Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
I featured Rampant on a Literary Horizon earlier this year after I heard about it through LiveJournal–killer unicorns and the virgins who hunt them? Sign me up, sister!
Rampant is the story of Astrid Llewelyn, a teenage girl who despairs of her mother, a woman whose fervent belief in now extinct unicorns and their lore, including the virgin descendants of Alexander the Great who hunt them, has been hindering Astrid since she was born. Imagine Astrid’s surprise when she discovers that unicorns are both real and still around, when her pushy boyfriend is almost killed by a unicorn. Astrid, being eligible to be a unicorn hunter, is shuffled off to the ancient cloisters in Rome, where she encounters other unicorn hunters with their own motives, increased unicorn attacks, a corporation in search of a mythical medicine derived from unicorns, and a dashingly handsome young man…
I like Astrid, as both a character and a narrator. She’s funny, describing her grabby first boyfriend as an “octopus man” when things get too heated, and she has a good head on her shoulders. While she’s an extremely reluctant hunter at first, she decides to stay at the cloisters, in order to discover the Remedy, the mythical healing potion derived from unicorns, due to her interest in medicine and science. Of course, she’s not perfect–she can’t find a way to stand up to her mother. But she’s a very nice and earnest main character.
It’s due to how well that Astrid is drawn that meeting Philippa, her popular older cousin, is a bit of a shock–she initially comes across as quite flighty and flirty, which she proves not to be. I do like Phil, especially her confidence, and she’s a very worthy foil for Astrid, but her first impression is a bit jarring. My notes actually read “Phil is irresponsible and weird” for her first appearance. The rest of the cast is nicely diverse and developed, with Astrid and Phil being the only American hunters. The male lead, Giovanni, an Italian-American exchange student, is a nice, attractive fellow with a love for history and a dark secret. Despite his lack of page time, he’s very sweet and sympathetic. As he and Astrid navigate their romance, your heart goes out to him. My only quibble with the cast is Astrid’s mother–she’s not sympathetic at all, steamrolling over Astrid’s wishes at every turn. You feel very sorry for Astrid for having a mother like Lilith. There’s also the fact that I just can’t quite buy that a woman with a brother by the name of John is named Lilith.
Rampant’s treatment of sexuality is quite refreshing, especially in the light of how other young adult works–by which, of course, I mean Twilight–treat sexuality. A hunter’s “eligibility”, i.e., their virginity, is important. While Astrid and her cousin, Phil, have felt pressured to have sex by their boyfriends, they have their own ways of dealing with it. The other hunters have their own reasons–one is a devout Catholic, and I was delighted to see her decision to wait until marriage completely accepted by the other girls, some of whom have not made that choice. I will say this, though–the don tends to treat any romantic relationship as jeopardizing the “eligibility” of their charges, something that Phil and Astrid apparently both accept at first. While it’s resolved at the end, I was a little perturbed by the treatment of every romantic relationship as apparently requiring a sexual element. This isn’t anything Peterfreund has done on purpose. Obviously, Astrid is a healthy, red-blooded and straight young woman, so her relationships, of course, have a sexual element. However, as an asexual girl, seeing relationships represented as always involving sex at some point annoyed me way before it started annoying Astrid.
Peterfreund’s world of killer unicorns is both fairly simple and intriguing. There are five or so kinds of unicorns, ranging from the small, goat-like zhi to the immense karkadann. Peterfreund’s real strength here is that she has invented much less than you might think–nearly all of her unicorn lore is taken from existing myths about unicorns. The modern unicorn is nothing like its historical counterparts. The lore about the hunters are her own invention, of course, while it is based in myth. I quite like how she tied it into religious orders of women, who are, of course, all eligible. The Order of the Lioness, an order of Catholic nuns, and the vestal virgins of ancient Rome are featured and mentioned, respectively. Peterfreund’s knack for tying it all together is wonderful.
Peterfreund’s action scenes are amazing, if short. Astrid’s regular battles with unicorns of all stripes are thrilling, and these are battles with serious consequences. While the hunters heal quickly from unicorn venom, hunters come back from battle bruised, bloody, and, occasionally, on the brink of death. One of Astrid’s ancestors is said to have sacrificed herself in battle to kill the last unicorn. The pacing is slow in the beginning, as the novel brings you up to speed with Peterfreund’s world–Cory, one of the hunters, has a habit of dropping unicorn myths at the drop of a hat. But when the plot picks up beyond training and meeting the other hunters, it’s enthralling. There’s a scene where you simply cannot stop reading after. I dare not spoil you, but you’ll know it when you read it.
Rampant does set itself up for a sequel, but, happily, it doesn’t leave you wanting too desperately. Enough questions are answered to satisfy the reader, while a few of the less urgent are left unanswered to be explored later. As someone who willingly puts herself through Heroes every week, this was absolutely glorious to behold. I really need to read more of Peterfreund’s work… hopefully, work that includes killer unicorns.
Bottom line: Despite a mildly slow start, Rampant is a thrilling fantasy adventure that includes plenty of action, an earnest and powerful female protagonist, and the true story about unicorns.
I got this book by winning a giveaway over at The Book Studio.