Second Book in a Trilogy Commandment before, and Peterfreund follows it religiously in Ascendant. Things get markedly more complicated for our intrepid unicorn hunter Astrid. Whereas she once had the clear-cut question of life or death, she now has to choose between life, death, and ethics. Luckily for the reader, Astrid—well away from the Cloisters, the other Hunters, the immediate threat of unicorn attack, and other external stressors—is considerably more interesting for this choice.
Isolated in the French countryside due to a nice plot twist, Astrid finally has the space to determine who she will be. The clash of who she was before (an aspiring doctor) and who she is now (a finely-honed killing machine with mystical powers) offers plenty of drama, as does the reappearance of an old flame. (He, predictably, has no regard for her long-distance boyfriend Giovanni.) I felt all of this conflict was earned, and more importantly, I could understand the draw of each option.
This chance for self-definition is offered by Isabeau Jaeger, an intriguing figure with a scientific interest in unicorns. A woman of impeccable taste and refined sensibilities, Isabeau is feline and feminine, the mother figure Astrid so sorely needs. (I do love a well-written shopping trip, and this woman brings the goods.) I also appreciated the feminist perspective Isabeau brings to a range of subjects, continuing the conversation I pointed out in my review of Rampant. However, when someone seems too good to be true, they usually are. (She does wear her shades of gray fashionably.)
I respect that Peterfreund isn’t afraid to break her characters, to show the cracks in their armor. (She certainly roughs up Astrid!) This destruction is necessary for the growth of the story, as Peterfreund brings forth unexpected shoots from beneath the rubble. These small discoveries and victories offset the grim tone of the book, and they kept me turning the page.
On the whole, Ascendant is an opening up. (I can’t believe there’s no contracted conclusion at the moment!) The mythology is deepened, and the world is expanded. Answers are given, but they only lead to more mysteries. Perhaps the best mystery are the unicorns themselves, indisputably dangerous yet still something wild and wonderful. Their savage complexity raises some relevant conservation questions, specifically what is owed to a species that is a threat to human existence. Astrid is right at the heart of this matter, a girl with the power to eradicate magic or preserve it. The tension between the known and the unknown is finely drawn, and I hope Peterfreund gets the chance to finish what she started.