Astrid Llewellyn grew up to her mother’s tales of unicorns; far from fluffy pink ponies with dainty, sparkling horns, Astrid’s mother swears that real unicorns are beasts with razor-sharp teeth and equally sharp, venomous horns, preferring to gore people than to help them. They are vicious hunters, and the only humans who stand a chance against them are themselves hunters: virgin female descendants of Alexander the Great, bestowed by nature, genetics, or possibly magic with superhuman speed, strength, and aim—but only when unicorns are present. Plus, they’re immune to alicorn (unicorn horn) venom.
Naturally, sensible would-be-doctor Astrid doesn’t believe a word and is ashamed of her obsessed and possibly delusional mother.
Also naturally, Astrid’s mother is right. Except for one thing: Astrid’s ancestress did not successfully exterminate the unicorns. After two centuries without any sign of unicorn activity, they’re back, starting with the one who nearly kills Astrid’s jerk of a boyfriend. Astrid is promptly packed off to Rome, where a cloister for the training of hunters is being hurriedly restarted. Astrid doesn’t relish her new role; she chafes at the restrictions, the assumptions that different families of hunters have different unicorn-related specialties, the refusal to let her near any of the unicorn and hunter biology being studied. Still, she doesn’t see herself as having much of a choice, and generally constrains her opposition to sneaking out with her cousin to spend time with their new boyfriends.
The unicorn lore is detailed and consistent, showing signs of careful and loving craft. I do wish some things were a bit more spelled out; I’m sure the author knows what was going on with some surprises toward the end (relating to unicorn healing powers), but it would have been nice if she shared. The plot is well crafted and the pacing is interesting; it moves in fits and starts as life in the real world does, without dragging.
The characters are decidedly less fleshed-out than either the unicorns or the plot. Most of the hunters never develop distinct personalities; factions developed in the cloisters and had fairly messy disputes, but I could never remember who was on which side, who was related to whom, etc., because they were just names, not people. The worst offender is Lilith, Astrid’s mother. Her obsession with unicorns and desire for Astrid to gain glory as a hunter completely overwhelms any other personality traits. Even after a supposed sea-change and revelation, Lilith just keeps beating the same dead horse (er, unicorn?): unicorn hunting should be glamorous and exciting, as a Llewellyn Astrid should be the best of the best. It goes beyond obsession; reading it, I was uncomfortably aware of Lilith as a construct, rather than a person.