Rampant
Diana Peterfreund

Category: Fantasy, Young Adult
Tags: ,
Morality: C-
Writing: B-

Astrid’s a normal American teenager who has two problems: one, her crazy mother is always talking about how unicorns were not only real, but evil, venomous monsters that killed multitudes until Astrid’s ancestors hunted them to extinction. And two, she’s been peer-pressured into dating a sleazy boy she doesn’t like. Then one night when Astrid’s making out with her sleazy boyfriend, a unicorn turns up and gores him. Problem two is solved, but problem one just got a lot worse: unicorns are reappearing all over the world, and only the virgin female descendants of Alexander the Great (like Astrid) can kill them. So Astrid’s mother packs her off to unicorn-hunting school in Rome. Astrid really, really doesn’t want to hunt unicorns, but figures she has to go along with it because she’s still a minor–plus her sleazy boyfriend dumped her and is slandering her all over school, so she’s glad to be gone. (He was pretty upset over the whole “gored by a unicorn” thing.)

If you’ve heard of this book, you’ve probably heard of it as “the book with the killer unicorns!” and I must say, it certainly delivers on that count. Peterfreund has created a detailed, fascinating mythology; it was a huge amount of fun to watch the characters learn about the unicorns (and battle them), while several intriguing mysteries remain for the later sequels. Simply on the level of Fun Exposition and Awesome Action, this book really delivers.

Initially I was not impressed by Astrid, because even though she’s disgusted by her sleazy boyfriend, she thinks she’ll probably sleep with him so he’ll take her to the prom. Now, I’m sure the prom is fun–but if you’re so desperate to go that you would barter sexual favors, you really need to get a life.[1] Luckily Astrid does acquire some self-respect and backbone over the course of the book, and by the end I was willing to buy her as a heroine. The other unicorn hunters were all fairly well-drawn as well–in fact, there were several I might have preferred to have as the main character, but I guess I can’t really complain about interesting side-characters.

But now for THE ISSUE.

One might be tempted to read Rampant as promoting chastity, since the girls must remain virgins if they want to keep their powers. It does happily defy several stereotypes about virgins: that they are all unattractive, unsocialized freaks; that they are all passive victims of patriarchy; that they are all sweet, passive innocents. And it’s mighty satisfying to see a fictional universe where living chastely gives you the immediate, exciting rewards of super-powers.

But I think it’s important to realize the virginity that makes Astrid a unicorn hunter has nothing to do with real chastity–or even virginity, in any religiously meaningful sense. Real chastity is the choice to use one’s sexuality in accordance with the law of God, and with the respect and charity due to other human beings. So for any serious Christian, a virgin is not merely someone with an intact hymen, but someone who has never chosen to share her (or his) sexuality with anyone else. As St. Augustine pointed out in the fourth century, since a virgin who has been raped never chose to have sex, she therefore never sinned and retains her purity still. But while a girl on her way to an amorous tryst may still be physically a virgin, she is no longer chaste, since she has already sinned gravely by choosing to have illicit sex.

Rampant, however, reverses this distinction: at one point, Astrid attempts to escape her situation by seducing someone; she’s only prevented by outside circumstances. By Christian standards, she’s already sinned at that point–and she sins against chastity later as well, since some of the making-out she engages in with her boyfriend is way past the limits of responsible Christian sexuality.[2] But she keeps her power over unicorns. Later in the story, another girl is raped and instantly loses her powers. Though the exact reasons that unicorns are vulnerable to virgins remains a mystery, it’s clear that it has nothing to do with virtue.

This alternate definition of virginity is as old as the hills and has often been used to pernicious effect. (To return to St. Augustine: he was writing against pagan Romans who believed that raped women should kill themselves to regain their honor.) But it’s also part of the traditional unicorn mythos, and Rampant is at pains to remind the reader that a victim of rape is not at fault for what happened, so I don’t find it as repulsive as I might otherwise. Also, the unicorns are venomous predators who have never read St. Augustine and don’t care a whit about human virtue. So it makes a certain amount of sense for the issue to be handled in this way. I just think there’s an important distinction to be made: this book is abstinence-positive. It is not at all chastity-positive, except in the sense that blatantly pressuring a person to have sex is presented as wrong. And that’s really more like . . . basic-human-decency-positive.

Content warning: there’s some violence and swearing, but as I’m sure you can tell from the above review, the main issue is that there is lots of sexual content. There is no explicit on-screen sex, but people talk about sex, people think about sex, people do everything but the kitchen sink short of technically having sex. Exercise your own judgment.

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[1] Read a book! Learn to knit! Collect limited-edition lip glosses! SOMETHING. Or if you’re dead set on prostituting yourself, at least get some cold, hard cash for it. (Diamonds are a girl’s best friends.)

[2] This is a book where the Nice Boy is the one who says he wants to take things slow and get to know the girl as a person, then sticks his hands up her shirt. What.

Posted by Rose | July 3, 2010

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