5 Rated Books 6 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Joint Review: Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund

Title: Ascendant

Author: Diana Peterfreund

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy (Urban/Contemporary), Unicorns

Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: September 2010
Hardcover: 400 pages

Now a fully trained unicorn hunter, Astrid Llewelyn is learning that she can’t solve all her problems with a bow and arrow. Her boyfriend has left Rome, the Cloisters is in dire financial straits, her best friend’s powers are mysteriously disintegrating, and her hope of becoming a scientist seems to be nothing but an impossible dream.

So when she’s given the opportunity to leave the Cloisters and use her skills as part of a scientific quest to discover the Remedy, Astrid leaps at the chance. Finally, she can have exactly what she wants—or can she? At Gordian headquarters deep in France, Astrid begins to question everything she had believed: her love for Giovanni, her loyalty to the Cloisters, and—most of all—her duty as a hunter. Should Astrid be saving the world from killer unicorns or saving unicorns from the world?

How did we get this book: ARCs from the publisher

Why did we read this book: We both read and loved Rampant, the first book in Diana Peterfreund’s Unicorn Hunter YA series. We’ve also read two of Diana’s novellas set in the same universe (“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” in the Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology, and “Errant” in the Kiss Me Deadly anthology), and have been similarly pleased. So, when we learned that ARCs of Ascendant would be available at BEA – and that Diana herself would be signing! – we of course were thrilled.


First Impressions:

Ana: I loved Rampant so freaking much and had been waiting for Ascendant with bated breath, hoping for more of the same awesome and to a measure I certainly got what I wanted: the gore of killing vicious unicorns with all the blood, sweat and tears that it entails; difficult life choices; great character development for the main character Astrid. But, and this is something not easy for me to say because of the aforementioned love for the previous book: I also got uneven pacing, crazy over the top subplots and a myriad of unanswered questions about details of the mythology. In the end, although I enjoyed Ascendant, I can’t say I liked it as much as I liked Rampant.

Thea: I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with Ana on this one. I, too, was thrilled for Ascendant‘s release, fueled by my love for Rampant and reinvigorated by the strength of “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” in the recent ZvU anthology. While I enjoyed Ascendant, the plotting was uneven at best (and yes, as Ana says completely over-the-top at times), and in terms of worldbuilding, there were huge, inconsolable jumps in credulity regarding the mythos of the Unicorns and the Hunters. Even in terms of character, something felt missing with Ascendant. Which isn’t to say that it is a readable, generally enjoyable book – but it felt lackluster in comparison to its predecessor. A sophomore slump, if you will.

On the Plot:

Ana: It is a few months since the end of Rampant and Astrid is settling into her role as a Unicorn Hunter with everything that it encompasses: being a virgin while having a hot boyfriend; living in a convent and not being able to go to school (at least for now) ; having to deal with the public side of being a hunter and needing funds and having to answer to those who sponsor them. And then there are the unicorns themselves and how her deep connection to them opens up a can of worms: are the unicorns solely vicious creatures to be killed or are they more than that? When an opportunity arises for Astrid – who always wanted to be a doctor – to be involved with a scientific study of Unicorns she says yes to the offer, even though it means to be involved with the infamous Gordian Pharmaceuticals. Not to mention that Cory, one of her fellow hunters starts to lose her powers, her boyfriend Giovanni has to go back to the US as her ex-boyfriends returns with full force.

I thought the strongest aspect of Rampant lied in the world building, the setting, the strength of the mythology including the choice that each hunter has to make (in order to remain a hunter, they must remain a virgin) as well as the elaborate details regarding each different species of unicorn. Rampant was also very well paced with great action sequences and more introspected coming of age plotlines that were interwoven really well.

Not so much in Ascendant. In terms of pacing, it begins really slowly, then builds up tempo, then again descends into introspective musings which is very good in terms of character development but it also means that everything else is all over the place, and do I mean, all over the place. Whereas the beginning and the ending of the novel deal more with Astrid than anything else, the middle of the novel sees so many subplots being introduced (there is even an amnesia thread! ) that my head was spinning round and round. Some of them are really interesting and I can even get on board of the amnesia subplot but it just felt like a bit too much overall. I read on the author’s website that she is only under contract for two books in the series and I wonder if that would be an explanation for so many things being introduced/happening in the book. Although some are fully realised albeit rushed, others are left wide open to add to my frustration. In my opinion, there is enough material in Ascendant for at least two books and some of the storylines needed more time to be better developed. I do hope for at least another book in the series because some of those have a LOT of potential (the girls back in the convent, the different ways of dealing with unicorns, how Phil is growing up to be a cool donna, etc) and I would love to know more.

Other than that, I had huge problems with some shady details of the mythology regarding the unicorn hunters, most specifically with regards to the Remedy and to their virginity. The Remedy is a cure for everything and its formula has been lost for ages and part of the main storyline is the search for its formula. Towards the end of the novel, its main ingredient is discovered and without spoiling, it comes from getting the “essence” of something that can be constructed as an action. How can someone get the “essence” of an “action” and distil it into something that can be ingested it is never truly explained beyond… it’s MAGIC.

It’s Magic, Michael! MAGIC!

That is incredibly frustrating to me because this is coming from working at a laboratory, in order to scientifically investigate the Remedy. I fully comprehend that magic is a big part of this worldbuilding but the Remedy IS something that is distilled, bottled up and distributed and it does need a formula with ACTUAL ingredients.

Now, with regards to the fact that the unicorn hunters are all female virgins. I enjoy that idea very much because it is 1) different and original (from what is being published) 2) it offers each female character a CHOICE. And that choice is empowering. I also admire the author for having a subplot in which one of the girls has that choice taken away from her and what are the repercussions of that in Rampant. In Ascendant two elements are added to this aspect of the mythology and I am lost as to how to approach them.

First of all, a couple of hunters have come out as lesbians. This is awesome. I love diversity in my reading and I love that the author has different sexual orientations in the book. However. Being a lesbian is presented as a loophole (which is what? Ironic? Funny?) in which the lesbian hunters can get off without losing their powers. One of the girls actually says at one point, that she never even thought of herself as virgin for years now. The implication of this to me is that: lesbian sex is not real sex? And that is a problem.

Second, now that the truth about the existence of Unicorns are out in the open, recruiting potential hunters is a difficult task because many choose to lose their virginities rather than become hunters. That is all good, because it is their choice. BUT, I have another problem with the manner in which they are losing their virginity: ie with a male by breaching their hymen. Because you know, it is the ONLY way. Oh wait it is not: what about fingers, vibrators, etc? That these girls (even the lesbian ones) are losing their virginity to guys they hardly know without ever considering other methods, actually takes back all the empowerment that the mythology in principle gives them.

Doesn’t it?

Thea: Well, Ana certainly covered many of the same issues I had in terms of plotting. Although, on that last note, while I am uncomfortable with the implication that lesbian sex isn’t “real sex” (and I wonder, had this been a story about male virgin unicorn hunters, could gay male sex be seen as the same loophole? Is it the act of penetration – or the presence of a penis? – that busts the magic, or is it a two-genders-must-play thing? We already know that “love” or affection doesn’t matter as male-female rape destroys unicorn huntress ability. But, I digress!) the “Goddess loophole” is not entirely unfamiliar. It’s something I’ve seen before, for example in Wonder Woman comics or other Amazon/Female Warrior type societies/myths/books. Whether that is empowering (women CAN have healthy sexual relationships AND keep their innate abilities) or disenfranchising (lesbian sex isn’t REAL sex) is a matter of interpretation.

But that is just one portion of Ascendant‘s plot that is puzzling. I will be frank – I was very, very bored with the first third of this book. Forcedly introspective (which I’ll get into in the character section) and slow-moving, I wondered when things would start to make sense. Because, in addition to the problems Ana mentions above, I felt that Ascendant has a significant credibility issue, moreso than Rampant. First, on the basic level, the idea of Unicorn Hunters and unicorns starts to unravel in this second book. Given that Hunters can actually control unicorns with their thoughts, and that there are even scenes where Astrid thinks of herself as Diana, controlling a herd of unicorns, doesn’t it make more sense that Unicorns and Hunters work together? Yes, unicorns are dangerous creatures, much as, I’d imagine, dragons would have been. But when you take into account how much stronger a Hunter is around a unicorn, and how unicorns are drawn to hunters and listen to their thoughts, the innate “animosity” between the two doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t Hunters at some point in the past have worked with Unicorns to, I don’t know, fight off injustices or win wars or gain territory or whatever? In the history of the world, the only person to do this was…Alexander the Great? A dude? How did that work in the first place? It just does not compute. I understand the appeal of the series is to view unicorns in a different light (as “killers”), but on a basic, logical level, it does not compute. Not when both hunters and unicorns have so much to gain with each other.

Furthermore, in this second novel, Killer Unicorns are known the world over and are starting to appear EVERYWHERE – from suburban playgrounds in middle america to Manhattan, to countryside France, to London, etc. My question is simple: WHY? Why now? Why are unicorns suddenly all over the freakin’ place, especially if they are supposed to be an incredibly rare, even endangered, species? What has happened in Astrid’s time that has caused unicorns to “come out of the closet?” Surely it isn’t the expansion of cities – because wouldn’t their presence have been noted during, say the Industrial Revolution? Or how about those pesky World Wars? WHY?

And unfortunately, the only answer is what Ana also mentioned above. MAGIC.

Magic is great. I love books with magic. I love magical systems and rules and hierarchies and convoluted spells and definitions. I dig those things. But what I’m not so keen for? When “MAGIC!” is used as a one-size-fits-all explanation for anything that happens. How is the Remedy made and “collected”? MAGIC! How are unicorns appearing simultaneously across disparate parts of the world, reproducing, and suddenly attacking humans? Uh…MAGIC! That’s not to say there aren’t more detailed descriptions of magic in the book – a unicorn huntress’s powers, for example, are wonderfully detailed and tangible in Ascendant. But so many other factors are waved away as “magic” and that, folks, is incredibly frustrating.

And then there’s the melodramatic factor. I don’t want to spoil what happens near the end of the book, but suffice to say it left me, as it left Astrid, foggy. There are so many unanswered questions and tangential plot lines crammed into Ascendant (Cory’s mysterious illness, more of Astrid’s lineage and relatives, a whole new class of magical human, activists against unicorn testing…you get the picture), and as an unfortunate effect of overcrowding, none of them reached fruition. Had these been spread out across a longer series? Maybe. As it stands, though, Ascendant‘s plot feels manic-depressive and schizophrenic.

On the Characters:

Ana: I had problems with certain aspects of the plot, pacing and world building but Astrid saved the book for me. Astrid has to do some major soul searching in this book. After accepting her role as a hunter in Rampant she now has to live with that decision and what does that mean. And there is a lot of conflict her. For example: wanting to go back to school but not having a school available to take on the hunters in Rome. Her need to become a doctor versus her hunting skills – both presume saving lives ultimately but what happens when the Unicorns become a greater part of the equation and not exactly as the monsters that they are supposed to be?

There is clash between not wanting to kill the unicorns or a hunter and actually liking the sheers power of being one. I greatly empathised with her conflict between her resurging feelings for her ex (because it turns out he knew what it like to have power) and her feelings for Giovanni (because he knew what it was like to be normal) even though I really don’t like either boy. That makes Astrid an even more complex character who makes mistakes over and over again – some of them frustratingly so (like trusting people too soon) but always in a very earnest way. Astrid is also at the centre of that exploration between the greater good x the needs of individuals (or a group of unicorns) and I enjoyed those aspects of the novel very much.

I did miss the other girls though and wished to see more of them especially Astrid’s relationship with Cory and Phil.

Thea: I am torn with Astrid. As I said above, I was incredibly bored with the first third or so of this book, and that is because Astrid is…well, boring. First, there’s the problem that I don’t particularly like Astrid – not that this is a necessary condition for a good book because there are many characters that I don’t like, but that’s doesn’t mean the character or the book isn’t well written. Which brings me to my second problem with Astrid – I felt that her characterization felt forcedly introspective (and in retrospect with the last development of the book, I think this was intentional to show a contrast between before-Astrid and after-Astrid; it just wasn’t very effective or well done), with frequently odd transitions and “voice” issues. My first problem with Astrid, in terms of her likability as a character, can be summed up with one early passage in the book. In a letter to Giovanni, Astrid writes:

Dear Giovanni,

I’d send you an e-mail, but wouldn’t you know, they don’t have Internet in this tree stand. So instead I scribble on this paper, back to the trunk and feet dangling out over the forest floor…and hope that nothing happens to make what I say irrelevant by the time I get home and have time to type this in.

You know, like me dying during the hunt. Or breaking my neck.

Ugh. This martyrdom. This self-preoccupation. Granted, Astrid is risking life and limb to keep mankind safe from the “unicorn menace” and is entitled to some self-indulgence. But dude. This happens all throughout the book (followed by a round of “All I want to do is go to SCHOOL and be a DOCTOR!” – I’m paraphrasing) and it drives me batty. Add to this the issue of Astrid’s intelligence – because for a self-proclaimed school geek and a supposedly intelligent individual, she falls for the stupidest shit, repeatedly. I won’t divulge exactly what (or whom) these stupid shits are, but it’s exasperating. Of course, this criticism is a personal opinion. It is my own subjective view and not particularly relevant in a critique of a book as doubtless some people love Astrid and find her self-preoccupation touching or endearing or whatever. Heck, Astrid probably was meant to come across as a flawed and human character. That’s fine! Just for me personally, Astrid was about as textured, deep and exciting as industrial paint.

BUT, that’s not really important. What is important and relevant to a critique is my second, objective problem with Astrid’s characterization: that is, the problem of Astrid’s forced voice and lack of genuineness. There are these lapses in voice across the book which makes Astrid read less like a teenage Unicorn Hunter and more like…well, someone else. For example:

How could I say this to him? Giovanni, who called me Astrid the Warrior and said I was the bravest person he’d ever known. What else could this confession be but cowardice?


“I am not my husband, Astrid,” Isabeau said. “I do not know how to convince you of this but to repeat the ways in which this is so.”

I looked away. This was true, and perhaps it was uncharitable of me to snap at her like that.

Does anyone – does any modern teen – actually think in this syntax, or in this manner? This problem isn’t limited to Astrid, either. Take a speech from Cory, for another example:

“Because to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I much mind the other drawbacks. I find I don’t miss hunting.”

Huh? This sentence structure makes grammatical sense, but does it sound like a supposedly curmudgeonly modern (even a non-American) teen’s voice? Not really. Stuff like this is off-putting and unconvincing.

But, off the technicalities and onto the general character arc that Ana talks about. I agree that in theory Astrid’s troubles and her growth is endearing stuff. But for me, her introspective struggles over her need to keep humanity safe from unicorns and came across as whiny and self-indulgent as opposed to soul-searching and thought-provoking; her growth as a character felt stilted and lacking integrity. As the book progresses (before the Astrid’s Big Developmental Turning Point), I do think Astrid gains some depth and relatability….but too little, too late.

I did, however, like that Ms. Peterfreund did not feel the need to create a cast of perfect-pretty-happy characters. Take Giovanni, for example. He is not some perfect boyfriend, knight in shining armor – unlike his female counterparts, he very much acts his age. And I admire that Ms Peterfreund goes there.

Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:

Ana: In the end, I didn’t enjoy Ascendant as much as I enjoyed Rampant. It was a good read, especially when it came to Astrid’s arc (or arcs) but some aspects of the plot and worldbuilding bothered me. I really do hope she carries on with the series.

Thea: I finished Ascendant and was generally entertained – but it did suffer from a number of issues that prevented me from really and truly liking the book. I can only hope that there is another book at some point in the future to see if Astrid and company can bounce back.

Notable Quotes/Parts: Courtesy of HarperTeen’s Browse Inside feature, you can read a nice meaty excerpt using the widget below:

Alternatively, you can read the excerpt HERE.


Ana: 6 – Good

Thea: 5 – Meh

Reading Next: Double Cross by Carolyn Crane

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  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    September 23, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Isn’t Cory British? That might explain her dialogue. In any event, I’ve reviewed this for next week and agree with you both on certain points. The Remedy thing was definitely strange…

  • Malinda Lo
    September 23, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Oh, ouch! I am so bummed that you guys didn’t like ASCENDANT. I really loved it (so much that I blurbed it). Obviously, everybody reacts to a given book differently. I’ll just say that I thought the lesbian loophole was hilarious and brilliant. I can see why you might have been offended by it. But I thought the loophole was an excellent way to drive home how patriarchal and heterosexist the whole unicorn hunter law is. It was invented way back in the day, right? But now it’s 2010, and Astrid and her contingent have to deal with a system put in place long before gay rights or feminism. So the loophole, IMO, was a great way to illustrate how ridiculous notions of virginity are. My 2 cents.

  • Thea
    September 23, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Erica – D’oh. Fixed in the review. My criticism still stands, though – a lot of the book and character voices felt unnatural, inconsistent and inauthentic. Of course, maybe that’s just me. Ascendant has been getting rave reviews, and that’s awesome. To me, the characterizations felt…off. But, of course, that’s just me 🙂

    Malinda – To each their own! I’m glad that you enjoyed the book, and I’m sure many others will, too 🙂 I do have a question, though:

    But I thought the loophole was an excellent way to drive home how patriarchal and heterosexist the whole unicorn hunter law is. It was invented way back in the day, right? But now it’s 2010, and Astrid and her contingent have to deal with a system put in place long before gay rights or feminism. So the loophole, IMO, was a great way to illustrate how ridiculous notions of virginity are.

    My question is with the idea of hunter law being “invented.” Invented by whom? Some God-creature that is inherently sexist/anti-gay? A society of male magicians that gave/cursed women to fight unicorns? I guess my issue, and Ana’s too, is that there is no inventor for these rules. They simply are – and does that in turn mean that magic itself is misogynistic and anti-gay?

    It’s an interesting thought. I’m really curious as to what you think!

  • katiebabs
    September 23, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Why do I have the song, “The Remedy” stuck in my head now?

  • Michelle M
    September 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Wow. This was an awesome review guys. Truly. Even though I liked RAMPANT as a whole, I still had some issues with it and I’m sad to see ASCENDANT doesn’t really clear them up. Astrid has always been a bit blah from the get-go for me too. Oh well.

    I don’t have “The Remedy” stuck in my head like Katiebabs now — I’ve got “The Final Countdown”…

  • Malinda Lo
    September 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    My question is with the idea of hunter law being “invented.” Invented by whom? Some God-creature that is inherently sexist/anti-gay? A society of male magicians that gave/cursed women to fight unicorns? I guess my issue, and Ana’s too, is that there is no inventor for these rules. They simply are – and does that in turn mean that magic itself is misogynistic and anti-gay?

    It’s been a while since I’ve read RAMPANT, and several months since I read ASCENDANT, so I can’t remember exactly. But I don’t think Diana Peterfreund explicitly says who invented the whole unicorn magic thing. What I do think is that the time period during which it was invented was definitely a time of misogyny and heterosexism. Actually, the vast majority of human history falls into that category. So for me, yes, I think the unicorn magic is misogynistic, and I’ve believed that since RAMPANT. I mean, it’s based on the idea of female virginity, which has been a Tool of the Patriarchy since the dawn of time, right? 🙂

    The question is: Can women use these powers, even if they’re based in misogyny, for their own betterment? I’m going to verge into Buffy territory now … like the whole “there is only one slayer” thing was great at the beginning, but why should there be only one? There was no reason, except that it was invented at a time when women were oppressed, and giving only one woman power was better than giving it to all. Until Willow comes along in season 7 … Anyway, sorry to go all Whedonverse on you!

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