Killer unicorns. I heard those words and Diana Peterfreund's fifth novel—about man-eating unicorns and a group of teenage girls who are the only ones with the power to hunt them—vaulted to the top of my to-be-read list as the most original premise I've encountered this year.
Happily, there is even more to the book (which has a sequel coming in 2010) than its just plain cool concept. It manages to be both fun and weighty, weaving discussions of sexuality and identity in with quick dialogue and kick-ass battle scenes.
Sixteen-year-old Astrid Llewelyn has been raised by her unicorn-fixated mother to think of unicorns as monsters with poisonous horns, rather than the gentle, pastel-colored creatures of fantasy stories. But she's also been taught that her great-great-great-great-great aunt Clothilde killed the last unicorn a hundred and fifty years ago.
So when Astrid comes across a goat-sized unicorn in the woods, she's confused. Her confusion quickly turns to terror when the unicorn, which nuzzled her hand and allowed her to scratch behind its ears, attacks her boyfriend, stabbing him in the leg with its horn. Astrid's quick thinking and her mother's vial of the Remedy, a substance that cures unicorn poison, saves her boyfriend's life, only for him to turn around and ruin her reputation at school with rumors.
It hardly matters, because Astrid's mother is ready for her to claim her birthright. The Llewelyns' family line stretches back to Alexander the Great, and in an interesting re-imagining of the link between virgins and unicorns, in Peterfreund's world, Alexander's virgin female descendants are the only people with the power to hunt unicorns. Astrid's mother, Lilith, packs her off to the Cloisters of Ctesias in Rome, a training school for girls from the twelve unicorn hunter lineages. Shuttered after Clothilde's final battle, it has been reopened to deal with the reemergence of the unicorn population. A company called Gordian, which hopes to rediscover the Remedy through research on unicorns and hunters, is bankrolling the training school.
Even having been raised on her mother's stories, Astrid is unprepared for all she finds at the cloisters. Unicorn bones embedded in the walls and furniture give off a strange hum that causes Astrid and the other hunters physical pain. The school keeps a zhi, the smallest type of unicorn, to test the virginity of each potential hunter, and while vicious to non-hunters, the unicorn is as gentle toward the cloister residents as any other pet. And Astrid, never a particularly gifted athlete, finds that when a unicorn is near, she possesses extraordinary speed and strength.
Sex and abstinence are obviously going to play a role in a book where virginity is one of the qualifications for the job of unicorn hunter, and Peterfreund logically and carefully explores the issues. The hunters discuss frankly their various reasons for remaining abstinent long enough to become unicorn hunters. Two of the hunters, Astrid and her cousin Phil (short for Philippa), who joins her at the cloisters shortly after her arrival, also push the boundaries of the unicorn hunter rules by finding boyfriends on their first night out in Rome. Seth and Giovanni, American students in a language immersion program, take a liking to Phil and Astrid, respectively. After a few setbacks, Giovanni turns out to be the most respectful and understanding boyfriend a unicorn hunter could wish for. But Seth does not. He pressures Phil and ultimately rapes her. Phil's confusion about the experience—how it could have happened after she'd repeatedly said no to Seth; whether it even really qualified as rape—seems realistic, though the emotional fallout Phil must have experienced doesn't get much attention in the flurry of unicorn hunting and evil-defeating that follows.
As in her first four books, the Secret Society Girl series, which explore what happens when the first class to include women is tapped for a university secret society, in Rampant Peterfreund excels at ensemble casting. Astrid herself is appealing, with hints of Buffy, Alanna, and other independent-minded fantasy heroines. But the secondary characters are at times even more entertaining. Phil, spunky, peppy, and always ready with a cheesy nickname for Astrid, is the most delightful character in the book. Bonegrinder, the domesticated unicorn that shares the cloisters with the hunters, has plenty of personality despite never saying a word. Cory, Astrid's roommate and fellow hunter, is as obsessed with unicorn lore and hunter lineages as Astrid's mother, but she comes across as endearingly quirky rather than wacky.
In fact, Astrid's mother was the one character in the book who I felt got short shrift. At the start of the book, Astrid thinks of her mother as unicorn-obsessed to the point of delusion, and even once her unicorn stories turn out to be truth, Lilith Llewelyn doesn't develop much further. She is willing, even eager, to send Astrid into danger in the name of unicorn hunting. Once Lilith realizes just how much danger her daughter is in, she changes her tune, but she does so in a way that continues to be over the top. She's an entertaining character, reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice's Mrs. Bennet. But she seems out of place in a book that is otherwise so realistic, even in its most fantastic moments.
Lilith's inability to understand the realities of unicorn hunting makes it relatively easy for Astrid to break with her—but that turns out to be one of the few simple decisions Astrid is faced with over the course of the book. As she learns to shoot arrows and wield swords, Astrid also wrestles with questions of identity. As she wonders at one point, "Astrid the warrior, Daughter of Alexander, descendant of Clothilde Llewelyn, unicorn hunter—these were the names everyone else had given me. Were they my names? Were they me?" (p. 344) Unicorn hunting turns out to be a cool but complicated destiny.