Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…
The sparkly, innocent creatures of lore are a myth. Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. And they can only be killed by virgin descendants of Alexander the Great.
Fortunately, unicorns have been extinct for a hundred and fifty years.
Astrid Llewelyn has always scoffed ather eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one of the monsters attacks her boyfriend in the woods – thereby ruining any chance of him taking her to prom – Astrid learns that unicorns are real and dangerous, and she has a family legacy to uphold. Her mother packs her off to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient cloisters the hunters have used for centuries.
However, at the cloisters, all is not what is seems. Outside, the unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from crumbling, bone-covered walls that vibrate with a terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters to – perhaps most dangerously of all – her growing attraction to a handsome art student… and a relationship that could jeopardize everything.
This review contains minor spoilers.
I am having a particularly good run with young adult fiction lately, in that I keep picking up books that make me read them compulsively, sometimes furtively, until I’m done. Out of that already excellent selection, Rampant is a particularly notable find.
I have to admit, unicorns are a mythological beastie I have a prejudice against, because I tend to like my beasties dark and nasty and not farting rainbows (or sparkling in sunlight, ahem). Too much rainbow farting and no horn-impaling makes Aimee something something. Until now, my favourite unicorn appears in a few of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, as the pet of the Queen of the Elves. And he was only a bit player anyway.
No one could accuse the unicorns in Rampant of farting rainbows.
Borrowing from folklore that posits that unicorns are more likely to spike and devour you than take you on their back to a special land of fairies and cake, Rampant’s unicorns are venomous, bloodthirsty, and fairly revolting in general, but also at times amazing, and even sympathetic. They are not at all a creature with whose pictures you would decorate a child’s bedroom, unless you wanted to traumatise the child in question.
But enough on unicorns. What really makes Rampant sing, and what makes it stand out in a sea of stellar YA fiction, are the characters, particularly the main character, Astrid Llewelyn. Astrid is smart, snarky, brave and a little neurotic – pretty much what you’d expect from someone who’s just discovered that a mythological being exists and she’s descended from a line of people who are powerful enough to kill it. The supporting cast of characters, from Astrid’s American schoolmates to the fellow hunters she meets in the cloisters in Rome, are convincingly drawn, right down to the briefest encounters. The dialogue is realistic, fast, fresh and occasionally hilarious, and Astrid’s inner monologue is part Buffy, part Daria, and part something else entirely that makes it unique. She’s the kind of girl you’d want to hang out with because she’s so awesome and cool, and not just because she could save you from being gored and eaten.
Peterfreund remains faithful to the unicorn folklore that states that only virgins can tame them, and I loved how she used this; in the hands of a lesser writer, it’s the kind of thing that could potentially make me want to throw a book across the room. The topic of sex and virginity in YA novels can always be counted on to get folks raging on all sides of the sexual politics spectrum. Peterfreund’s unicorn hunter characters are all discovering their powers – and how conditional they are – right at a point in their lives where they’re also discovering their sexuality, and deciding what they want out of their relationships with boys, and the confusion that all this causes is pitch-perfect. Astrid does not meekly accept that her powers are fully dependent on her virginity, and her resulting internal conflict provides some tense and dramatic moments.
Likewise, I was very impressed with how Peterfreund dealt with the issue of rape; again, a topic that many writers struggle with and cop out on, she deals with it coolly and compassionately, with a sneaky, kick-arse dismissal of the idea of “grey rape”, and a sensitive understanding of self-blame and survivor psychology. I wish more novels – not just YA but fiction in general – dealt with this topic with the same level of compassion and humanity, rather than lazily using it, as is often the case, as a convenient plot point (motive for revenge! The character development you have when you’re not actually developing a character! Just random filler! Whatever!), or treating it as something that inevitably happens to female characters, particularly in situations where there are other types of violence.
I could probably write an essay on how much I like this book, and why. Quite easily, in fact. I will be recommending it to people regardless of their age and their stance on the Zombies vs Unicorns debate (like I mentioned on Twitter, I’m a staunch Team Zombie girl, but Rampant has almost swayed me). The story moves at a cracking pace, there’s a lot of intrigue, some of it out of left field at times, and, really, how many folklore-based, well-written feminist action novels do you get to read?
For seventeen-year-old Janie, getting sucked into other people’s dreams is getting old. Especially the falling dreams, the naked-but-nobody-notices dreams, and the sex-crazed dreams. Janie’s seen enough fantasy booty to last her a lifetime.
She can’t tell anybody about what she does — they’d never believe her, or worse, they’d think she’s a freak. So Janie lives on the fringe, cursed with an ability she doesn’t want and can’t control.
Then she falls into a gruesome nightmare, one that chills her to the bone. For the first time, Janie is more than a witness to someone else’s twisted psyche. She is a participant….
I broke one of my sternest personal reading rules with this book. That rule is, don’t start a new book at bedtime, just in case it’s so good that it makes you stay up all night reading.
And guess what happened? Yep. Stayed up all night reading. Was so keyed up by the time I finished (and possibly a little overly affected by the nightmares and dreamscapes of the book) that I had to re-read an ancient copy of New Scientist cover to cover before I was able to settle down enough to get some minimal shut-eye.
Check out that cover. It was almost enough to give me nightmares on its own. I don’t think I’ve seen a cover so perfect for a book as this one is for Wake in a long time.
I really admire what Lisa McMann has done with this novel (which is the first in a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read #2, Fade): she’s taken a paranormal plot that could have gone in a lot of directions, many of them not so great, and turned it into a taut psychological thriller with a deeply sympathetic main character, Janie. Janie’s experiences of falling into other people’s dreams are frequently genuinely frightening, although the stereotypical sex dreams offer plenty of smirk-worthy material too. The novel’s tendency to jump around dates and times helps hurry the plot along without coming across like a self-conscious construct. It also works well to introduce the staggered relationship that Janie slowly builds with a boy in her year level, Cabe, who keeps to himself but seems to be as full of secrets as Janie herself.
I also appreciated that Janie is a main character who comes well and truly from the wrong side of the tracks; her mother is a hopeless alcoholic, and Janie has been teased all her life for being “white trash”. She’s been working in a nursing home since she was fourteen, saving for college and to buy little luxuries not covered by her mother’s welfare cheque, like food and clothes. However, Janie’s circumstances aren’t massively played out; she’s quietly accepting of her crappy circumstances, and determined to work around them. She’s kind of a nice change from angst-ridden middle-class teenage heroines that often populate contemporary YA fiction, without being treated by the author as some sort of lesson in tolerance and class issues.
The only criticism I have of Wake is that the characters besides Janie and Cabe are fairly superficial; on the plus side, this helps keep the plot moving at breakneck speed, and stops the reader from being bogged down in their minutiae , since half the time we’ve gotten a glimpse into their unconscious thanks to Janie, anyway.
Anything else I could share about Wake might end up as a spoiler, so I will conclude by saying that there’s some unexpected plot twists (well, I didn’t see them coming, anyway) that shouldn’t be ruined, and you should pick it up for yourself.
Based on the Vice magazine column of the same name, Dear Diary is a genius idea: Arfin’s diary entries from ages 12 – 28, with commentary and interviews with some of the major players throughout various stages of her life. Anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl with squirm with recognition at the raw emotion of Arfin’s teenaged writings; the urge to fit in and the sense that she’s failing at doing so, the complicated friendship structures that fall away without notice or reason.
This alone would be enough, but there is a darker grain to the book. Arfin began experimenting with drugs in high school, and by midway through her college degree was a fully-fledged heroin addict. The latter part of the book deals with her stints in rehab, her ambivalence towards kicking her habit, and her occasional startling moments of clarity about what her life has become.
Arfin’s prose style is a dream; the diary entries themselves as well as her commentary sing with life and pull the reader into her world. Reading the book was like having a coffee with an old friend who’s disappeared out of your life for many years and has now come back with some amazing, heartbreaking, funny and cautionary tales to tell. It’s kind of like Go Ask Alice would have been if it was a) well-written, b) not made up and c) not misogynistic, anti-drug propagandist crap. Dear Diary has the kind of hipster veneer that you’d expect from an offshoot of Vice, but it doesn’t glorify addiction; the poetry is in Arfin’s writing and how she perceives the world, not in the drugs she takes. The romance comes from her eventual falling back in love with the world and herself, not some hackneyed form of drug worship.
This is the kind of book I would have loved as a teen; okay, it’s the kind of book I do love as a non-teen. But, riveting as Dear Diary is now in my latemid twenties, I can imagine that it would have been even more compulsive reading for my teenaged self, with Arfin being middle class and familiar enough that I could feel like I shared some parts of her life, while other parts – the obvious drama of her story – making it alien enough to be captivating. Dear Diary is definitely something I’ll be sharing with the other ex-teenage girls in my life, and probably the actual teenaged girls as well.
Three years have passed since the murder of Alice’s mother, but still the killer is unknown. Alice, her cousin Jonty and his friend Tom are drawn together by the mystery, but what is each of them hiding? Will their secrets bind them tighter or tear everything apart?
First things first: I loved this book. I read it compulsively and was extremely reluctant to put it down until I finished it. McCarthy has a gift of creating entirely believable characters and then getting inside their heads; quietly mourning Alice, easygoing Tom and even loose cannon Jonty feel like people I’ve met and hung out with at some point. Their emotional responses, psychological makeup and dialogue feel entirely real, and sweep the reader up.
Set in Warrnambool in Victoria, Somebody’s Crying felt at once familiar and alien; having grown up in a rural Victorian town myself (albeit on the other side of the state), the atmosphere McCarthy creates seemed intimately familiar in some ways, but as I don’ t know Warrnambool at all, there was still a measure of distance.
The mystery of who killed Alice’s mother, Lillian, forms the binding narrative of the book, drawing in the three distinct characters of Alice, Tom and Jonty. The chapters skip between the three main characters, with McCarthy using third-person omniscient narration to great effect. Flashbacks to the past from all three characters help to round out the story’s history and build up the intrigue as to who is Lillian’s real killer – a crime for which Jonty, her nephew, was arrested, but not convicted due to lack of evidence. Jonty has returned to Woollongong, and faces a cloud of suspicion wherever he goes, despite his lack of conviction. Alice has returned to her hometown to face her mother’s death and find the killer once and for all, and Tom is drifting after three years away, looking for some answers in his life.
Somebody’s Crying is not a perfect book; there are some fairly major plot points that feel somewhat flimsy, and the characters occasionally behave in ways that it would be very difficult to imagine someone behaving in real life; Alice’s choice to take a job with Luke, who is Tom’s father and the lawyer who represented Jonty in court, seems unlikely, yet several aspects of the plot hinge on this decision.
Overall, however, it’s a strong and compelling novel that shows great insight into its characters; despite the tragic backstory, there is also a great deal of emotional reality in the lives of the three main characters, and many of the minor characters are well-developed and engaging too. It’s definitely worth reading if you haven’t already done so.
However. There is just one thing I’d like to address – briefly, because I suspect it’s going to come up in its own post sometime soon. See that cover up there? Moody, dramatic, evocative of a scene in the book, and pretty eye-catching. The girl on it is meant to be Alice. Except it’s not. I don’t say that as a fangirl who thinks they’re Doin It Rong, either.
See, Alice is meant to be fat. Not pudgy. Not a normal-sized girl with body image issues. Fat. It’s made explicitly clear in the book; it’s by no means a plot point, it just is. It’s not really an issue for her either; she suffers some moments of self-consciousness about her weight, but a lot of young women her age do anyway. She’s written as being an intelligent, captivating and beautiful young woman, whose weight generally isn’t an issue for her, and whose attractiveness is absolutely unquestionable.
So why did the publishers choose to portray her this way? Well, okay, I get that: fat panic! But why stigmatise a stigmatised physical characteristic further when an author has done such a good job of portraying it sensitively and in an empowering manner (something which McCarthy has also done in previous books such as Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life)? Alice is one of three main characters whose journeys are followed in the book, yet she’s the only one depicted on the cover, and is depicted incorrectly at that. If featuring a fat girl, even a conventionally stunningly beautiful one such as Alice, was so distasteful, why not feature the guys as well, or one of them? Why not have an abstract, moody cover with no people in it at all? I guess what I’m really asking is why can’t a fat character be fat? Yes, yes, I know, fatphobic society, book sales to consider, fat girls aren’t “aspirational” or whatever. But why couldn’t this book been jacketed in a way that doesn’t lie about one of the characters, particularly about a part of her appearance that sometimes affects how she interacts with the world, and how the world sees her? It puts me in mind of the (rightful) fiasco surrounding the American cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar.
But like I said, this is something I’ll probably come back to in another post.
In the meantime, read Somebody’s Crying if you haven’t already done so, and let me know what you think of it.