Rampant by Diana Peterfreund is a young adult fantasy novel chock-full of strong teen girl characters. We've seen other novels in which the villains are fairies, vampires, and zombies. In Rampant, the villains are vicious, poisonous, clever unicorns. As the story begins, teen Astrid Llewelyn learns that her mother's apparent delusions about the existence of unicorns, and their family's role as legendary unicorn hunters, are actually true. The unicorns, long thought to be extinct, are back, and more dangerous than ever. The only people capable of killing them are women who are a) descendants from a particular set of families; and b) virgins.
Fortunately, or perhaps not, Astrid and her cousin Philippa fit these criteria. They soon find themselves living in a former convent in Rome, with a group of other teens, training to become warriors. And the question of whether or not to have sex with their respective new boyfriends becomes a matter of life or death.
Rampant has a compelling premise and a delightfully creepy setting (the crumbling convent is filled with old unicorn bones and other artifacts). Astrid is a likable protagonist, a gifted hunter who would rather be studying medicine. I found her a bit of a whiny adolescent in the early parts of the book, but she matured throughout the course of the story. The other characters are realistically flawed and diverse. I appreciated the fact that the girls didn't all become best buddies by the end of the book. I liked the pseudo big sister/little sister relationship between Astrid and her cousin. And I loved the way that Phil referred to Astrid by a variety of "astr" nicknames (Asterisk, Asteroid, Astrodome, etc.). I enjoyed the wordplay, and it made the relationship feel real. Astrid's got an occasionally snarky tone that works. For example:
"I was helping Cory, mostly because Neil's office was one of the few places in the Cloisters that didn't make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I found the hum of his computer rather soothing, but it was the complete lack of unicorn carcasses that really pulled the room together." (Page 114)
It's also interesting, of course, to read a book in which virginity, or lack thereof, is openly discussed. There's a scene in which all of the girls talk about why they've remained virgins, and the pressures that they've received to change that situation. I think that Peterfreund does a good job of making this a part of the book, and validating the choices that have enabled this set of girls to remain eligible as unicorn hunters, without ever getting even close to moralistic. There are quotes like this:
"Every time we went out was like some complicated game. What he'd try, when he'd try it, and how I'd stop him without making him mad or doing something I didn't want to do. That's the only thing I thought about every time we were together. Not about the movie we were watching or what we were talking about. Just waiting for him to make a move. It wasn't dating; it was preparing for battle." (Page 235)
I also flagged a number of passages about what it felt like for Astrid to be a hunter - a sort of supernatural set of senses. These passages are among the most lyrical in the book. For instance:
"I didn't feel the stairs, the weight of time, the depths of the darkness. I felt nothing but pursuit, fresh and free. Have you ever run on a moving walkway or escalator and felt yourself careening forward much faster than you could possibly imagine? I was a tidal wave of feet pounding, a lightning bolt of pumping arms. My blood boiled and my vision dimmed, until all I could see was the outline of the zhi. My prey." (Page 62)
"And there, in the space between heartbeats, I sensed it. Not a sound, not a sign, not a feeling, but some combination of all three. Was it the whisper of a breath or a flash of dark on dark in the shadows under the hill? Was the air tinged with the scent of embers and decay? Was it that feeling of the night in the forest back home, where I knew something was watching me, and ignored it, and had paid the price?" (Page 81)
If those passages appeal, if the idea of strong-willed, super-fast unicorn hunters catches your imagination, then Rampant is a must-read title for you. I must admit that I personally found the pacing of Rampant to be a bit slow. While there is action early in the book, in context of individual unicorn encounters, I felt like the overall story didn't really get going until much later in the book. This may be true, in part, because Rampant is (apparently) the first book of a series. There's a lot to set up. But I would still recommend Rampant to fans of supernatural, strong-girl stories (like Graceling, the Mortal Instruments series, and Maggie Stiefvater's books, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.).But beware. You'll never look at sparkly unicorn picture books the same way again.
Publication Date: August 25, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Angieville, Strange Horizons, West Allis Public Library, The Hiding Spot, About Books, Sonder Books, and more.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).