Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Diana Peterfreund's Rampant

Today, it’s all about the magical equines at Simple Little Bookworm HQ. We’ve got unicorns goring people in Rampant and pegasi prancing around in Pegasus. Both of these books tickled my fancy, but each of them also illustrated something important I’ve noticed in my reading. Let’s get to it.

There was honestly no way Rampant could be bad. It’s about killer unicorns, for goodness sake! Still, I had some trouble getting into it. I was looking for “The Moment,” that one detail I could hang my hopes for the book upon. I toughed it out until 50 pages in, and eureka, I found it. 

Reader, she threw a unicorn off of a balcony. I jest with form, of course, but not with substance. A girl did indeed throw a goat-sized unicorn off of a balcony, dashing it on the cobblestones below. However, that was not The Moment. The actual Moment was when Astrid, our first-person narrator, was appraising Cory, a fellow unicorn-hunting recruit. Astrid notes Cory’s cherubic face and curls, but she also notices something lurking underneath. Yes, I say, yes! That was The Moment. It encapsulates the book—danger hidden beneath beauty—and hints at something damaged. The unicorn getting thrown off a balcony is just the first fulfillment of that Moment’s promise. (There’s a second fulfillment that socks you in the gut later.)

Let’s backtrack a bit. The first fifty pages have to do a lot of work fast. They need to start the story, to get Astrid from Point A to Point B both mentally and physically. The first fifty pages have to move Astrid from her home in the States to a secret cloister in Italy. They have to make killer unicorns seem plausible. They have to take her away from friends, family, and safety. While they do accomplish all of that, they didn’t catch me. The premise was what kept me reading until The Moment.

The thing that Rampant made completely clear to me is that a reader can tell what an author wants to write and what an author doesn’t particularly care about writing. I don’t think Peterfreund wanted to write a girl who doubts unicorns. She wanted to write a heroine that kills and discovers and believes. (Yes, I understand that she had to start from a place of doubt to make the character arc so awesome.)

I say this because when Peterfreund writes what she wants to write, she’s a powerhouse. I love a good mythology and this one has EVERYTHING. Critters and deities and deep thinking, oh my! She weaves together so many disparate threads and does it so seamlessly that it never feels like an exposition slog. I’m also a huge fan of names, and the character naming in this book is impeccable. (A pet unicorn named Bonegrinder? Only the tip of the iceberg.) Best of all, the teenagers are completely authentic across a fairly broad age/culture spectrum.

The synthesis of unicorn mythology is so neat, but where Peterfreund also shines is digging deeper into what traditional unicorns actually mean. You can’t talk about vampires without mentioning sex, and you can’t leave human nature out of discussions of werewolves. These are the underlying issues that make these creatures so alluring in the first place. Similarly, unicorns are tied to maidens, explicitly virginity. Peterfreund handles this discussion beautifully, bringing up the topic of sex and choice with loads of compassion and insight. (I loved the romance and the doubt and the evolution of the main pairing.) As I was reading, I knew this was what she wanted to write about, and her readers are the better for it. (Post-reading note: I was right!)

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