People who know me know I sometimes--even often--read the ends of books first. I have been told variously that this is a tragedy, a blasphemy, and just plain inexplicable. Why do I want to spoil myself?
Because for me, the pleasure of reading a book isn't the final surprise; it's watching the pieces fit together. I like dramatic irony. I like the question being not "where are we going?" but "how are we going to get there?" In a good book--or at least, a certain kind of good book--the latter provides just as much tension as the former.
This is one of those books. I think I read the ending six or seven times as I went through the book, and each time it meant something different to me, and each time I found different aspects of it surprising. Even reading it when I was a mere 50 pages away, I couldn't quite figure out how the final piece of character motivation was going to fit in.
But it did, of course. And so I finished the book not with a sharp cry of "What?" but with a deeply satisfied, "Oh."
Part of the reason this book works so well for my style of reading is that it doesn't have much of a conventional structure. Rampant
did--the protagonist learned she had powers, moved away from home, studied and mastered them, and then fought a triumphant final battle. But there's no clear enemies here in Ascendant
Astrid is an interesting twist on the reluctant hero. It's not that she doesn't want her powers, or is scared of them; she thinks they're pretty nifty. But she's also acutely aware that being a warrior is a lifetime career only for those who die young, and in dropping out of high school to study combat skills she's put some unfortunate breaks on her ability to pursue more conventional paths--like science and medicine--later. Think Buffy--except she's not the only girl in the world, she's one of many, so there's not the same driving need to sacrifice herself. Instead, she has to decide how far she wants to push herself.
And meanwhile, there's the question of the unicorns. Yes, they're dangerous--but so are tigers and bears. The book makes it very clear that there's nothing intrinsically evil about the species. I liked Phil's determination to save the unicorns, and the tension that her endangered species quest put between her and the other girls, with more immediate "save this family from being eaten by unicorns" concerns.
This is a book of tensions, not open conflicts; of conflicting, but ultimately understandable goals, not battles. It opens up the universe immensely, leaving more untied threads than it started with, which in some ways is an odd choice for a book with no sequel forthcoming. But it works for me, because in the end, it's a book about Astrid finding her way outside the boxes that her friends and family and partners have placed her in. I like that it ends with her looking outward, with a whole universe of possibilities open and no obvious right choices. What's important is that she knows she gets to choose.
(I still don't like Astrid's mom, who seems a caricature, but I guess some people really are that awful. At least she doesn't get much screen time.)