August 28, 2013

Review: Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund

Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund
Series: Killer Unicorns, #2
Published: 2010, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Hardcover, 392 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Rampant (my review)
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Domitare Unicorne Indomitum: To Vanquish the Savage Unicorn.
Animam Cognoscere Animalis: To Know the Soul of the Beast.

I'll never doubt the genius of books centered around killer unicorns ever again. Seriously. Diana Peterfreund has made me a believer, which is something I'm certain few authors, given the same task, could have accomplished.

Although Astrid and her fellow unicorn-hunters have successfully eradicated the killer kirin that were hiding out in Italy and stopped their collaboration with the biomedical company Gordian, their problems are far from over. Unicorn attacks are becoming more frequent and, thanks to her mother's publicity stints as a "unicorn expert," Astrid and her fellow hunters are inundated with work. Life inside the convent itself has become increasingly complicated as Astrid struggles with her legacy as a "Llewelyn" hunter, Cory's powers are fading, no new eligible girls are wiling to join their ranks, and Phil, donna of the unicorn hunters, advocates to protect the rights of the unicorns.

Rampant imagines an alternate world where killer unicorns exist and can only be controlled by female virgins of a certain lineage. Ascendant then focuses on the implications of their actions, and the role that unicorn hunters should have within their society. It is in many ways a quieter, more introspective novel. And it's far darker than its predecessor. The focus here isn't on Astrid becoming a unicorn hunter, but rather on the responsibility that Astrid should have to humans, to unicorns, and to herself.

On the whole, I found Ascendant to be an even stronger novel than Rampant. I think the main reason I feel this way is because, at its core, Ascendant isn't really about killer unicorns, virgin huntresses, or a world where the magical clashes with the mundane; rather it is an examination of choice, and how our choices define us much more so than our destinies ever can. Astrid and the other girls originally enter the convent out of curiosity, a knowledge that they're different, special, the only ones who can provide any sort of aid against the killer unicorns. By the end of Rampant, however, it's become abundantly clear that there's no quick fix to the conflict between humans and unicorns, and the girls choose to stay. It's their choice, and many struggle with that knowledge. Astrid certainly does.

Actually, the vast majority of this book can be summed up in two words: Astrid struggles. She struggles to find a balance between her wants and her duties. She struggles to accept that her current life as a unicorn hunter means that she's a high school dropout, that she cannot pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, that she cannot be fully intimate with her boyfriend, that every day she risks her life. That's a lot for anyone to process, and for the most part Astrid handles it all with remarkable aplomb. It is through her questions and small acts of rebellion, however, that Astrid is able to come into her own. Perhaps not all of her choices make sense to me as a reader, but they make sense within the context of Astrid's characterization and situation. Astrid may be blue-eyed, blonde, and reluctant to utilize her power at first, but over the course of these two novels she's grown into a heroine who is far from derivative.

Ascendant introduces new moral dilemmas for Astrid and her fellow hunters, specifically with in the form of how far their duties extend. Are they trying to simply prevent unicorn attacks on humans? Is there a way that humans and unicorns can coexist, or are the hunters meant to drive the unicorns into extinction? Astrid's unease at the systematic killing of unicorns, along with her desire to use the reemergence of unicorns for some good, causes her to leave the convent for a significant portion of the book. Being away from the Order of the Lioness and working with a new type of unicorn, einhorns, makes for a slower-moving plot, but one that is more compelling for all the questions of morality that surface.

The small issue I had with Ascendant was related to the romance. I actually enjoyed the romance between Astrid and Giovanni in the first book, and the questions and implications it brought forth were well done. Here, Giovanni and Astrid are forced into a long and drawn-out long-distance relationship. Not only that, but a love triangle forms. The relevant and important questions related to female agency, sexuality, duty, and more feel a bit rehashed in this book, and it just doesn't seem as important to Astrid's development here, certainly not for the length of time that the novel devotes to this love triangle.

One of the primary reasons I decided to give Peterfreund's Killer Unicorn series a try was because it was a duology, but I'd be very happy if another installment gets written at some point. The conclusion itself is very fitting, but a lot of subplots are left unresolved. 

As should be clear from my reviews of Rampant and Ascendant, I was quite surprised by this duology. Surprised, but pleased. There are so many different ways in which this series could have turned cliched, campy, or flat-out terrible, and yet the story only got better as it progressed. Peterfreund skillfully weaves together history, mythology/folklore, and her own elements in a well-crafted and intelligent story. I'll do my best to make sure it gains the recognition it deserves, and I encourage you to do your part by giving this book a chance.

Rating: 4.5 stars
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Yay for an even stronger sequel, but BOO for a love triangle. I'm utterly torn now. I'm going to be giving this series a try for sure, though I suspect the direction the romance takes in this will grate on me more than it did you. Still, I'm excited to see the story is stronger in every other way, so I can't wait to get started on this. Thanks for introducing me to this series, Amanda!(:

    1. Perhaps my review was slightly misleading. The romantic angle was a little annoying for me, but I do understand why Peterfreund does it and it makes sense within the context of the novel, even if it is a bit rehashed. Like I said though, compared to everything else this series has going for it, I thought the romantic issues were small. I look forward to seeing what you think of this one, Keertana!

  2. Well I am pleased to see that this book was stronger than the first, and that it has added depth to the character. I can see in your review that this author likes to focus on certain themes, which is one reason that I love her other series. However, I'm not sure I could handle this love triangle that crops up throughout the entire book. You know how I feel about those. However, I'm so glad that this was a winner for you. Also, I'm happy that it's a duology!

    1. You like good love triangles though. Don't let that be the only thing dissuading you from reading this one! Maybe try reading the first and if you're invested enough in it, then you can decide to continue on (or not).


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