Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Review: Rampant [2009]

I'm sure that unicorns were as much fixture in many young lives of my generation as they were in mine. I was traumatized at the age of five by my first movie, The Last Unicorn, I read The Little White Horse avidly, I had a sister who was addicted to all things equine, my mother's needlework included the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, and of course there was Lisa Frank. In all of these scenarios, however, unicorns were the good guys. That is not the case in Diana Peterfreund's forthcoming young adult novel Rampant, in which unicorns are vicious, man-eating beasts who can only be slain by virginal girls descended from Alexander the Great. Once you get beyond the strangeness of that premise, Peterfreund has created a believable world populated by an engaging cast of characters.

Astrid Llewellyn, our heroine, has been raised by her seemingly crackpot mother to acknowledge the existence of unicorns, but they don't become real to her until an encounter in the woods leaves her (soon to be ex) boyfriend gored and poisoned by the unicorn's potent venom. Soon, Astrid finds herself in Rome at the Cloisters, an ancient training facility for unicorn maidens. She is joined by her cousin, Philippa, and a diverse cast of teenage girls from different parts of the world (with entertainingly archaic names). Various complications ensue: no one is quite sure about the details of the lost art of unicorn hunting, the endeavor is being funded by a shady corporation, and Astrid and Phil begin dating two exchange students. The connection between virgins and unicorns gives Peterfreund the opportunity to explore the girls' conscious choices to remain abstinent, and to present Astrid with a major dilemma. The major theme of Rampant has to do with Astrid's desire to be a healer, rather than a unicorn hunter. History and genetics seem to be pushing her toward a life of violence and death, which she could easily escape by sleeping with her boyfriend. She is forced to make that choice after a particularly harrowing experience leaves her near death. Moments like this raise Rampant above its somewhat oddball premise of killer unicorns and into the realm of serious social commentary.

Peterfreund has clearly done her unicorn research, and as a result the mythology of the narrative is appealingly strong. Although the book has a good mixture of light, humorous moments and dramatic reveals, it occasionally felt unfinished, as if there were yet more to be revealed, or scenes had been excised for length. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Rampant is the first in a series? After the glut of vampires and zombies of the past few years, unicorns are are a refreshing change of pace. Read Rampant if you like Buffy Season 8, Veronica Mars, or Tamora Pierce.

Grade: A-

Random Thoughts:

This ARC was the first book I've read entirely on the computer. I . . . didn't hate it. However, due to DRM restrictions, I could only read it on my laptop at home (and only through my login), so it was frustrating when I was at work and wanted to read more on my lunch break. For the time being, I'll be sticking to tangible books. Thanks to EarlyWord for making the recommendation and enabling me.

The author's website.

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