There's no room for a carefully thought-out assassination here? If you say so, I guess.
But there's no question where this ridiculous line is coming from. This entire story is the author's mouthpiece, both in the sense of touting her politics and enacting her fantasy. The author simply hasn't detached herself from the story.
First there was the ludicrous "carnivores are evil and unnatural" spiel from Valley of Fear that was so terribly stupid I act quit one attempt at rereading this series. Now there's this "war without death!" nonsense. If the author isn't a pacifistic vegetarian/vegan, I'm a unicorn myself.
But it's not just that. It's everything. Ari spends a significant portion of time pointing out how Balinor is superior to Earth in every way: there's no "stench of gas", everyone up to and including lions pretends to be a vegetarian (while still eating insects and arachnids, because they're apparently lame and okay to eat), the unicorns are physically perfect and never tired, and blah and blah and blah. Just from the way the book is written, it's not even subtext that this is the author's ideal world.
Far worse than anything else on this front, however, is Ari. Ari is little more than a self-insert Purity Sue. What Bella Swan is to middle school girls, Ari is to elementary school girls. When her life at the horse ranch turns to crap, she magically discovers that she's actually a princess from a foreign land of unicorns and talking animals who has to face the evil but absurdly harmless sorcerer Entia. And when she's serving as princess? Dear god, she's just the picture of perfection. Everyone bows at her feet the moment they hear her name. They adore her for no discernible reason. She's always right about everything, even when the wise and experienced disagree. When she does something wrong, it's because someone betrayed her or something went wrong with the universe itself.
Ari is infuriating. She is the most sanctimonious, self-righteous, falsely humble protagonist I've ever had the misfortune to run across.
The two female main characters of Unicorns of Balinor are Princess Arianna and Lori Carmichael. Respectively, they are introduced to the reader as a poor farm girl and a spoiled rich girl. One of them is a self-centered brat, and the other is (perhaps accidentally) a psychologically interesting and reasonably likable deconstruction of the rich bitch stereotype.
Princess Arianna is not the least bit believable. Unlike real princesses (with the exception of some modern royals, like Queen Elizabeth and apparently Kate Middleton), her people love her. They're willing to band together under her leadership, even though she's an inexperienced thirteen-year-old of painfully average intelligence. Also unlike real princesses and teenagers, she seems to have the ability to bend the universe to her will. When she needs something done, she does it with little to no hassle, even if it's been described as the most ridiculously difficult and impossible task one can imagine. She sneaks around the country, defeats insanely powerful creatures and sorcerers, sneaks into and robs impenetrable fortresses, and basically anything else that entire armies failed to do. Really, why does Balinor even have an army when their God Mode Sue princess can do everything for them without breaking a sweat?
Maybe it's because she angsts so damn much. Whole pages are spent on Ari's lamenting; she's scared of being a princess, but she's meant to be a princess. She's scared of danger, but she must be strong for her people. She's afraid that she's actually terrible at being a princess, but at least she's not pathetic like Lori. My fucking god, this girl never stops whining.
Meanwhile, we're told repeatedly that Lori's the whiny one. She'd be a terrible princess. She doesn't understand other people. She's selfish and foolish. Except that to anyone with their eyes open, that's a description of Ari. Lori, on the other hand, has insight and a grounded sense of reality that everyone else in the story lacks; she's clearly a vital part of the story, but other characters take every opportunity to mock her as worthless; she's wonderfully snarky and clever, but apparently the people of Balinor hate that.
It's ridiculous, because the roles were set up properly in the first book. Lori was a terrible, horrendous person; she wanted her father to kill a horse for not cooperating with her. Ari, meanwhile, just wanted to escape her poverty and heartbreak. But now that Ari has achieved said escape, it's as if they've switched personalities. While Ari runs around flaunting her Incorruptible Pure Pureness and babbling about how she's the most humble and self-sacrificing person on the planet, Lori's the one who's an actual character. There's no trace of her former cruelty; there's only a very human sense of being lost and confused, being terrified of her cruel father and his temper, being the Only Sane Man in a ridiculous fantasy world... in general, just being an actual person.
Suddenly I find myself wishing this series could have been about Lori.
And that's just it, I guess. By following Ari and Chase, readers are forced to witness on the most boring and nonsensical facet of the plot while potentially interesting characters like Lori and even Entia himself are squandered.
Because while Stanton has made every effort to make Entia the manifestation of what Sauron would have been like if Lord of the Rings had been written for preschoolers, Search for the Star finally gives us a proper glimpse of him as an individual instead of a lame plot device. Frankly, it's the best scene of the series so far.
And by gods do I want more of it. Entia desperately needs to be explored and fleshed out. His story doesn't make a ton of sense so far. The details about his past are completely muddled. Search for the Star says that without the Scepter, Entia's no more powerful than his enemies. So how did he have enough power to steal the Scepter? And how did he have enough time to build this vast empire in only about six months? And for that matter, what the hell is he? We still don't know.
I am really hoping that the last three books can turn this around. Because I did enjoy this series as an elementary schooler, and I'm going to be incredibly disappointed (and somewhat ashamed of my childhood tastes!) if it ends as lame as it's been so far.