Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
Series: Killer Unicorns, #1
Published: 2009, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Hardcover, 402 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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Amazing how being bathed in arterial blood can wash out any lingering romantic disappointments.
Killer. Unicorns. Together now: killer unicorns. Those are two words that should not and could not be paired together, at least in my mind. Yet Peterfreund does just that in her novel Rampant, and with no small degree of success.
Astrid Llewelyn has grown up being the one girl who didn't enjoy hearing about unicorns. Ever since she was little, her mother has filled her head with supposedly true stories of evil unicorns who attacked humans with their sharp teeth and venomous horns. And the knowledge that they are descended from the greatest unicorn hunter of all, Clothilde, who drove the unicorns to extinction a few hundred years ago. Her mother's obsession with the history of unicorns and unicorn-hunting hasn't afforded Astrid the most stable life. Her mother chose to focus on stories of unicorns rather than complete her PhD, and with an absent and unknown father, Astrid has had to rely on her mother getting part-time jobs and her uncle's support. Astrid, however, has carefully cultivated a future for herself over recent years and plans on eventually becoming a doctor.
But when Astrid runs into a unicorn one night in the woods that bows to her in deference and then attempts to kill her boyfriend, she realizes that not only are all of her mother's stories have to be true, but as a descendent of hunters she's at risk. She therefore begrudgingly follows her mother's wishes in traveling to Rome to learn how to become a hunter, for self-defense if nothing else. There she meets other girls in similar situations and becomes involved in a life she never thought possible.
When I was younger, I had a bit of an obsession with horses and their mythical unicorn and pegasi counterparts. I loved the original My Little Pony TV show and movies (although don't get me started on the more recent adaptations). I had tons of figurines of the equine variety on my shelves. I gobbled up Bruce Coville's Unicorn Chronicles (and apparently two new books have been released in this series since then...I know what I'll be picking up soon!), and, later, Peter Beagle's lovely The Last Unicorn. I took horseback riding lessons. The Unicorn Tapestries are my favorite, ever. Through all of this, I've only ever experienced gentle unicorns, so upon hearing the premise of Rampant, I was more than a little flustered. Unicorns aren't evil; they can't be!
Fortunately, however, Peterfreund doesn't necessarily want her readers to think so, either. Sure, the unicorns that she creates are dangerous and predatory, but that's more due to their nature than to any malicious intent. Or at least that's how I'm choosing to interpret this, and it's the gradual conclusion that protagonist Astrid herself forms over the course of the novel. Unicorns eat meat and simply aren't bothered by the fact that what they sometimes eat may be human-owned or a human itself. They also find themselves drawn to hunters, just as hunters can sense the presence of nearby unicorns. Peterfreund establishes the idea that unicorns can certainly be a major threat to humans, but not that they're evil per se, which I appreciated.
What I loved best about Rampant was its focus on gender roles/expectations in our modern times. On the most basic level, Rampant is about empowerment. The only people who are able to kill unicorns are young females, which is pretty awesome. By looking just a little bit more into this form of empowerment, however, there are quite a few troubling aspects. Sure, young females descended from the line of Alexander the Great himself are the only ones able to take on unicorns, but only if they're eligible. What this essentially means is only if they're virgins. Here Peterfreund plays on the old and well-known trope of unicorns being attracted by virginal maidens. But this story takes place in modern times, and so the focus on virginity becomes both antiquated and problematic. The characters, however, are aware of the stereotypes and unfairness of their situation. They gripe. They rebel. At one point Astrid even considers finding an "Acteon" (a man to sleep with simply to lose her eligibility as a hunter). The hunters' individual decisions to stay, regardless of their beliefs in destiny and the personal sacrifices they must make, is ultimately what empowers them.
For the most part, the inclusion of unicorns in our modern-day world is not wholly unbelievable. Peterfreund certainly does have tons of historical and artistic materials to use in validation of the existence of unicorns within this world, and all that history is put to good use. In Astrid's world there are four types of unicorns: the zhi (they seem the most like what we typically expect unicorns to look like), the kirin, the re'em, and the karkaadan. I enjoyed learning about each of them and figuring out how these various unicorn itinerations can be found throughout history.
The irony here is that if the story was instead about the life of Astrid's ancestor Clothilde, I would have been much more interested in the novel. I did quite enjoy the reading experience as it was, but I prefer my fantasy to be high fantasy and take place in an older sort of world. Nonetheless, Astrid is a strong and likable protagonist, even if she does fit into the mold of the reluctant heroine. I really appreciated Astrid's love of medicine, from her trying to reproduce the Remedy (which would save non-hunters pierced by an alicorn from death) to her worries about missing school and how that affects her chances to get into med school.
Rampant pleasantly surprised me. This is a refreshingly unique fantasy that retains quite a bit of depth and manages to avoid becoming campy or ridiculous. Recommended for those who are tired of traditional paranormal tropes and are seeking a fantasy outside of the usual high fantasy fare.
Rating: 4 stars