Happy Thanksgiving/Black Friday/Cyber Monday to my American friends! For this week’s Birthday Month Author Spotlight on Diana Peterfreund, I have reviews of Diana’s Killer Unicorn books for you – and a couple of signed books to give away!
Author: Diana Peterfreund
Publication date: Aug 25, 2009
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Rampant starts with what I call the classic horror movie sequence – the baby-sitter making out with her boyfriend, then getting attacked – but turned on its head. Because Astrid, our heroine, isn’t some dumb blonde – she’s a teen scientist who wants to be a doctor. And Brandt, the boyfriend she’s meeting in the forest (who really wants to have sex with her)? Well, he seems a bit like a beefcake with about two brain cells, but within minutes of them necking, he’s been stabbed by a vicious unicorn and he’s slowly turning purple and spraying blood.
We quickly discover that Astrid’s mother has long been a believer in killer unicorns – in fact, she taught Astrid to be scared of them, and she is doing research on just this topic. So naturally, Astrid calls her mother, who seems to know just what to do. She comes by, gives Brandt some sort of weird potion, and he’s healed.
News of this obviously breaks out all over school – that some weird creature stabbed Brandt, and Astrid gave him drugs to make it go away. Lilith, Astrid’s mother, is ecstatic, while Astrid is basically ostracized and dumped by Brandt. Lilith hears about sightings of unicorns all over the place, and believes that this is a re-emergence of them after hundreds of years of extinction. The background is that only unicorn hunters can see or hunt unicorns, and to be a unicorn hunter, you have to be a virgin and a female descendant of Alexander the Great.
Astrid is one of them. Her great- (x10 or something) grandmother Clothilde was actually killed by the last of the biggest types of unicorns, the karkadann, so the bloodline runs strong in Astrid. Luckily – or unluckily, Lilith discovers that an ancient unicorn hunting training ground at the Cloisters of Ctesias in Rome is reopening, and Astrid is sent there, along with her cousin Phil and several other girls, to train to battle these dangerous unicorns. Along the way, she finds out that there’s a big corporation called Gordian Pharmaceuticals funding the unicorn hunters, with scientist and head honcho Marten Jaeger at the helm.
So, training montage, right? A little bit, but there’s a lot more going on here. Rampant is so much more than just an action-packed paranormal, save-the-world kind of thing. Here’s why:
- The unicorn mythology – guys, the whole virgin-descendants-of-Alexander as unicorn hunters thing is really cool. It sounds kind of weird, but then it gets in your head, and Diana’s descriptions of the history are really well placed within the book. The mythology gets even cooler when you throw in the idea that Alexander was, like, the ultimate alpha-male, and he was rumored to have ridden a karkadann named Bucephalus that Clothilde Llewelyn eventually killed. Astrid meets a bunch of different unicorns, including a karkadann in Rampant, and let me tell you, they are AWESOME. Read and tell me you don’t want a zhi stuffed toy.
- The girl power and feminist issues – kick-ass females who have special powers and are the only people in the world who can hunt deadly unicorns? Yeah, this is a book about girl power. But more than just girl power, Rampant deals with the conflict between a woman’s desire and what a woman has to do for “duty.” Because the unicorn hunters must remain virgins in order to have their special powers, Peterfreund injects a lot about the why of sex and both the social and physical issues involved in women’s bodies. And man, are those issues well explored.
- The romance – of course there’s a romance – it’s YA! =) But this is not the easiest YA romance. Giovanni Cole (Italian mother, but American) catches Astrid’s eye when they’re out and about in Rome, and they begin a romance. Unfortunately, the whole virginity thing immediately becomes an issue – not because Astrid is so willing to sleep with Giovanni, but because it’s always in the back of her mind. But don’t get me wrong – the scenes between Giovanni and Astrid are pretty smokin’ – especially in their waiting, wanting and yearning for more.
- The story arc – Ok, so we have unicorn hunters who have to remain virgins, training and learning about themselves, getting into romances, not to mention that a bunch of other unicorn hunters who each have their own interests, personalities and backstories get introduced. And on top of all that, we have Gordian Pharmaceuticals, who’s running the show, and who have, shall we say, interesting ideas of how to use unicorns and unicorn hunters. Yeah, there’s a lot going on here.
- The questioning of accepted ideas – What I really loved about Rampant was that even with the re-emergence of unicorns and the fact that Astrid, her cousin Philippa and the other unicorn hunters are at the Cloisters getting training like the virgins of so long ago, they never stop asking questions about why they’re doing what they’re doing, and whether it’s even right for them to be killing unicorns. This really forms the basis for the book – it’s not about the killer unicorns or the action (even though those are great) – it’s actually about what happens and how people react when they find out their “destinies.”
The other thing is, I didn’t feel like Rampant ended on a cliffhanger, which is incredibly refreshing considering the number of cliffhanger-y, aching feelings I get reading YAs. =) I wanted to know what came next, but I didn’t feel desperate. But maybe that was just me?
Author: Diana Peterfreund
Publication date: Aug 25, 2009
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Ascendant came out a year after Rampant did. This is where the series became great for me, because I felt that Rampant sort of followed a familiar trajectory – girl gets caught in situation, girl discovers her secret powers, girl goes to train, girl saves the world and gets a boy to boot. Yes, there were a lot of AWESOME extras in Rampant that really made it stand out – see the points above – but it did feel like a familiar story.
Ascendant was different. It continues to address a lot of the things I mentioned above, but instead of being about training and discovering power and saving the world, Ascendant speaks a lot more to the life of the mind, and Astrid’s true nature. She doesn’t want to – has never wanted to be a unicorn hunter. She wants nothing more than to not be a unicorn hunter, especially as Giovanni has gone back home to the US. Astrid feels like she’s stuck at the Cloisters, fending off unicorns and risking her life with every turn.
But then she unexpectedly re-meets Brandt, and she discovers that there might be another way she can help the with the Re-emergence. Astrid is a healer and a scientist, and from the beginning she was interested in searching for the Remedy. She gets that chance in this book, and what she discovers is so overpowering that I had to put down the book and walk around in shock for a few minutes.
This is where the mythology of the unicorns and unicorn hunters pays off. What Astrid discovers and how she reacts is so original and inventive and different from anything I’ve read in YA. It’s a response that is respectful to women and animals, and changes the outlook of the rest of the series.
I’ve talked a lot about the issues and the storyline, but not about the writing. Peterfreund’s writing is achingly clean. Astrid’s voice is as pragmatic as I would expect a future doctor’s to be, and her characterization as the books go on is completely understandable. In Ascendant, I feel like the pains and pressures of being a unicorn hunter really get to her, but they also become infinitely more real to the reader. The stakes are higher, and Peterfreund delivers by writing nuanced prose that conveys the confusion (oh, God, so much confusion), clarity, and ferocity that makes Astrid who she is. I was shocked by the number of FEELINGS I had by the end of the book. The final lines have stayed with me in the last few years since the book was published.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the series. HarperTeen only bought two of the three books in the trilogy, so we’re left not knowing how Astrid’s story ends, and that is frustrating. But still, even though the series isn’t done, these books are worth reading NOW.
Basically, if you like Buffy, if you like YA, and if you want a really good paranormal book that has romance, action, mythology and ISN’T about werewolves or zombies or vampires…pick up Rampant and Ascendant. Or sign up below to win! Diana has generously offered to send a signed copy of Rampant or a signed copy of Ascendant to two winners. You’ll also get some awesome swag from her. Open Internationally.
Do it, you know you want to.