May 10, 2012


by Diana Peterfreund

At sixteen, Seattle schoolgirl Astrid Llewelyn learns a few things. Unicorns exist. They’re real: powerful, magical, and very dangerous. They can be approached only by maiden girls. And they’re terrible, bloodthirsty monsters bent on the destruction of humankind.

It turns out that there’s an academy in Rome, recently revived, that trains unicorn hunters. Summer in Rome will look good on college applications. And, though she’s not exactly proud of the fact, it turns out that Astrid is fully qualified. (In other words, we’ve got the Slayerettes all over again, albeit with poorly-funded and disorganized Watchers.)

To its credit, the book lets Astrid interrogate this strange mythology, and she does a credible job. Who makes these rules? What sort of crazy, patriarchal, Manichaean power thought that this would be a nifty way to run things? That interrogation is the strongest part of the book and ties neatly into Arcade Fire’s “Abraham’s Daughter”:

Just as the angel cried for the slaughter
Abraham’s daughter raised her bow.

The solution (and much else) is left to subsequent books. This book is structurally simple but written with a satisfactory directness and simplicity. The sense of place is shaky. That this is tourist Rome may be excused since our heroine is, after all, a tourist, and the cloisters of the Order of the Lioness are good, but school kids spending the summer in Rome would know the Metropolitana better than these do, and they’d notice more small, disturbing oddities about life in Italy. Yes, they're distracted by attacks from legendary monsters, but surely they’re also going to be noticing that the shampoo is different, the toilets have funny shapes, there’s wine with dinner (and two mains), and people park (and sometimes drive) on the sidewalk?