First impressions: From page one, I knew I was going to like this book. Astrid is reading a gag-inducing unicorn tale to her babysitting charges, and introduces us to her feelings on the subject. She's snarky, irreverent, and convinced that her possibly crazy mother has warped her with tales of man-eating unicorns while growing up. I. Love. Astrid.
Lasting impressions: Diana Peterfreund has managed to blend the most ridiculous fantasy element of all time - unicorns - with the most realistic portrayal of a teen I've ever read. Sheer genius.
Conflicting impressions: Virgins! Again with the virgins! Puh-lease. And that's all I have to say about that.
Overall impressions: One of my favorite scenes in all of comedic film is in the movie Dodgeball, when Vince Vaughn's character goes to Christine Taylor's character's house for the first time and discovers her eerie obsession with unicorns. Do you know why that scene is so damn funny? Because no self-respecting grown woman would surround herself with that much lavender, sparkles, and horned white horses. It would be like carrying a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper into a business meeting.
Astrid would find that scene funny. She practically chokes on the words while reciting that same kind of fluffy unicorn tale to the kids she's babysitting. You see, in Astrid's mother's world, unicorns are fearsome fanged beasts that survive on the flesh of mammals. Astrid, of course, thinks her mother is a whack-job. While everyone else grew up thinking unicorns were majestic, beautiful creatures, she wound up with the mom whose unicorn stories were completely terrifying.
I loved Astrid's healthy skepticism. It made the story more believable, and allowed her to make all of the snide, disparaging remarks we readers are wont to do when confronted with reading material about unicorns. When I gleefully showed off the cover and first page to my husband, I think he actually considered divorce.
Once I settled into the narrative, things moved right along. Astrid almost immediately encounters a breed of unicorn called a zhi, which not only doesn't attack her, but bows. Like, might as well wear a skirt and curtsy, bows down to her. Right before lunging its fanged mouth at her boyfriend and roughing him up pretty good. After this near-death experience, Astrid's boy toy ostracizes her and her mother sends her to Rome for unicorn huntress camp.
I know. Stay with me.
Because Astrid has managed to stay a virgin (sigh), and because she comes from a long line of fancy pants unicorn huntresses, she dutifully goes off to Rome. She figures she'll spend her time learning Italian and seeing the sights. When she arrives, she's in for a rude awakening. Her roommate is an even more emphatic huntress than her mother, excitedly blabbing about killing and training and displays an act of Pure Crazy so shocking I almost stopped reading. I'm glad I didn't.
This book is not lacking in the blood-and-guts department. It's a book about hunters. They hunt and kill. It's what they do. So there should be no surprises on the violence front. Perhaps the thing I struggled with the most, however, was how easily Astrid came to accept this part of her duty. Natural instinct kicks in when she gets around unicorns, and I get that killing a beast that's trying to kill you is easier than killing an innocent puppy. But although she experiences remorse after her first kill, she did seem overly accepting of her killer instince and the training aspects of her time in Rome. I was surprised at how quickly she just jumped on in, especially given her prior skepticism.
Don't get me wrong. Astrid struggles with this decision. She doesn't want to commit her entire life to remaining a virgin and hunting unicorns. The difference is that while I bought her struggle over the decision to commit to a life of hunting, I didn't buy her lack of real rebellion at going to unicorn camp in the first place and killing lots of animals once she got there, despite her life being endangered several times. I wanted her to be a bit more rebellious, other than sneaking out to make out with cute boys.
Which brings me to Giovanni. He's an American student studying in Rome, who along with his friend, starts double dating Astrid and her cousin, Philippa aka Phil. Giovanni represents all that she can't have if she hunts - love, sex, companionship. She flirts with using him to take her virginity so she can avoid hunting, and also agonizes over accepting her destiny while still truly loving him.
The boys manage to complicate things in meaningful, and also hurtful, ways. It's in the exploration of these relationships that Peterfreund shines. Astrid is a teenager - nervous around boys, overanalyzing their every move, questioning the path to physical intimacy. She is insecure about reading the right signals or how to communicate what she wants. I absolutely loved the time she spent with Giovanni, and her internal thoughts just made me want to hug her and tell her that when she grows up she'll look back on this with a smile. Of course, what dogs Astrid is that she might not grow up with that kind of knowledge. It's very bittersweet.
The action ebbs and flows, and at times I found the narrative a bit confusing and wandering for me, but I still give it a solid four stars. I liked the exploration of teen sexuality (minus the emphasis on virginity) and the mythology built around the unicorns. There were lots of surprises throughout the pages that made for an exciting read, and I recommend this one to those who like their fantasy with just a hint of mocking.
Rating: 4/5 stars