Authors: Team Unicorn edited by Holly Black – Kathleen Duey, Meg Cabot, Garth Nix, Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik & Diana Peterfreund; Team Zombie edited by Justine Larbalestier – Libba Bray, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, Carrie Ryan & Scott Westerfeld
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: September 2010
Hardcover: 432 pages
It’s a question as old as time itself: which is better, the zombie or the unicorn? In this anthology, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier (unicorn and zombie, respectively), strong arguments are made for both sides in the form of short stories. Half of the stories portray the strengths–for good and evil–of unicorns and half show the good (and really, really bad-ass) side of zombies. Contributors include many bestselling teen authors, including Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson, Meg Cabot, Scott Westerfeld, and Margo Lanagan. This anthology will have everyone asking: Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone collection of short stories (although some stories fit in established universes for other series’ – i.e. Carrie Ryan, Diana Peterfreund)
How did I get this book: ARC at BookExpo America 2010
Why did I read this book: Did you SEE that author list? Although I’m not really a huge anthology fan or unicorn lover (Diana Peterfreund’s killer unicorns the exception), I am always down for a zombie collection. Not to mention, we got to meet the lovely Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black (as well as Scott Westerfeld and Diana Peterfreund) at BEA this year as they were signing galleys for Zombies vs. Unicorns. Put all that together, and there was no way I was going to miss out on reading this promising anthology.
An anthology is a tricky thing to put together – there are almost always a few gems, sparkling ever-so-brightly (not unlike a unicorn’s pretty, pretty sheen) and there are some stinkers (not unlike a zombie’s dessicated stench). The general trend of Zombies vs. Unicorns, I am happy to report, is toward the positive. While there were a couple of stories I could have done without, overall, I was entertained by and pleased with the quality of the stories in this collection. Mostly.
Here’s my take on each of the stories.
“The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix (Unicorn)
A strong start to the anthology, Garth Nix writes probably the best self-contained short story in the whole book. Featuring both a zombie AND a unicorn in the same story – on the same “side” too (I think this counts as breaking the rules) – “The Highest Justice” is a fantasy tale about a grieving young princess, her unfortunate (zombified) mother, poisoned at the hands of her treacherous father and his twisted lover. And there’s justice too. This one is a bit old school (Garth Nix is one of my favorite authors from childhood, and reading this new story reminded me of how much I love his style of fantasy and writing), and I mean that in the best way. A phenomenal start to the book – well done, editors, for beginning with this one.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Ayala Dawn Johnson (Zombie)
This short story, one of a surprising – refreshing! – many that feature a same-sex romance, is a frustrating mix of AWESOME and not-so-awesome for me. I loved the sardonic, mac-and-cheese loving voice of teen infected protagonist Grayson. The food comparisons alone are wonderful, and I loved the very real, astonishingly deep relationship portrayed between him and the delectable Jack. Lust, hate, revulsion, love all rolled into one complicated package of emotion, fueled by violence (and set to a killer soundtrack), the overall characterizations and direction of the story is brilliant. The ending line is EPIC. But, there were some stylistic choices that irritated the crap (brains?) out of me. The story is divided into different mini-chapters, alternating the realtime storyline with Grayson’s little asides about his past – and, for the most part, the little asides (in my opinion) were largely unnecessary, dragging down the irresistible momentum of the actual story. Plus, the cheese factor in the asides was high – the “Dirty Harry” chapter in particular, with cringe-worthy rules such as, “Use your brains! Or someone else will eat them for you” didn’t do anything for me, not really flowing well with the heavier, more dramatic tone of the story. But again, just my opinion. Overall, another winner.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
“Purity Test” by Naomi Novik (Unicorn)
I have had Naomi Novik on my shelf for a while now, but have yet to read her Temeraire books. As such, “Purity Test” was my first introduction to the author, and I was thrilled to finally try some of her work… but, unfortunately, this was one of the few duds (for me). Working the humor angle with a trapper-keeper unicorn on the hunt for a certain young woman, “Purity Test” as its title suggests plays on the bond between virginity and unicorns. Unfortunately, the dialogue felt kitschy, the jokes pretty bad, and the story (though well-executed), ultimately forgettable.
Rating: 5 – Meh
“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan
My favorite story of the anthology. I adored The Forest of Hands and Teeth and thoroughly enjoyed The Dead-Tossed Waves, so I was thrilled to discover that “Bougainvillea” fits in the same universe, albeit at a much earlier time. Alternating between past and present (or “Then” and “Now”), “Bougainvillea” follows Iza, a young woman on the island of Curacao shortly after The Return. Daughter of a ruthless – but effective – leader, Iza struggles with her own sense of worth, her relationship with her father, the growing threat of pirates offshore, and the ever present Mudo surrounding them all. Iza’s is a beautifully crafted, bittersweet character arc (this is right in Ms. Ryan’s wheelhouse) and I loved it from beginning to end. Especially the end. “Bougainvillea” provides valuable insight to The Return and Mary and Gabry’s world in TFOHAT and TDTW, also provoking some interesting questions, too.
I would LOVE to see Iza’s journey continue in another story or book…whaddya say, Ms. Ryan? Pretty please?
Rating: 10 – Perfection
“A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan (Unicorn)
If “Purity Test” was kitschy and plays with the technicalities of virginity and its connection to unicorns, “A Thousand Flowers” takes that virginity connection and perverts and twists it beyond recognition. Ms. Lanagan is not one to shy away from gritty, less-palatable elements and she explores the darker, more complicated side of sexuality (this is the author of Tender Morsels we’re talking about, after all). Ms. Lanagan’s work might not be for everyone, certainly not for the faint of heart, but this is an author with a gift for storytelling as she interweaves magic and wonder together with the uglier side of human nature. Is “A Thousand Flowers” a little sensationalist and exploitative? Yes. But it also is an effective, brutal explication of female sexuality and “virtue.” I’m not really sure if I particularly liked this story, but it’s certainly thought-provoking and memorable, to say the least.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson (Zombie)
This story was my first exposure to Maureen Johnson’s writing – I’ve been dying to read something by her ever since her awesome keynote speech at Book Blogger Con earlier this year. Funny, charming, incredibly witty – these are the words I would use to describe the lovely Ms. Johnson. And, just as I hoped, “The Children of the Revolution” was similarly enchanting (well, you know, in a more slimy, guts and brains and raw sinew kind of zombie way). Following a college freshman duped into following her stoner boyfriend out to the UK for a study abroad program only to learn that said program is essentially slave labor and said boyfriend is a grade-A jackass, “The Children of the Revolution” also pokes fun at Hollywood celebrities and their penchant for truly insane religions. Little adorable toddler zombies. Sponge Bob. How could I not love this story? Ms. Johnson’s voice is wry, flippant, and totally winsome. I’ll be back to sample her other work, very soon.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund (Unicorn)
This story, along with Ms. Ryan’s and Mr. Westerfeld’s, were my most highly anticipated stories of this collection, and I am happy to report that Diana Peterfreund once again delivers. “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” might sound like a playful, lighthearted title, this is a surprisingly moving story about a girl struggling with her terrifying new-found abilities, her family expectations, her relationships, and, of course, a baby killer unicorn. One of the longer stories in the bunch, “Baby Killer Unicorn” actually feels like more of a novella than a short story. I love that protagonist Wen is markedly different from the other female leads in this collection, and in fact from Ms. Peterfreund to date – she’s not as rough as Astrid (of Rampant) or as assured as Amy (of the Secret Society Girl books). Wen is quieter, religious (which stands out in a sea of usually agnostic/atheistic or religion-free genre stories), and confused – but when she does stand up for herself, it’s an awesome, empowering feeling.
While I loved the story overall, what didn’t quite work for me, however, was the question of time frame. First, the integration of unicorns into modern society sits strangely. In Rampant, the existence of unicorns isn’t really something people take as fact – but in this short story, a jump has been made where unicorns are commonly known of (they are on the news, for example) and universally feared. Also in terms of time frame, Flower/Flayer (titled killer baby unicorn)’s growth and Wen’s caring for him felt rushed and abrupt.
That said, this is one of the strongest unicorn pieces in the book, and one of the keeper memorable stories in the collection.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
“Innoculata” by Scott Westerfeld” (Zombie)
My second favorite story of the book, “Innoculata” proves to me, yet again, that Scott Westerfeld is the bees knees. Once zombies have taken over the planet and only a handful of humans remain in a basically safe enclosure, equipped with food, water and shelter, what else is there to do? “Innoculata” is a story about a rarely examined side effect of the zombie apocalypse: boredom. I love the idea of completely random inoculation (and the idea of the cowpox/smallpox explanation); I love the characters (a F/F pairing this time!); I love the idea of apocalypse survivors on a weed farm led by a former DEA raider; I love the action-packed awesomeness of it all.
Another gem of a self-contained story.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
“Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot (Unicorn)
Ahh, Meg Cabot. How I loved this story – my favorite Team Unicorn entry of the whole bunch. “Princess Prettypants” (truly awesome name) pokes fun at the Lisa Frank type of unicorn:
On Liz’s seventeenth birthday, she gets an honest-to-goodness unicorn from her crazy Aunt – one that literally farts rainbows and is named “Princess Prettypants.” Seriously. What begins as the worst birthday ever turns into a sweet revenge tale, with the help of one really, really pretty unicorn. Hilarious, smart and just…cool, written with Meg Cabot’s trademark wit and verve, “Princess Prettypants” is absolutely delightful.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare (Zombie)
Cassandra Clare’s take on zombies is slightly different than the usual “no room in Hell”/pathogen/demonic possession sort of deal – in this story, one town is plagued by a curse that brings deceased loved ones back to life as zombies. These aren’t the eat-your-brains types of zombies; rather, they are the forlorn undead that only want to be with their families and lovers. Because the undead will follow those loved ones wherever they go, no one from “Zombietown” (as Lychgate it is known to the rest of the world) is allowed to leave. That doesn’t bother Adele so much, however, because she has her true love, James, who also happens to be the next Duke of Lychgate, by her side. But when James is killed by his Uncle, their love is tested to its limits, as James returns to claim his place, and to be with Adele.
A solid entry, I liked how earnest and romantic this story was as both Adele and James are tragic characters. Although the time period felt a little oddly anachronistic (Dukes? Really?) and the overall story leaned towards the melodramatic, I finished the story feeling basically satisfied and entertained.
Rating: 6 – Good
“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey (Unicorn)
I’m not going to lie, this story was a near DNFer (“Did Not Finish”). Maybe it’s because the story is so exposition-heavy, and almost entirely internalized for the majority of the tale, from the perspective of a unicorn. Most likely it’s because “The Third Virgin” is yet another unicorn story dealing with the unicorn-virginity connection – which is unfair to Ms. Duey and her story, because had this been placed earlier in the anthology, I probably would not have had such a hard time getting through it. I’ll schedule it for a reread later, but I simply could not get hooked with the slow moving plot, and the lackluster voice of the narrating character. At this point, I think I was a little unicorn’d out.
Rating: 5 – Meh
“Prom Night” by Libba Bray (Zombie)
Well, talk about going out with a bang. “Prom Night” is one of the more haunting stories in the collection, by virtue of that ending. I loved the moral quandary this particular story posed – which is something that none of the other entries attempted. Even though the world has turned into kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, what is the moral thing to do? Did the teens of “Prom Night” do a terrible thing by sending their infected parents beyond their walls? At what point does the veneer of civilization begin to wear thin?
Libba Bray’s closing is a fitting end for a pretty one-sided showdown. Sorry Team Unicorn – from where I’m sitting, Team Zombie is the clear victor.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
On the Introductions…
The book and each story are prefaced by quick exchanges between editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier – and while I enjoyed this quippy rapport, and the general idea of a zombie-unicorn throwdown, my only quibble is that after a while, these introductions felt a bit repetitive and the teeniest bit self-serving and silly. I’m absolutely certain that it was a blast to write and work on this collection together – but as a reader, the introductions seemed to be more fun for the authors than perhaps they will be to their audience.
That said, overall, Zombies vs. Unicorns is a solid anthology, and well worth checking out. I definitely recommend it – especially for the zombie or unicorn lover.
Overall Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Dark Life by Kat Falls
And would you look at that? We’ve got TWO copies of Zombies vs. Unicorns up for grabs. The contest is open to addresses in the US and Canada and will run until Saturday August 21 at 11:59pm (PST). ONLY ONE ENTRY PER PERSON – multiple entries from the same IP address will be disqualified. Entry is simple – just let us know which team floats your boat – zombies? Or Unicorns?
Good luck! We will announce the winner on Sunday in our weekly Smuggler Stash.