Monday, January 4, 2010

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Ordinarily I love this kind of book, one where the usual fantasy tropes are turned on their heads. What if unicorns existed, but they were mean? Awesome concept. In Rampant, unicorns are not only bloodthirsty monsters with venomous horns, they have magical self-healing properties a la Wolverine and magical powers that keep them hidden from most people. Only descendants of Alexander the Great can kill them--and those descendants have to be virgins. Girl virgins, of course. Boy virgins aren't good for anything.

A little over a year ago, after reading one too many urban fantasies with nigh-invulnerable vampires, I formulated what I like to call the Undead Shark Theory of Natural Selection. If a type of shark evolves that's extra fast, it catches all but the fastest fish. The fastest fish breed, and the shark eats all but the very fastest of the next generation, and so on until the fast shark no longer has such an edge over the fish. This same principal applies even if the shark is undead. If an undead shark preys on fish, the fish will either become extinct from the shark's predations, or they'll evolve into Buffy-fish that can kick undead shark ass, or at least run away from it effectively. That's how things work in nature.

I can accept fantasy animals that are nigh-invulnerable, but only if they don't prey on regular animals or people. If they do, they're part of natural selection, and the result should not be--for instance--unicorns with superpowers that nothing can stand against except a select few girls who have not yet had sex. That's just silly. I had such trouble getting over this issue that I nearly put the book down after only a few chapters.

Then I realized there had to be a payoff at the end. There had to be some reason why the unicorns are so all-powerful, some reason why these particular girls could kill them, even some reason that the girls had to be virgins. I kept reading for the payoff, and--sorry, spoiler alert--there is no payoff. In fact, the ending is so weak I kept turning the last page thinking, "Where's the last chapter?" I guess the last chapter is actually the first chapter of the next book.

The plot is pretty much what you might imagine. When her boyfriend is attacked by a unicorn, Astrid Llewelyn discovers she really was born a unicorn hunter, just like her mom has always insisted. Astrid's always thought her mom was crazy, but it turns out that it's all true. The supposedly-extinct unicorns are coming out of hiding, and Astrid's mother packs her off to Rome to train as a hunter.

The writing is, well, workaday. It sometimes felt like the author was pushing the characters around like chess pieces--that would explain why characters who'd done their bit just disappeared from the plot. Although the book is set mostly in Rome, I never got a sense of the city's atmosphere despite all the details about where Astrid went and what she ate and so forth. Also, let me just say (nastily) that Astrid really does approach the "too stupid to live" horizon at times.

So no, I didn't like the book. I know I'm coming across as rabid with hate for it, but that's not actually the case. For all its faults, I kept reading. I was interested to see what happened. Of course, the answer is "not much," so, you know, whatever.

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Lertulo said...

Love and agree totally with the undead-shark theory; thanks for detailing it.

I got a similar vibe from Boyett's Ariel, actually; the author took the unicorn trope and just plugged it in wholesale without any attempt at a justification for their oddities, even though the virgin thing was woven inextricably throughout the whole book (and particularly the ending).

FWIW, in one of Butcher's books, Dresden confronts a unicorn that totally kicks ass--including putting its horn through a tree in an attempt to take Dresden down. Fun fun fun.

K.C. Shaw said...

Oh, darn, Boyett's Ariel is in my to-read stack. I'll still probably read it.

Lertulo said...

I enjoyed Ariel, actually, and it's possible you'll just fall in love with it. Who knows? But truth is I was a little disappointed: after all the hype I had expected something like Lord Of The Rings I suppose. Maybe if I had just picked it up on a whim I'd have enjoyed it more.

Hey, that reminds me (the part about picked-it-up-on-a-whim): I spent a few minutes reading through an interesting one recently. It's an urban fantasy centered around a guy who has an unusual problem: he hears prayers. I mean, he's not an angel or anything--he's just a mechanic with a wife and a baby on the way, no superpowers or uplink to god. But when people pray, he hears them. And the story starts with him hearing a little girl praying, "please don't let them kill me." I got the story because I liked the premise, and if it wasn't as polished throughout as I'd like I'd still want to read the sequel. If you're nice to me I'll try to remember the title.

K.C. Shaw said...

Ooh, that sounds very interesting! Definitely give me the title if you can remember it. :)

Lertulo said...

Found it. It was The Calling by David Mack. I'll send it along presently.