Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writer's Book Review: Diana Peterfreund's RAMPANT

Be sure to read the whole review for a special surprise!

Why I Bought This Book: Instead of telling you why I bought RAMPANT, I want to take you back a few weeks ago. I'm the club adviser to my high school's creative writing club, and I was going over some recently released YA titles with the group (they know the best writers are the best readers, too). I flashed 'em this cover.

"Whoa," said one girl. "What's that one about?"

I grinned at her. "Two words: Killer. Unicorns."

The class went wild.

Elsewhere on the web: Diana Peterfreund runs a great blog here (I particularly like the info on her unicorn research). An interesting article/interview on the subject here. Also: twitter.

Five Sentence Summary: Astrid has never believed her mother's stories about killer unicorns and her family legacy as a unicorn hunter--until a unicorn tries to kill her boyfriend. Before Astrid has a chance to wrap her mind around it, her mother ships her off to Killer Unicorn School in Rome (aka, The Cloisters, home to the Order of the Lioness). While there, Astrid grows to become one of the most prestigious hunters, in part because of her blood...but neither she nor any of the other hunters are ready for the real unicorns they face...or the secret plot that might bring the Cloisters down for good.

So what can we, as writers, learn from this book?
NOTE: As always, highlight for spoilers.

1. Feminism: In dealing with a book tied to the unicorn legends--yanno, the legends that deal with women, particularly virgins, being the only ones that can associate with unicorns--a bit of feminism was bound to come up. What I loved about RAMPANT, though, was that the feminism was presented as an argument--not as an authority. In other words, the girls discuss their roles as women, and as virgins, in society--but it's a discussion, not a rant or a speech. There is no feminism preaching, yet throughout the book, there are common sense solutions to women's rights. For example, one of the hunters, Phil[lippa], believes strongly that while being a hunter requires her to be a virgin, she should still have the right to date, and whether she gives up her virginity is her own choice, not the choice of the Cloisters or the other hunters.

The key here is that there's nothing preachy. It's a part of the story--a logical part of the story--and is presented in a clear, logical way. I never once felt like I was being haggled with a feminist agenda, yet by the end of the book, I felt a lot of issues on femininity were expounded on, and I left thoughtful on the subject. (Compare this to, say, my reaction to GRACELING and later FIRE, which I did feel was a bit pushy on the subject of feminism.)

2. The Gun on the Mantle:
Likewise, in a book about unicorns, there's one clear gun on the mantle from the start: sex. The rest of my thoughts on this are all spoilery, so, yanno, highlight and such. OK, for me, one of my first thoughts when I started RAMPANT and realized that Diana was going to maintain the female virginity part of the legend, was that not just sex, but also rape would be an issue. I was thinking--and worrying--about rape almost from the first chapter, when Astrid's boyfriend is a bit too pushy for some outdoor lovin'. But even though I was expecting it, I wasn't expecting it the way Diana wrote it. Phil, Astrid's cousin, is raped. But it's a weird sort of date-rape, stuck in the limbo of did-she-want-it, did-he-mean-to-rape-her. Although I hated this for the character, I love that Diana wrote about it. As a high school teacher, and as someone who's worked extensively with teens, I know how confused many of them feel about rape. The way it is presented in the book is the much more common issue that teens face. Teen girls fear rape from a scary stranger with a gun or a knife, but more often rape is from a boyfriend who's more eager than they are. Presenting rape in this way is something that I wish every teen girl could read. Phil's reaction--a mixture of hate and love, of revulsion and enjoyment--is the exact sort of confused and mixed-up reaction I witnessed from girls I helped counsel in college. For that scene alone, I wish I could give every girl in America a copy of this book.

Furthermore, while I'm on the topic, I'd also like to add that the discussions on virginity were just so tastefully done. I know that many parents may object to the frank way the girls talk about sex and virginity, especially in my area, where abstinence is queen. But the way the girls discussed it in the book is the much more modern way girls talk about sex now. Phil's attitude, about saving it for a guy who wants her, not sex, is more realistic of girls saving their virginity (as opposed to the religious reasons that many conservative parents would wish the girls' priorities lie in). And Astrid's feelings of virginity as a burden is likewise an expression that I hear very often from teen girls.

3. Realistic Female Relationships
: When you group together a bunch of girls in a book, there's almost always cattiness. For some reason, girls together, such as the hunters grouped together in the Cloisters, seems like a reasonable time for a writer to tap into her inner America's Next Top Model and bring out the bitch. Thankfully--oh, so thankfully--Diana doesn't fall into that trap with RAMPANT. Despite the fact that there are so many girls together, none of them are evil to be evil, there's no level of cattiness, and the characters are characters, not cliches. I wish so much more girl books could focus on girls being girls, not witches.

Take, for example, Astrid and her cousin Phil. Phil is older, more beautiful, more composed, more athletic, and all around the preferable of the two girls. When I first met Phil in the text, I was sure she'd be a snide little witch. BUT. She's not. She's caring and loving and Astrid's best friend--and they treat each other like friends, not competition. Sure, there's some realistic jealousy on Astrid's part, but it's a reasonable part of her character, and she never lets her surges of jealousy stop her from loving Phil.

Even the characters who would seemingly fill that role of cliche witch--Zelda, the model; or Grace, the power-hungry girl--don't. Zelda's sweet and quiet, and Grace may be power-hungry, but her character is realistically portrayed, not a paper-cut-out of a character from The Hills.

Quibbles: My two quibbles are both spoilery. First, there's Lillith, Astrid's mother. I HATED HER. She was annoying in the beginning, but when she comes back as the donna of the Cloisters--ARGH. But I have to admit, while I hated her character--she seemed almost too obsessed, too focused--my opinion of her was assuaged after she thought Astrid had died and relinquished her role as donna. My second quibble comes in the character of Brandt, and this is the real kicker. It seems to me obvious that Brandt was kidnapped, not that he ran away, and that he's being used by Marten or the corporation to develop the Remedy. From the first mention of it, this was my assumption. While this plot twist isn't resolved--something I expect to see in the sequel--I do wish at least one character had just questioned the strange disappearance, especially after Seth ended up missing, too.

The Bottom Line: Two words: Killer. Unicorns. Go on. Buy it. You know you want to.

SPECIAL SURPRISE!!! Diana sent me some bookmarks and temporary tattoos to give to my students...and I saved one for you! Leave a comment to this review for a chance to win a beautiful RAMPANT bookmark and temp tattoo!! Contest ends Saturday @ midnight.
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