What do you think of when you think of unicorns? Probably the usual schtick with a timid white horse, the symbol of innocence and purity itself, laying down calmly in the lap of the equally innocent virgin. Well, Rampant by Diana Peterfreund turns all that unicorn mythology on its head.
In Rampant, the world is suddenly plagued by the emergence (or, as they later find out, the Reemergence) of savage, man-eating unicorns. Forget the cute and cuddly unicorns of lore—these will kill on a thought. The only thing they stop for is the presence of, of course, virgins. When the zhi, the smallest of the unicorn species, approaches the virgins, they’re like the docile unicorns of legend—but when anyone else approaches the zhi, they’re likely to get their faces torn off.
Peterfreund created five distinct species of unicorn for her book: the aforementioned zhi, the kirin, the re’em, the einhorn, and finally, the karkadann. Each one is based on Peterfreund’s research into the unicorns of Biblical, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Western legend—with Peterfreund’s own bloodthirsty twist on it. For example, the kirin, of Japanese origin, is believed to be gentle and camouflaged in the darkness—Peterfreund’s version isn’t at all gentle, but it is pretty much invisible. Similarly, the karkadann, of Turkish origin, terrifies all other creatures and some believe that Alexander the Great’s warhorse, Bucephalus, was not a horse at all, but a karkadann. In Peterfreund’s version, Bucephalus is, of course, a karkadann, and he’s telepathic to boot.
The virgin girls in Rampant are far from just the unicorn bait of lore as well—they’re unicorn hunters, with supernatural skills and physical abilities that come from being the descendants of Alexander the Great. Unicorns can’t be killed by bullets, so the girls use arrows and knives and sometimes swords. They cut off the poisoned unicorn horn, the alicorn, after each kill and place it in their hall of trophies, with the triumphant huntress’s name carved into the base.
With all of Peterfreund’s updates to unicorn mythology, though, it’s almost disappointing that the usual virgin girls schtick wasn’t updated along with it. Alexander wasn’t a unicorn hunter, but a unicorn tamer, and it’s never answered why his abilities are only passed on to his female descendants. If being a virgin means you’ve never had sex, then wouldn’t it stand to reason there would be male virgins as well as female virgins? Furthermore, what sort of sex counts as “having sex”? From events in the book, it seems that the only sort of sex that counts is penetrative vaginal sex. That might have made sense back in Alexander the Great’s day, but today, with our different understanding of sex, it’s difficult to explain why oral or anal sex shouldn’t count as well. Astrid, the protagonist, does wonder who or what defines virginity, but she never gets a clear answer.
Still, Rampant is a very good, immensely creative read—if you, like me, hate the fluffy sparkly unicorn trope, you should give it a try. Rampant also has a sequel, Ascendant, and will someday have a third in the trilogy, Triumphant. Read them before the killer unicorns come for the rest of us!