In most fairy tales and other fantasy stories, the unicorn is depicted as a friendly, delicate, beautiful creature that appears only to innocent, young maidens. So imagine my surprise when I came across a book that had a decidedly different and darker take on these famous mythical beings---creatures that were deadly and took no prisoners in defending themselves, with a line of female warriors being the only ones who can stop them. It was an intriguing premise I couldn't pass up. And when a librarian friend of mine reviewed and listed this in her recommendations, I had to give it a look.
Unfortunately, not every recommendation can be a winner. To the aforementioned friend, I'm sorry, but this is one time where our personal tastes just didn't match up.
Sixteen year old Astrid lives a fairly normal life; babysitting to make money and dating the cutest guy in her class. What isn't so normal is her mother who, for all of Astrid's life, has regaled her daughter with tales of how their family comes from a long line of descendants of Alexander the Great, and how said descendants---virgin female warriors---were the only ones who could defeat unicorns. And not only does she believe that unicorns were real, but that they were vicious, near-invincible, poisonous, deadly animals. Naturally, Astrid doesn't believe any of the wild stories her mom's told her....until one fateful night, when Astrid is beset upon by a real live unicorn. Seeing this as a sign that the ancient beasts haven't gone extinct and are on the verge of returning, Astrid's mom wastes no time in shipping off her daughter to a secret monastery in Rome, Italy, where she can train to become a unicorn hunter. Once there, Astrid, along with her fun-loving older cousin, and a group of other young women from around the world, finds herself having to learn how to unlock her long-buried, supernatural hunting abilities; all while trying to discover why unicorns are making a return....and if she even wants to be a hunter at all. And as more family secrets are uncovered and the body count begins to rise, Astrid will have to rise up and unlock the warrior within herself to save the world.
I really wish the plot was as epic as that summary makes it sound, but....it really isn't. It's clear the author took a vacation to Italy and decided to incorporate what they learned on the trip into the book. Many authors go on trips to do research, and this is perfectly fine.....but not when it takes up 70 percent of the story. More than half the book involves the main characters wandering around Rome, going on dates and sightseeing, when all that page space could've been used for fleshing out the girls at the convent, and the history of the unicorn hunters. Astrid, her cousin Phil, and one other girl named Cory (who's own mother was killed by a unicorn), get the most development, while the rest of the girls are just...kind of there. They're all introduced practically at one time, then get such sparse focus afterward that I could barely remember any of them or keep track of their names. Their traits boil down to "the punk rock girl", "the black girl", "the one that plays piano", etc. It doesn't help that one of the only other things they talk about, besides their training, is their love lives and lack thereof. There's a heavy focus on sex, with many of the girls contemplating wanting to sleep with guys just to get out of being hunters (since only virgins can fight the unicorns). Being an asexual myself, these scenes didn't really "do" anything for me. At best, they're boring; at worst, they're uncomfortable. The worst is when one of the characters is the victim of a rape (which thankfully is only spoken of but never shown), and everyone seemingly gets over it WAY too quickly.
And that's another thing: the pacing throughout the novel is more than a bit wonky. Within the span of just a few chapters (sometimes even just a few paragraphs), a bunch of time jumps occur, to the point that it made it hard to tell at certain points just how much time had passed between scenes. The story is supposed to be taking place over the course of a few months, but without clear time markers, it feels like it's only been a week or two. And though the story is focused on Astrid's viewpoint, nonetheless, we hardly get any indications as to the worldly impact and repercussions of unicorns suddenly appearing again. (Apparently everyone in Rome is either super oblivious or is just super committed to staying in their lane and minding their own business.) The important information we DO manage to get is given in periodic info dumps, which is then followed by long stretches in-between of the girls tooling around Rome and going to parties; all the while I'm inwardly shouting "when are we gonna' get back to the killer unicorns?!" It's not until the last six chapters or so that we FINALLY start to find out super important information---stuff that should've been more evenly spread out and explained far earlier in the story, to the point that by the novel's end, the real plot was only just finally starting. It's one thing to leave a few dangling plot threads for a sequel hook---another entirely to leave TOO much open-ended, and end the story practically in the middle of a scene.
This clunky pacing is best exemplified in Astrid, who is easily the best character, if only because she shows the most level-headedness, leadership, and logical thinking in comparison to everyone else. Between her interest in science and medicine, she's one of the only characters who acts like a decent and real human being; constantly questioning what's going on, what they're being forced to do, and why they're doing it. But therein lies another problem---almost none of the questions she brings up are ever properly answered within the narrative. It's as if the beta reader for this book brought up all sorts of questions with the logic of the story, and the author thought by just having the main character ask said questions within the story would make said problems go away. (They don't.) Every time Astrid would ask things like "what does x mean?" "Why can't we do this instead?" "Don't you guys think we should be researching x?", the other characters would either A: basically tell her to shut up, don't question destiny, and do what she's told, or B: say something like, "oh, don't worry, we'll look into that later." (And then they never look into it.)
On a final note, there's one other character I've failed to mention, that being Astrid's mom....and that's because she's, without a doubt, the worst, most deplorable excuse for a mom I've ever encountered in fiction. She's completely consumed and obsessed with unicorn hunting and the "family history", making it clear that she has mental health issues she refuses to address and seeks only to live vicariously through her daughter. She gives no regard to Astrid's feelings, nor any freedom to make her own life choices. She ships her off to Rome with barely any research into the safety of the place. She doesn't give any qualms about the other girls dying as long as Astrid is safe. And worst of all, her own niece is raped...and she says it's her niece's fault she got raped. (Um....EXCUSE ME?!?!) And by the time she finally comes to her senses and realizes what a terrible person she's been, it's far too little far too late to redeem this monster of a woman in any way.
The only redeeming qualities of this novel is that what unicorn lore we DO get IS unique, the talks the girls have about perceived destiny versus free will is interesting, and the prose itself is nice, with detailed and emotional descriptions of the Italian countryside and famous landmarks. But that isn't enough to save weak-to-insufferable characters, uneven pacing, a magic system that isn't fleshed out enough, and plot holes that are never explained. If you want to read a story with a unique twist on a mythical creature and teenage girls kicking butt, read the "Lost Voices" trilogy instead. Suffice it to say, I'm not spending any time on the sequel to this.
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