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Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund. Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2010. Review ARC provided by publisher.
The Plot: When last we left our intrepid unicorn hunter Astrid Llewelyn, she discovered she was a unicorn hunter when her then-boyfriend was attacked by one, got shipped to unicorn hunter school in Rome where she battled many a unicorn and was injured, defeated an evil medical empire, and was dating a totally hot, smart guy who not only loved her strength but also was cool with the whole “I have to stay a virgin to fight unicorns” thing.
Sounds great? Not really. Astrid’s connection to the unicorns means she is realizing that they are more than monsters. Her cousin Phillippa, now in charge of the unicorn hunters, agrees and wants to create some type of unicorn preserve. Problem is, the unicorn menace is now publicly known. Back in the US, Astrid’s mom is giving interviews right and left to the press. The danger is so well known that no one wants their daughter to join the unicorn hunters. Injury and sickness means the existing unicorn hunters are spread very thin. To make it worse? Giovanni, the world’s best boyfriend, is going back to college, in New York City!
The Good: Any sequel that is worth reading gives the reader both what they want (more of the same things the reader loved!) and what they need (different things so the story remains fresh!).
Ascendant gives the reader some of the “same”: Astrid, unicorns, battles, the continuing struggle between duty and want. Ascendant then throws in some new challenges: make the boyfriend long-distance, remove Astrid from the support of her family and fellow hunters, and give her a new ethical struggle. Astrid tries to have it all (a “normal” life of school, while still fulfilling her destiny) by leaving Rome to help researchers in France who are trying to find the Remedy. The Remedy, you may recall, is a cure-all and is somehow made with unicorns but no one knows the exact formula. If you’ve read anything of animal testing, you can imagine what happens to the unicorns. Astrid rationalizes that she is using her talent for destruction for good; plus, the unicorns being used by the researchers are kept in ap reserve, and isn’t that what her cousin Phil wants?
Astrid cares for unicorns yet is helping those who see them as an ingredient in medicine. She connects with unicorns on a deep level yet also has to battle them. Astrid’s new position serves to isolate her even further than before — at least in Rome, there was her cousin Phil and the other hunters! Being the only unicorn hunter amongst several unicorns allows Astrid to work on her ability to connect with unicorns and to realize that “unicorn magic” can mean more than destruction. Life isn’t as simple as killing unicorns; unicorns may be capable of monstrous acts, but are they monsters? Abraham Maslow said, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail.” Have the hunters been treating their gifts as a hammer?
Do you need to read Rampant before Ascendant? I strongly recommend it; not only do you get the full picture of Astrid’s world, but you also get to appreciate Astrid’s growth as a character. Rampant is about becoming a unicorn hunter; Ascendant is about what happens once you are one.
What else? In Rampant and Ascendant, Peterfreund provides a diverse cast of characters. She also knows to not tell everything to the reader all at once; some things aren’t revealed until they have to be. I’ll take my cue from Peterfreund and keep mum about some of the surprises in Ascendant. Questions that were raised in Rampant are answered in Ascendant, and, of course, new questions are raised in Ascendant. And if there isn’t a third book, I swear I will go all killer unicorn on you!
Finally, confession. I hate Astrid’s mother. Oh, I understand where she is coming from and why she does what she does. She’s a minor character, but Peterfreund has fleshed her out so she is as fully developed as the major characters. Astrid’s relationship with her mother affects her relationships with others, so I always understood Astrid’s choices even though I disagreed with them. I wouldn’t change one line about Astrid’s mother. Still? I cannot stand her. I just wanted to reach into the pages of the book, sit her down, and say “what the hell are you thinking”?
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About Elizabeth Burns
Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is email@example.com.
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