After weeks of carrying the book around in my bag and not having any chance to read it, I finally put other things aside and used every spare minute today to finish it.
This book was most entertaining, and very original. I loved the idea of killer unicorns. Before I started the book, I was envisioning sprawling battles with swords and crossbows and majestic yet terrible beasts that are ravaging the unsuspecting population.
And I was not disappointed in that regard. What I didn’t expect was how honest the book was going to be about teenage girls and sex. I had completely forgotten the old myth of unicorns being attracted to virgin females, but this book takes it and runs with it. And sex itself it talked about in such an honest and real way. It feels like teenage girls talking about sex. Not an adult having teenage girls talk about sex the way she wishes they would.
And, as much as I loved the battles and the mystery, what I really loved was that the author was willing to have these girls talk about sex candidly. A lot of current YA novels use fantasy transformations as a metaphor for puberty* and changing into a young adult. Peterfreund instead uses the supernatural transformations as a metaphor for the pressure young people feel to have sex. And the way their world is different afterward.
At least, that was my interpretation.
The story itself is obviously very planned and thought out, with a lot of research going into it. Which I always appreciate. In this world there are four different species of unicorn. The zhi are the smallest and the one we see the most of. They are about the size of a goat and when confronted with a virginal hunter the zhi are attracted in a cute and cuddly way. The girls keep one as basically a pet and it is easy to forget that it is a meat-eating, man-killing monster.
The next bigger one is called a kirin, it’s about the size of a horse. These ones are attracted to hunters in a non-cuddly way. In fact all unicorns other than the zhis are attracted to hunters to kill them. These unicorns are so dark they blend in with the night, and are almost invisible. And very deadly.
The Re’en, the second biggest, similar in size to an ox, we only see briefly and don’t really know much about. The Karkadann is the biggest. Comparable to an elephant. And, well, I’m still not quite sure about the Karkadann and it’s role in this world. I could explain a little more, but I don’t want to ruin it.
All of the unicorns have a deadly poison in their alicorn (the horn) and all of them like to eat the flesh of humans.
Virginal descendants of Alexander the Great are brought to Rome to live in old decrepit cloisters and train to hunt these unicorns. Seriously.
What really made this book was how the author brought all these characters together, in this almost ridiculous setting, and then had them react the way modern teenagers would.
Astrid, the main character, does not want to be there. She doesn’t not want to kill things. She would much rather be at home, at school, with a date to prom.
Phillipa, her cousin, doesn’t really seem to get it. They are modern teenagers, modern women, after all. They can make up their own minds, do their thing. No man controls them.
Cory, the first hunter we meet besides Astrid, is almost blood thirsty in her need to kill unicorns.
More girls arrive after them and despite the growing cast of characters, each one always feels like their own person. None of the supporting cast feels flat or undeveloped or not needed.
The book had the awesome battles and violence and “girl power” I had been looking for, but what I really loved about it were the scenes when the girls were all together in a room discussing why they were still virgins. How being a virgin affected their interactions with boys.
One of the girls is nineteen and she talks about how everyone just assumes she is saving her virginity for something special. Marriage or her “one true love.” When really all she wanted was someone who wanted her more than they wanted sex.
There was so much else I wanted to talk about (the animal rights side of things, having a love interest when sex is denied, the mystery, the panacea…) but I feel I’ve spoiled enough of it. I will briefly mention that I found some parts to be slow but as I can’t remember what those parts were, I’m sure it wont affect your enjoyment of the book. They didn’t affect mine.
And I will leave with my favourite line: “Every time we went out was like some complicated game. What he’d try, when he’d try it, and how I’d stop him without making him mad or doing something I didn’t want to do. That’s the only thing I thought about every time we were together. Not about the movie we were watching or what we were talking about. Just waiting for him to make a move. It wasn’t dating; it was preparing for battle.”