Monday, December 30, 2013

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

My Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.57 / 5.00

Astrid’s mother has always been more than a little eccentric, claiming that unicorns exist. This would not be too bad if she was talking about pink, fluffy unicorns frolicking under rainbows. No, according to Astrid’s Mum, unicorns are man-eating monsters, with razor sharp horns and poisonous fangs, that can only be killed by virgin girls descended from Alexander the Great. So it is no surprise that Astrid does not believe her mother’s stories and is fairly certain that she is completely crazy. Then a unicorn attacks her and her boyfriend and Astrid must suddenly deal with the awful truth: her mother is not truly crazy, unicorns do exist and she is one of the few people on the planet who can kill them. Yay!

Shortly after the disastrous boyfriend-munching attack, Astrid receives funding from an unknown benefactor to travel to Rome where a group of unicorn hunters are training. It seems that everyone believed that the last unicorn died in the nineteenth century, but they have begun to reappear and plague the human population again. In response, a small group is drawing together all the various families that have the correct lineage and training their virgin daughters to fight the unicorn menace.

This is the first title in a series entitled Killer Unicorns and it is set in Rome, so I was pretty much guaranteed to want to read it. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations and I was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied by the book and highly unlikely to read more in the series.

So, what was wrong with a story that had such an intriguing premise? Some of my problems were factual whilst others stemmed from the plot or setting. In general, this was one of the only YA titles that I have read that truly felt YA in its tone and subject matter.

Let us begin with the factual problems that irritated me, but which might not be an issue to other people. Early in the book we are told that there are certain families that produce women capable of being unicorn hunters. This is fine, until they are defined by their surnames: the unicorn-hunting trait is carried by females only and so must be transmitted through the female line. This would lead to surnames being irrelevant as they are derived from the male line of a family. Secondly, they are supposed to be descendants of Alexander the Great. This worried me a great deal when I read it because I was aware that Alexander was not followed by a natural heir, but rather by a group of his generals and other advisors. A quick look at Wikipedia proved that I was correct: he is credited with only two offspring, both who died young. His legitimate son was murdered at age 13, whilst his possible illegitimate son made it to the grand old age of 16. There is not much likelihood of children from the legitimate son and neither boy is reported to have married or produced an heir. So, although having Alexander as an ancient ancestor sounds quite good, I do not think it is actually possible and this struck me as sloppy research.

As for the plot, it was rather too concerned with the girls’ status as virgins and their constant fretting about boyfriends. Astrid and her cousin engage in some very stupid behavior, sneaking out of the training institution to meet up with boys that they meet on the streets of the city. Although I can understand young love, I do find it difficult to have much sympathy for young women who wander around a strange city, at night, in poorly lit and empty areas, with young men that they have only just met. When the inevitable happens I was not at all surprised, even though I condemn the young man for his actions. I am not saying that the cousin ‘deserved’ to be raped, as rape is not something that I would wish on any woman, but I did feel that their behavior was an extremely poor model for the target audience, especially as the cousin is supposed to be at college and should have a better understanding of how to minimize her exposure to danger.

There were also a few plot ‘twists’ that were not at all surprising and therefore felt contrived and sadly predictable. Rather than sticking to the idea of training young women to fight killer unicorns, there was the added complication of conspiracy and subterfuge, which I felt detracted from the storyline quite considerably. Far too many of the aspects of the training institution were so convenient as to be laughable, which reduced the believability of the setting too much for me to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

My greatest disappointment was in the rendering of the city of Rome. I am not sure if Ms Peterfreund has actually been to the Eternal City, but I did not get the impression that she had taken much notice of it before writing this title. There were a few mentions of the famous landmarks, such as the Spanish Steps, but none of the details that I would expect of someone who had actually visited the city and selected areas of it to act as the locations of events. Most of the action took place in unnamed, unrecognizable parks or streets, which was a missed opportunity in my opinion. How cool would it have been to fight killer unicorns in the passages of the Colosseum or under the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica? Much more interesting than fighting them in a generic area of open parkland in some random urban setting.  

So, does this book have any redeeming qualities? It may surprise you that I can truthfully answer that it does. The unicorns themselves are delightfully different and genuinely scary. They also behave in a way that seems reasonably consistent with biology, if we overlook their magical properties, and have a genuine reason to begin their campaign of terror, which makes a nice change. There are also plenty of hard-core fight sequences that do not shy away from the inevitable carnage associated with the fighting of killer unicorns. We do not have some vague finger waving and rainbow-glitter puffs of smoke but lots of blood-splat-gore-horror and serious injury.

However, while I appreciated the gritty portrayal of what it must be like to fight monsters, I was left disappointed by the setting and the limp Romance angst that plagued what could have been a really good story.


  1. Hmm.. normally I would be intrigued by Killer Unicorns and Alexander the Great's descendants. But like you, I need a plausible fiction to diverge from well documented history. Alexander the Great did not have any legitimate heirs. So you make a good point about sloppy research. That would kill it for me.

    1. Some of my book group find me a little nit-picking, but it really bothers me when authors don't do their research thoroughly enough.