Review of RAMPANT by DIANA PETERFREUND
At first, RAMPANT seems like a twist on unicorn mythology; in Peterfreund’s portrayal unicorns are violent, aggressive, and deadly. However, as the author herself points out, her version of the unicorn is actually the more historically accurate one. Astrid, our protagonist, discovers that she descends from a long line of unicorn hunters and a reemergence of the bloodthirsty beasts forces her into a lifestyle that she can’t even comprehend.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I’ve heard only good things, but for some reason it fell a little flat for me. All of my criticisms are specific, petty complaints that individually can’t ruin a book for me, but together kept me from being enveloped into this imagined world. After some thought, I realized all the little details that distracted me can be summarized into two main points: the story often felt both unbelievable and contrived. However, because the book raises such imperative topics with an incredible candor I still consider it a worthwhile read.
The fact that I found a book about killer unicorns unbelievable deserves a mental chuckle, but fellow readers, especially fantasy readers, know what I mean. I have read many books with preposterous, ridiculous, or plain silly premises that somehow suspend any skepticism and unfold a “what if” in your mind like it really could be an alternate universe just out of our reach. I wanted RAMPANT to be one of those books where each character, setting, conversation, and action comes with a clear mental picture that will forever live on in my mind, but I found myself constantly distracted by little things. In particular I wanted to picture these unicorns, since they clearly differ from standard depictions, but descriptions sometimes clashed and I could never form a mental image. The chaotic action scenes also left me confused and I often had to re-read passages multiple times. Astrid’s voice never clicked into place; she always felt more like a character than a person and for that matter a character trying a little too hard to be a teenager. I often struggled to follow her sudden mood or opinion changes and couldn’t understand the logic behind her actions and decisions. Other characters suffered similar fallbacks. Caricatures is too harsh an assessment since all of them are so close to feeling realistic, but some tiny detail in each made them fall short of convincing me.
Whenever I use “contrived” to describe a book, I mean that I’m too aware of the author. The story wasn’t quite fleshed out enough and I often saw major events as mere plot devices, which detracted from any emotional impact. I can’t explain why, but I foresaw Astrid’s cousin Philippa’s latter role in the story as soon as she was introduced. I also wanted to know more about how magic works, why unicorns behave the way they do, and why only certain families can hunt them. It really bothered me that Astrid and the others simply go along with murdering unicorns, because people tell them they must do so without any additional explanation. It’s only at the end of the book that Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters begin asking questions I feel they should have asked before they ever picked up a weapon.
I still think this book is worth reading! Despite the fact that I never fell in love with the story the way I anticipated, I found it enjoyable throughout. Yet even that isn’t why I consider this book worth reviewing and recommending. RAMPANT contains some primal themes and the nature of its premise allows for a much franker discussion of sensitive topics than teenagers, or adults for that matter, are likely to find many other places. The subjects I want to mention are sex (which is really an umbrella label for a LOT of different discussions) and endangered species.
One part of unicorn mythology that stays fairly consistent is the creature’s fascination with female virgins. In RAMPANT and countless tales before, virgin girls pacify the wild, hostile unicorns and, thus, are often used as hunting tools: the bait to lure the prey. The nature of this mythology already creates a preoccupation with purity and virginity that cannot be untangled from the rest of the story and pushed aside. Astrid’s mother desperately urges her daughter to preserve her virginity, but less for the usual reasons and more because if Astrid is no longer a virgin she cannot be a unicorn hunter. At times Astrid is even tempted to sleep with someone merely to escape a path she feels forced into by her mother. This metaphorically addresses how many teenagers (and, yes, adults as well) sleep with people for the wrong reasons. The book also tackles rape with a rare openness. In particular, RAMPANT forces readers to acknowledge exactly what can be considered rape. There are many different kinds, but women whose experience doesn’t fall under extremely violent penile penetration by a stranger are often even more likely to keep their mouths shut. The experience is humiliating enough without explaining the details to everyone.
Another forefront theme is unicorns as an endangered species. In fact, those who know of these creatures’ existence already believed them to be extinct, but unicorns are reemerging. Part of why I couldn’t invest in this story fully is also why I think it’s important discussion fodder. Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters are told very little: unicorns are evil monsters and the teenagers must kill these beasts. I was deeply bothered that none of these girls demanded more information before they followed orders and slay, by gruesome means, what seemed to be more like animals acting on instinct. Humans, along with other creatures, have a widely acknowledged fear of the unknown. Oftentimes, what scares us or differs from us we would like to see erased from the world. Though my opinion did alter a little as the story unfolded, at first I saw unicorns more like sharks or crocodiles: predators but not evil and certainly not deserving of intentional, violent extinction.
While I regret that the story didn’t wrap around me as I had hoped, I still find myself pondering the candid discussions to which it leads the reader. The metaphorical but frank discussion of sex doesn’t impose any opinions, but rather poses question after question to be collected and considered. The theme of endangered species also branches out into other serious topics about killing and fear of the unknown. Whether or not you can jump into Astrid’s world, you will find an abundance of relevant, noteworthy issues stuffed into these pages.