Rampant by Diana Peterfreund. HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2009. Review copy from publisher.
The Plot: Astrid Llewelyn, sixteen, is minding her own business, making out with her cute boyfriend, when they are attacked by killer unicorns. Turns out, all the “you are descended from mighty unicorn hunters” and “unicorns aren’t friendly they are monsters and killers” stories her mom told her growing up? Were totally true. So now Astrid’s on her way to Rome to train to be a unicorn hunter, instead of being where she wants to be: at home, going to school, studying to be a doctor, and having a boyfriend like a normal person.
The Good: Why did I not read this last year? The only good thing about reading it now is that I then immediately read the sequel, Ascendant (September 2010).
I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon; so I can think of no higher complement than to say that Rampant is Buffyeseque in the best possible way. Talk about girl power! Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters (all female) are fast and strong when they are hunting and fighting unicorns. When a girl isn’t hunting a unicorn? No super powers. So unless there is a unicorn waiting at the end of the track, a unicorn hunter is not also going to be super human at sports.
Not just anyone can be a unicorn hunter; one is born to it, like Astrid and her cousin, Philippa. Only women can be hunters. In addition to the super-skills, a hunter can sense a unicorn and a unicorn can sense a hunter. That explains why Astrid and her boyfriend were attacked: the unicorn sensed her.
Rampant raises questions of destiny and duty versus choice. To decide not to be a unicorn hunter is simple. Only virgins can be hunters. Yet if Astrid takes that step, decides to become “normal,” who does it help except Astrid? There are still unicorns, killing people. It just means there is one less person to do so, and in all honesty, there aren’t that many unicorn hunters around. First is the virgin requirement; but second is that the only girls who are unicorn hunters are all descended from a handful of families (who, according to myth, are all descended from Alexander the Great). Given that is, oh, several thousands of years and tons of generations and people moving hither and yon and last names changing and all sorts of things like that, most of the families are lost. A girl from such a lost bloodline would only know she is a unicorn hunter when she is confronted with an actual unicorn. Which (see above, Astrid and her boyfriend being attacked) is not a pleasant experience for anyone.
Actual unicorns, until recently, had been a bit hard to come by because (if you believe Astrid’s mother) about 150 years ago Clothilde Llewelyn killed the last unicorn. Except, given the attack on Astrid and others around the world, it’s soon clear that the unicorns didn’t become extinct, they just disappeared from view, and now they’re back. Back to a world that doesn’t believe in them, to a world where no girl has trained to hunt them for over 150 years.
Somehow, though, a small group of girls are assembled to start training. To reference Buffy one more time – Rampant is what Buffy Season Seven should have been. Different girls of widely different backgrounds, interests, living together, training together, trying to figure out their roles when there are very little rules. I loved it! Forget vampires, the CW should sign this up as the next teen series.
What else? Peterfreund has created an entire mythology and manages to convey it all the reader without any info-dumps. It’s all woven into the story, helped by the fact that Astrid and her friends are also all discovering this anew. There are lots of real world concerns, like funding the whole boarding-school-for-unicorn-hunters, as well as people trying to figure out, hm, if unicorns are real, what else is real? Turns out there is also a mysterious “Remedy,” somehow made from unicorns, that can cure anything. The story in Rampant is so new, so fresh, so fun, so scary, I just want to keep sharing with you all the awesomeness “and there are five types of unicorns! And the einhorn! And…and…and.”
And the battles! If part of you is thinking of My Pretty Unicorns and giggling at the thought of those pretty princess rainbow unicorns doing any damage, think again. There is blood and gore and death, and exhaustion and scars and recovery.
Oh! And there is Giovanni. Remember Astrid’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book? That’s not Giovanni. Giovanni is the hot guy Astrid meets in Rome. She likes him, they have a good time – and if she needs an out, he’s there…
So in one book: intricate mythology without any distracting dumps of information; scary adventure; family, friendship, love; and killer unicorns. What’s not to love?