REVIEW: Zombies vs Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
I actually remember the various blog posts that inspired this anthology. Which was better: the zombie or the unicorn? It was a hilarious debate that suited the blog format. What I wasn’t sure about was how well this idea would translate to book form. I thought a lot of it depended on the inside joke of having been there for the off-the-cuff blog debate, and that’s never something you can count on in a book. While I think the editorial comments from Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier did help to recreate that joking atmosphere, a book is not a blog and in many ways, this anthology teetered on being gimmicky and cheesy.
All that said, I do like reading anthologies because it lets me sample various writers’ work in one shot. True, a short story is not like a novel and I’ve seen many excellent novelists write terrible short stories and vice versa, but I’ve picked up many a book by an author I was introduced to via short story. So I was interested to see which authors chose which creature and their respective takes on them.
Please pardon the length of this review. I tried to keep my comments concise but there are 12 stories to cover. I admit freely this is probably one of the main reasons why anthologies and collections tend to be rarely reviewed on DA.
The anthology opens with “The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix, in which Princess Jess is on a mission. With the help of the family friend (a unicorn), her recently murdered mother has been reanimated. It’s not pretty, but her mother does have one last wish: to see her murderer one last time.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that I personally think unicorns are twee and in a contest between a unicorn and a zombie, I will always choose the zombie. And while I thought the actual unicorn of this story is not twee in any way, I felt the story itself was. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I expected more from the anthology’s opening story, and even more from Garth Nix. When it comes to anthologies, I expect the leading story to set the tone for the entire collection and “The Highest Justice” left me ambivalent and unethused about the stories to follow.
As it was, I thought this story was a standard fairy tale-esque piece with very little new to offer. I predicted every single thing that happened and that’s never a good sign. C-
The first zombie story of the anthology is “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, in which the main character, Grayson, has a tiny problem. You see, he was infected by a brain-devouring prion. On the bright side, he was given a cure that stopped the prions from multiplying, thus keeping his brain in tact. Unfortunately, it was only a partial cure so while the prions don’t reproduce, they make him want to eat people. Oh well, science isn’t perfect.
Because of his homicidal/cannibalistic tendencies, Grayson is transient. You can’t stay too long in one place because otherwise people will notice the bodies piling up. The problem is that he’s developed a crush on his classmate, Jack. And he likes Jack a lot, so much so that Grayson’s willing not to eat him. Unfortunately, Jack’s dad used to be a government agent and I think we can all see where this is leading.
After the blandness of the Nix story, I really liked the pop culture-laden narrative of this story. I was also glad to see two queer teens in a YA story. This shouldn’t be remarkable enough that it warrants a separate mention but sad to say, we’re still at that point where queer characters being YA protagonists is noteworthy. But if more stories like this are written, hopefully one day it won’t be. As for the story itself, I really enjoyed the first two-thirds but the last third or so started to unravel for me. B-
In “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik, a drunken woman asleep on a park bench finds herself awakened and recruited by a unicorn to save many baby unicorns from an evil wizard.
Humorous stories are tough. Because humor is such a personal thing that varies sharply from one person to the next, it can be hit or miss. I’m afraid to say it was miss for me here. I admit I prefer humor that’s dryer and less in your face. For me, this story reeked of trying too hard to be funny and subversive. It might as well as have had neon signs announcing this fact. And in my opinion, if you have to announce that you’re subversive, you’re not. And as I’ve said before, I prefer there to be more subtlety and less anvils in my fiction.
That said, I can definitely see this story working for other people. It was just a major disconnect for me. D
Unless I’m mistaken, I believe “Bourgainvillea” by Carrie Ryan is set in the same world as The Forest of Hands and Teeth. While I was lukewarm to Forest of Hands and Teeth, I found myself very engaged with this story.
Iza lives on the island of Curacao, which managed to survive the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath thanks to the efforts of her controlling father. Much like her dead mother, Iza dreams of the world before but those dreams and her reality come to a head when a young man swims to shore. One of the reasons why Curacao has remained unscathed is because no outsiders are allowed on the island, both to ward against zombie infection and to control the population. When Iza meets this young man, does she do what’s needed or does she let him go?
I think this story stands well on its own, not requiring much prior knowledge of the books. I still wonder about the difference between the fast zombies and the slow zombies because the explanation for why a person becomes one versus the other wasn’t very clear to me. I can only assume it was covered in The Dead-Tossed Waves, which I never read. B
In “A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan, a young man is accused of raping a princess when the real culprit might be something more magical. This is the point in the anthology where I seriously started to wonder why I was having such a bad run with the unicorn stories. I do prefer zombies over unicorns but at this point, I was starting to feel like my reactions to unicorn stories could not be chalked up to that at all.
I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m not a big fan of rape in fiction, mostly due to how it’s been used and reduced to plot points. And while it was intrinsic to the story here, I was made very uneasy by the fact that the narrative depended on the idea of a man being falsely accused of rape and punished for it while the woman kept silent about the details of what actually happened. I do realize that it would be unlikely for anyone to believe the princess’s story had she told the truth, but I admit I have a difficult time separating this story from our reality, in which the fear of a man being falsely accused rape is often used against rape victims.
I also want to point out that the transitions between POV characters were confusing. “A Thousand Flowers” is written in first person POV but the narrative is told through the eyes of three different narrators and when the first switch occurred, I had to reread a few times to understand what happened. Maybe I was just being slow on that particularly day but if I had a problem, I think it safe to assume I will not be the only one. I don’t mind these sorts of narrative techniques, but I do wish the transition had been clearer. D
In Maureen Johnson’s “The Children of the Revolution”, a teenager finds herself in charge of some very strange children while trying to earn enough money to get out of England after a disastrous attempt to spend time working on a farming co-opt with her boyfriend. I really enjoyed this story. I liked the commentary about celebrities — the children they adopt, the various belief systems they follow. And I must say, that final scene is a killer. B-
Next, we have “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund. Okay, I admit I skipped your killer unicorn books because I just could not get past the premise. (See: my giving the side eye at most anything involving unicorns.) But by this point in the anthology, I was hoping for something, anything, to pick me up on the unicorn front. And to my surprise, your story did.
Set in the same world as your killer unicorn series, “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” is about Wen, who was born with the ability to sense and, therefore, kill unicorns. Unfortunately, this also means that unicorns can sense her and will try to preemptively kill her. Last summer, her cousins were killed by a unicorn that had been targeting her. Wen is just trying to forget last summer ever happened but when the carnival comes to town, complete with its own killer unicorn, she finds herself saddled with a baby unicorn to take care of.
I liked this premise a lot. Wen’s family is very religious. They think unicorns are demons and her abilities are some sort of witchcraft. So it’s believable that she would run away from her abilities, even when unicorn hunters had previously tried to recruit her. If the books had had this premise, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to pick them up because the idea of someone with the abilities of a unicorn hunter who instead chooses to raise one? That’s a variation of one of my favorite tropes.
My only complaint is that the relationship with Yves is not entirely satisfactory. I don’t know if I missed something. I get the sense there was a previous short story about Wen because I was under the impression the books featured a different heroine. If there was a previous short story, I don’t think it hampered my understanding since any necessary details were nicely worked into the story but I think it might have hurt the story arc involving Wen and Yves. As a result, I thought the ending came out of nowhere and made me give not like Yves very much because, what about his girlfriend? B
In Scott Westerfeld’s “Inoculata”, a group of teenagers and children drill in case of emergency under the watchful eyes of several adults while in the relative safety of a fence. I just did not know what to make of this story. While I again appreciated the casual treatment of queer characters, I felt like the narrative was incomplete and the emotional impact hollow. It just didn’t work for me at all. C-
With a title like “Princess Prettypants”, I had no idea what to expect from Meg Cabot. It could have been my worst fears about unicorns come true. Instead, I got a really great read.
It’s Liz’s seventeenth birthday but unfortunately, she shares it with the most popular girl at school. As a result, her birthday parties are small and sparsely attended since people opt for the larger shindig thrown by her classmate. To make matters worse, she recently broke up with her boyfriend after catching him in bed with another girl, her best friend has a crush on the school jerk, and she may possibly be developing feelings for the boy next door. Also, her family is tragically uncool and they only cement this fact by daring to give her a unicorn for her birthday.
But what stood in the barn in front of Liz, glowing softly with a kind of inner luminiscence that seemed to have nothing to do with the electrical light from the bulbs hanging from the rafters some thirty feet overheard, was not a horse.
Or rather, it had a horse’s body — a huge one, nineteen hands high at least — sleek, with a gorgeous white flowing mane and tail, soft blue muzzle, and purple fetlocks.
But jutting from the center of its forehead was a twisting, sparkling, three-foot-long lavender horn.
What her aunt Jody had sent Liz for her birthday was, in fact, a unicorn.
“You,” Liz could not help blurting out, “are shitting me.”
“Elizabeth!” her mother cried in horror. “Watch your language!”
“But that,” Liz said, raising a finger to point at the monstrosity that even now was lowering her noble head to tear at some of the grass poking from Munchkin’s old haystack,” is a unicorn.”
“Of course it’s a unicorn.” Her father walked over to the animal and gave her a hearty smack on her gleaming white flank. The unicorn tossed her head, her silky mane flying, and let out a musical whinny. Liz got a whiff of her breath, which smelled like honeysuckle. “Your aunt’s always sent you the nicest gifts. Remember that Christmas she sent you that hand-stitched pink fairy costume with the tutu and the detachable wings made out of real swan feathers?”
“Jesus Christ, Dad,” Liz said, flabbergasted. “I was five years old.”
I don’t if my positive response to this story is because Liz reflects my own personal views of unicorns or if because the story fulfills a certain criteria I use to judge many stories: If you’re going to do something, go all out or go home. If one thing can’t be said about this story, it’s that it didn’t hold anything back.
And as a result of this story, I think I need to read more of Meg Cabot’s work. B+
“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare is set in a town where, due to a curse, the dead don’t stay in their graves and reanimate as zombies. And because the zombies seek out their loved ones, everyone in the town is trapped there and has been for centuries. They can’t leave because zombies will follow them. And if people from their new homes find out — because lumbering zombies are difficult to overlook — they get driven away.
Adele is a common girl who is in love with, and dating, the Duke’s nephew, James. It’s a common perception among the townspeople that she will eventually marry him, just as he will become Duke of the town once he turns 18. Unfortunately, James is tragically killed in a car accident which, as you can probably guess, was no accident at all.
This was a pleasant story and I did enjoy the experience reading it but as I now write this review, I find myself unable to pick any points that stuck out for me. I haven’t read either The Mortal Instruments or The Infernal Devices series so I don’t know how this story compares to those books. I would expect Clare’s fans to like this story though. C+
“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey is a sad story about a unicorn who has grown addicted to the sensation of weighing a person’s life — to heal or to kill — and its quest to die. After all the stories in which unicorns played principle supporting characters, it was nice to have a story from the unicorn’s point of view that explored the burden (and dangers) of having such the traditional healing gift. C+
“Prom Night” by Libba Bray is a bittersweet story about the world after the apocalypse and what happens when all’s that left are the teenagers. It tells us about the connections between people and asks the question of what remains in a person’s heart after they reanimate. Do they still love? Is any piece of them left? All this set against the backdrop of what would have been prom night if the zombie apocalypse hadn’t happened.
I thought the bittersweet ending was very characteristic of Bray. It’s not to everyone’s tastes but she’s very good at it. I thought it was the perfect way to end the anthology. B-
As with many anthologies, Zombies versus Unicorns did end up being a mixed bag but I enjoyed reading all the various takes on unicorns and zombies, even after the shaky start for Team Unicorn.
P.S. – Go Team Zombie!