Author: Diana Peterfreund
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: August 2009
Hardcover: 416 pages
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of a planned series, though can be read on its own.
Why did we read this book: Two simple words: KILLER UNICORNS. How often is it that you come across a fantasy novel that portrays unicorns not as gentle, noble creatures, but as raging, poisonous beasts? Never. So, when we heard of Diana Peterfreund’s debut YA novel about virgin heroines hunting down rampaging killer unicorns, we were positively giddy.
Summary: (from DianaPeterfreund.com)
Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…
The sparkly, innocent creatures of lore are a myth. Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. And they can only be killed by virgin descendants of Alexander the Great.
Fortunately, unicorns have been extinct for a hundred and fifty years.
Astrid Llewelyn has always scoffed ather eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one of the monsters attacks her boyfriend in the woods – thereby ruining any chance of him taking her to prom – Astrid learns that unicorns are real and dangerous, and she has a family legacy to uphold. Her mother packs her off to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient cloisters the hunters have used for centuries.
However, at the cloisters, all is not what is seems. Outside, the unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from crumbling, bone-covered walls that vibrate with a terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters to – perhaps most dangerously of all – her growing attraction to a handsome art student… and a relationship that could jeopardize everything.
Thea: WOW. I had a vague idea of what to expect from Ms. Peterfreund having read her excellent Secret Society Girl – but Rampant completely blew me out of the water. Or knocked me off my horse. Or unicorn. Whatever analogy, the important thing is that Rampant surpassed all of my expectations. This is a remarkably imaginative, painstakingly researched, and impeccably written novel. Not only is the core concept fantastic with its delineations of unicorn species and their unique history and place in our own cultural mythology, but the explication of characters – especially the gender roles of women, of virginity and power – is breathtaking.
Yeah, you could say I loved Rampant from its hilarious start to its blood-drenched finale.
Ana:This is my first foray into Diana Peterfreund’s books and I simply loved it. I have to echo Thea’s feelings about the imaginative story, the research and the writing but really, Rampant is, quite absolutely, undeniably, a FUN book to read. I mean, Killer Unicorns and the Virgin Warriors that are the only ones that can kill them? Set in Rome – my favourite city in the whole world? How could I not love this book?
On the Plot:
When Astrid Llewelyn reads a magical unicorn story while babysitting two little girls, she couldn’t be more repulsed. For Astrid, the descendent of Clothilde, the descendent of Alexander of Macedonia, knows a different side of the sparkly magical creatures – and it ain’t pretty. While the rest of the world thinks of unicorns as enchanting, gentle, noble creatures, Astrid knows that they are bloodthirsty, vicious predators with poisoned alicorns (horns) and are nigh invincible. Only virgin women descended from Alexander the Great, like Astrid, can kill a unicorn – and even then, it’s no cakewalk. Impervious to bullets, incredibly self-healing and ranging in size from goat-small to mammoth-large, generations of women like Astrid have honed their skills as hunters to fight off the supernatural menace, armed with spears, bows and arrows, and knives. Though Astrid has grown up hearing these stories from her mother, Lilith, she finds it a bit hard to take seriously – her tales of killer unicorns have cost her jobs, her Ph.D., and labeled her as the family nutjob. In any case, Astrid takes solace in the fact that even if Lilith is right about unicorns, they are certainly extinct. That is, until Astrid is tested by one in the woods surrounding the house where she is babysitting – a zhi, the smallest species of unicorn, appears to Astrid and runs through her sort-of boyfriend with its alicorn.
Suddenly, Astrid’s life is thrown upside-down as she finds herself headed to Rome, to live and train in the Cloisters of Ctesias, legendary home of unicorn huntresses throughout the ages. Here, Astrid will make new allies and enemies, and she will learn exactly what it means to accept her birthright as a daughter of Alexander.
Thea: It is in the plotting of this novel, the scope of new species’ of unicorns, and the extent of world building that Rampant really, totally rocks. In this alternate version of the world, instead of having a secret population of fae, vampires or shapeshifters, there are four dangerous species of unicorn:the smaller zhi, the ferocious kirin, the bull-like re’em, and the enormous karkaadan. It’s clear from reading Rampant that Ms. Peterfreund put some serious effort into historical research, taking and reinterpreting history across different cultures from Alexander the Great, to western european paintings & tapestries, to east asian folklore. It’s some truly fascinating stuff, and the prevalence of these myths across varied cultures is enough to make readers suspend disbelief and take something that could have been very silly, seriously. Perhaps unicorns have never really existed – but the way they are presented in Rampant is pretty convincing.
Beyond the unicorns themselves, Ms. Peterfreund has created an alternate history of hunters with whom their fates are intertwined. And here’s where things get really interesting, because for some reason that science can’t really explain, each hunter must be descended from the line of Alexander the Great and must be a virgin in order to face and kill unicorns. The interesting part here is the focus on a complicated topic that isn’t as cool or much explored in a lot of current literature – namely, virginity. That these girls derive and maintain their huntress powers through virginity raises some tough questions and topics, which Ms. Peterfreund explores thoroughly. In the 21st century, teen girls who don’t give it up are likely to be seen as prudes or frigid, or that something is “wrong” with them – branded psychologically with a ‘V’ instead of a scarlet ‘A’. For the young women in Rampant, like the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome their virginity is literally their lifeblood – and their continued battle against unicorns is mostly through their own choice. (Of course, this raises other questions – what if this choice is taken away from them? – which I was also very happy to see Ms. Peterfreund address in the novel) This exploration of not only gender roles and the assignation of power is some serious food for thought, and impressive in its scope.
As far as the actual writing and plotting is concerned, Rampant does a solid job. Though a tad on the long side at over 400 pages, the plot moves smoothly with only a few dragging points, culminating in a glorious, blood-soaked ending. The revelations are unpredictable and though it takes a shade too long to get to these fabulous twists, they are delightfully shocking and well-executed. Writing-wise, Ms. Peterfreund is in top form with her crisp, light prose, and Rampant is completely engaging and compulsively readable. I have no complaints.
Although I do have to say that I had a little bit of difficulty getting into the book to start with. It was hard for me to accept how Astrid’s mother, after realising that Unicorns were back simply ships her away to Rome without as much as a second thought about what Astrid wanted or who exactly would be taking care of her. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, obviously, with the way things get into motion as it is part of the characters’ arc but my gut reaction was such that I started to sound like my own protective mother (that scared me like you wouldn’t know) and it detracted from my reading experience at least for the first few pages.
But once Astrid arrives in Rome and the story effectively kicks-off, the plot moved along smoothly for me. And what a story – from the mythology surrounding the Unicorns dating back to Alexander the Great and Roman Gods to the current emergence of the beastly creatures, this book is a fiesta for the Fantasy-inclined reader. Thea is spot on when she says that the entire plot could have gone terribly wrong by the way of silliness but it doesn’t and it is all down to the way the story is interwoven with snippets of real-life events and with the portrayal of the Hunters. These girls are born to a line and to a destiny that at first seems overwhelmingly difficult to accept. And yet, choice presents itself to all of them – to avoid such a destiny is incredibly “easy” actually. All you have to do is to give away your virginity – but by doing so you give away your powers and your place in the sisterhood. Each of the girls has then a choice to make and it all depends on how they see themselves and their future. Because to accept their Warrior side is also to choose a lifetime of commitment to blood, to war and to being single. The “being single” part is particularly stressing for two of the girls: Astrid and Phil who, when sneaking out to enjoy Rome, end up meeting too guys. The romance plot is a very important one here as well adding another layer of angst to the story.
Also, speaking of Rome – what a fabulous setting for the book and Diana Peterfreund seems to know the place really well and inserts enough sightseeing and elements of Roman culture to make it part of the book. Astrid and her love interest Giovanni’s visit to the Borghese Gallery was one of the highlights of the book for me.
Even though the story is convincing as a Fantasy book and for all that there is seriousness in the way of power struggles, the life and death situations and themes such as Virginity or Independence, the book also allows for moments of fun which comes from the humorous narrative and from moments of sheer campiness: like for example how the girls keep an Unicorn pet of the zhi variety (the only domesticated one, sort of ) called, BONEGRINDER. Oh, the ludicrousness – I love it.
And then there are the plot twists – there is one in particular towards the end of the novel that irrevocably moved Rampant from a “very good” to an “awesome” read.
On the Characters:
Thea: While the mythos of the unicorn & hunter was so impressive, it’s almost expected that the characters weren’t quite as strong or fulfilling. That’s not to say that the characters were poorly done – quite the opposite. Astrid, the protagonist and first-person narrator of Rampant certainly feels like a genuine teenage girl thrust into a much larger situation, with impossible expectations. Though it would have been easy to write Astrid as a firebrand, or a stubborn, sword-wielding badass from the getgo, Ms. Peterfreund takes it a different direction; Astrid instead is a quieter teen, who really doesn’t want any part of her immense destiny, nor does she choose it initially. She goes along to Rome (even though she really doesn’t want to) at the behest of her pushy mother, she becomes a hunter even though she really doesn’t buy into it, and when the only thing she really is interested in – getting down to the scientific breakdown of the Remedy and the biochemical secret hunters’ resistance – is denied her, she basically lets it go. Astrid is passive – that is, until she finds her own purpose and strength. This heroine might not be the warrior woman readers expect, but she is one that I at least found myself rooting for wholeheartedly by the end of the book because of her solid character arc.
The secondary characters in Rampant are varied and add a wonderfully human element to the story. Of these, my favorites had to be Cory, the obsessed know-it-all (with good reason for her hate for unicorns) and Phil, the slightly older and much more outgoing cousin of Astrid. Phil’s sparkle, her wit, and her own journey in Rampant is a powerful one – I loved her character very, very much. There are less lovable characters too – such as Lilith, Astrid’s glory-hungry mother. For all that I found myself despising her pushiness and singleminded attitude towards Astrid and the hunters, Lilith is another character that felt very real and believable – after years of being marginalized and belittled for her radical views on a then-believed mythological character, when she has an opportunity to be proven right and for her daughter to fulfill her birthright, she of course seizes it with both hands. The only character that I wasn’t really crazy about had to be Giovanni, Astrid’s love interest. A bit too good to be true, perhaps. The lackluster hunky Italian dude aside, though, I like that Astrid is forced to confront the choices that she has to make, and Giovanni is a part of that.
Ana: Astrid’s quietness and initial, completely passive acceptance of her mother’s attitude drove me insane. At points I wished she would rebel, scream, do something to avoid going on a journey she so clearly did not want. But eventually I was glad she didn’t and her character proved to be so much more interesting like that – for her quiet strength that grows into so much more. Her arc was such that by the end of the book, I was completely in love with her and understood her decisions – as they were clearly delimited by everything she went through in these pages: from understand her destiny, her heritage, to using her strong desire to be a scientist into researching aspects of the mythology no one has ever thought of. This is one of the things that I have to give mad props to Diana Peterfreund: for not allowing the Astrid that begins the book turning into a completely different, alien Astrid by the end of it. It is the same character – only one that becomes her own person, who can make her own choices, finally.
As a coming of age story, Rampant is a great book indeed. And one where the teenage girl does not depend on the teenage boy for a lifetime of happiness – there is a romantic element to the book and Astrid does draw strength from being with him but not in an obsessive manner. These kids talk, assess and think about their situation in a very balanced way and still they have their hormones driving them crazy. It is a great balance, if you ask me. Plus she can totally kick his ass (and at one point I really wish she would, as I was not so keen on Giovanni. Go figure).
As for the other characters: there is Cory and I loved her from the start (as she threw Bonegrinder through the window, I thought: You had me at hello, girl); and Astrid’s cousin Phil who shone through the novel with an almost blinding light and nearly overshadowed Astrid and her more meek attitude. I really do hope we can see more of Phil in the next book. But the other girls were not as clearly drawn , unfortunately, which is a shame since they came from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds but I understand the necessity of drawing a line somewhere – to give the other girls more pages and line would detract from the main characters and the main story.
Final Thoughts, Observations, and Rating:
Thea: I loved Rampant from beginning to end. The staggering amount of meticulous research and fantastic twist on the unicorn myth and the exploration of gender and virginity alone are enough to make this book one of the most memorable I’ve read this year. Add to that the solid, different characters, and Rampant is one irresistible book. Absolutely recommended, and easily one of my notable reads of 2009. I cannot wait for more from Astrid and the unicorns.
Ana: Rampant is a great book, with a gripping, interesting plot that never lets go. With a bunch of strong Girl Hunters and such sympathetic characters such as Astrid and Phil, this one is a winner. And can I just reiterate the fact that there is a pet unicorn called Bonegrinder? Bring on the next book.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Harper Teen, with its great Browse Inside feature has the first 80 pages of Rampant up! You can check it out online HERE, or use the widget below:
Additional Thoughts: Killer unicorns. Diana Peterfreund boldly goes where no one has gone before in current literature with her take on these mythological creatures. For more insight on Diana’s research for Rampant make sure to stick around as she’ll have an Inspirations and Influences guest post later today! Plus, we’ll also be giving away a copy of Rampant to a lucky winner…
In the meantime, we leave you with the Evil Unicorn:
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson