OMG, you guys. You guys, why didn't anyone tell me that books about killer unicorns are FREAKING AWESOME?!
I don't know exactly why I decided to skip on Rampant the first time around. I think I was focusing more on the "unicorn" rather than the "killer" part of the description, plus I'm just generally prejudiced against fantasy. Then I read Peterfreund's contribution to Zombies vs. Unicorns and was intrigued - I was curious about whether the characters were original and just set in her previously established world (like Carrie Ryan's contribution), or if these characters appeared in the series proper. But then I never made an effort to seek out Rampant. Until I was browsing at the library and Rampant was sitting face out on a shelf. On an impulse, I picked it up.
And I'm so glad I did. And I'm also so glad I didn't get Rampant until Ascendant was already out, so I only had to wait a week rather than a year to get more of Astrid's story.
Astrid Llewelyn has grown up listening to her mother's crazy stories about killer unicorns. When the rest of the world believes unicorns are mythical sparkly creatures, what else can a trying-to-be-normal 16 year old do? So when her boyfriend is attacked by a real live killer unicorn during a late night make out session in a forest, Astrid's concept of reality is turned upside down.
Her mother, however, sees this as an opportunity, and doesn't hesitate to ship Astrid off to a nunnery in Rome that is the 21st century reincarnation of the ancient Order of the Lioness - an order of nuns who dedicated their lives to protecting humanity from the unicorn scourge. And it just so happens that Astrid's family line was historically known to be the biggest, baddest hunters out there. With the financial support of a pharmaceutical company hoping to find the mythical Remedy derived from unicorns and said to be able to cure anything, Astrid and an international crew of hunters band together to learn the truth of the unicorn Reemergence and defend humanity from the long-forgotten threat.
Ascendant picks up shortly after Rampant ends. While the world at large is well aware of the unicorn threat, the Cloisters is still falling short in their funding and recruitment goals. As soon as they find a girl capable of being a hunter, she quickly decides to relinquish her eligibility. And the only organization willing to fund the Cloisters is the Vatican, who want to place some strict rules on the young women who've taken over their nunnery. To add more worry to Astrid's plate, her boyfriend is heading back to the US and one of her best friends and fellow hunters is mysteriously losing her hunting powers.
So when Astrid has the chance to escape the Vatican's strict rules, gain funding for the Cloisters, and re-focus on her scientific passions all in one go, she leaps at the chance. It doesn't hurt that she also gets to hang out in the French countryside, too. But being part of Gordian Pharmaceuticals again opens up a host of new questions for Astrid, making her question her loyalties as a hunter and a scientist.
What excited me the most about these two books is just how darn feminist they are. Seriously, these are some of the most feminist books I've read since The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks. Throughout both books there are positive depictions of young women's sexuality, and then especially in Ascendant there's discussions about women (even those who weren't unicorn hunters) who defied traditional notions of femininity to follow their passions in science and medicine. And then yes, there's the idea of a secret group of women who are all that stands between humanity and the unicorn scourge. Women with big swords = awesome.
In Ascendant, Peterfreund also excels where Suzanne Collins failed in Mockingjay to give us an injured protagonist who is a little foggy...yet still manages to keep the story going. Whereas Katniss became half-comatose every time a big plot point comes up, Astrid powers through her injury, acknowledging she's weaker and she can't remember some things sometimes while other things are crystal clear (even if they might be hallucinations...?). Yes, it's a bit confusing, but damn if it doesn't work amazingly. I felt Astrid's frustrations right along with her.
On the other hand, every once in awhile Astrid is a bit...dumb. Even before her catastrophic injury. Her ex-boyfriend disappears right after she tells the pharmaceutical rep that he's the only living person to receive some of the Remedy...and she really believes he just coincidentally ran away? The big biology student can't figure out why a female unicorn may be hugely fat while all of the rest are grotesquely thin? Neither of these require a degree in rocket science to put together a working hypothesis for. Thankfully, Astrid's inability to put two and two together only happens rarely, and doesn't detract from the overall awesomeness of the two stories. My other minor quibble is the lack of description of what's going on in the rest of the world. By Ascendant it's clear that unicorns are known by the general public, but I want to know how on Earth they reacted. Panic in the streets? Mass migrations back into the cities? Inquiring minds want to know! But otherwise, both of these books fall into the "couldn't put it down" category, and they're so richly written that I did find it took me longer to read them than books of similar lengths, because I just didn't want to miss a word.
Peterfreund also does an excellent job in both books of finishing the main story, while leaving a few hooks for the next book to pick up on. This didn't stop me from feeling extremely impatient while waiting to get Ascendant from the library, but that was out of desperately wanting more of Astrid's adventures rather than needing to know how the darn story ends. Of course, there's a big question left unanswered at the end of Ascendant, and I'm certainly desperate to know the answer!
Rampant is actually what really inspired me to put together my What have I missed? personal reading challenge. Technically it doesn't fit into the guidelines I've set for my reading next year, but it got me thinking about all of the similarly awesome books I've missed out on just because I wasn't paying attention to YA when they were published! So please pop into the comments over there and leave more suggestions - and then go pick up Rampant and Ascendant if you haven't already!