Reviewed September 13, 2010.
HarperTeen, 2010. 392 pages.
2010 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Teen Fantasy and Science Fiction
Wow. I thought Diana Peterfreund's first book about killer unicorns, Rampant was outstanding. But its sequel, Ascendant, is simply awesome. I just spent my Saturday reading it, and couldn't tear myself away.
In the first book, things are fairly straightforward. Astrid Llewelyn learns that her crazy mother was right and unicorns are, in fact, bloodthirsty killers, and their family has magical powers for hunting them down and subduing them. She goes to Rome and trains with other girls they've found, virgin descendants of families from the ancient Order of the Lioness. They learn to hunt together and defeat a conspiracy against them. Along the way, she finds Giovanni, an Italian-American spending the summer in Rome, who loves her as she is.
In the second book, we've got the repercussions of this magical scenario. First, Giovanni goes back to college in America so she has to deal with a long-distance relationship. Now the world knows about the Reemergence of unicorns, and Astrid's mother is capitalizing on their interest. The girls of the Order are still trying to kill any unicorns they can find, but their magic is growing. The hunters can read the unicorns' thoughts, and Astrid doesn't like killing something whose thoughts she can read -- but her powers are superhuman when unicorns are around. And then, what about school? She wanted to be a doctor, but now she's a high school dropout.
Meanwhile, Astrid's cousin Philippa is trying to get unicorns worldwide protection as an endangered species. Astrid tries to reconcile those ideas with the work they are doing. After all, unicorns are attracted to hunters, so they need to train more hunters, or all the people around the untrained hunters will be in danger.
Then there's the matter of the Remedy -- the ancient cure that their ancestors knew how to make that would heal any wound and purify any poison. It works like the unicorns themselves heal when wounded, and like the hunters heal from stabbings by unicorn horns. Surely it can't be bad for scientists to perform tests on any unicorns they can, in order to try to produce the remedy and save thousands? Can it?
That's a basic idea of the themes and questions of the book -- but the working out of them is much more complex. The plotting is very intricate, and a lot of things tie together in ways we don't expect. The story is wonderfully well-told, and there are no easy answers. I hope with all my heart that Diana Peterfreund is working on a sequel, because the book doesn't leave Astrid in a very good situation at all. I'm pretty confident there must be a third book coming, because that's not the only thing that's left unresolved. Though the story does end at a satisfying place, I want to learn that things get better for several of the hunters -- and the unicorns.
Meanwhile, this book makes a terrific read. A story of characters who find out that saving the world isn't as simple as it used to be.