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Holly Black & Justine Larbalestier – Zombies Vs. Unicorns

November 29, 2010

145. Zombies Vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier (2010)

Length: 432 pages

Genre: Short Stories, Young Adult, Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror/Humor

Started: 15 November 2010
Finished: 16 November 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I loved Holly Black’s last YA anthology, Geektastic… plus the title made me giggle.

I’m not a zombie
but I bet unicorn brains
would be quite tasty.

Overall Summary and Review: Unicorns: Mythical beasts of power and majesty, or pansy-ass rainbow-pooping ponies? Zombies: A totally awesome yet tragically poignant symbol of the human condition, or merely mindless rotting hunks of flesh who can’t even walk properly? And more importantly, who would win in a fight? Such are the questions that Holly Black (Team Unicorn) and Justine Larbalestier (Team Zombie) set out to answer in the short story anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns.

This book was fantastic; maybe even more fantastic than I was expecting going in (which is saying something, since it’s got a very similar author list to Holly Black’s last anthology, Geektastic, which I absolutely loved). But since I don’t have a particular vested interest in either zombies or unicorns – I have neither a sparkly one-horned horse nor a shambling undead horse in that race, so to speak – I wasn’t expecting to be quite as involved in the stories. The more I read, though, the more I got into it, and just wound up enjoying myself to bits.

I think a lot of that has to do with the authors, and the editors, who seemed like they were having just as much fun as I was (if not more). I came away from this book, not only completely giggled-out, but also wishing that pretty much every author in the collection was my friend – I got the sense that having these guys over for beers and hanging out and general nerdiness would be a total blast. I think they certainly would have appreciated the night my friends and I sat at a restaurant for an hour after dinner making terrible zombie puns, starting with the old joke “What do vegan zombies eat? GRAAAAAINS”, and moving into the silly (“What do zombie choirmasters appreciate? REFRAAAAAAINS”), the inappropriate (“What does a zombie virgin do? ABSTAAAAAAINS”), and finally the truly absurd (“What are zombie magicians proficient at? LEGERDEMAAAAAAIN”). My only real question was why wasn’t John Green included in this anthology, given his public anti-unicorn stance?

In sum, this book was a mountain of fun. I don’t know if I’ve been swayed to either Team Zombie or Team Unicorn; both sets of stories had some real gems. Highly recommended to anyone who likes these or similar YA authors, has a quirky sense of humor, really likes zombies or unicorns, or just wants a fun, funny, easy read filled with some really great stories. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Individual Summaries and Reviews:

“The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix is a fairy tale involving a young princess taking her recently-deceased mother to her father the king, in an attempt to determine who poisoned the queen, and the help she receives along the way from the unicorn that is supposed to protect the royal line. This story was ostensibly on Team Unicorn, but it makes for a good opening story, since it’s got a bonus zombie as well. Not my favorite story in the collection, but still quite good, and it manages to capture the rhythm of a fairy tale really well.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson is the first Team Zombie story, and it’s a romance: what’s a young zombie to do when the boy he’s got a crush on also has the most delicious-smelling brains ever? It took me a few pages to get my bearings in this story, which I think might have been due to some weird POV tense-shifting going on (from second-person to first, and back again), but it was a very sweet little love story, in a prion-infected brain-eating way.

In “Purity Test”, Naomi Novik turns the “only virgins can find unicorns” mythology on its head, with a unicorn that’s seeking out a virgin to help him defeat an evil magician… although the girl he picks is not exactly what he expected. I loved this story: funny, snarky, solidly told, and very interesting to see Naomi Novik write something set in modern times.

“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan involves a young girl whose father took over the island of Curaçao to fortify as a last holdout against the impending zombie invasion. I wasn’t crazy about this story for most of it – something about the language and the flow just didn’t sit quite right with me – but then in the last paragraph Carrie Ryan managed to turn everything on its head and make the whole thing awesome.

“A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan involves a princess that falls in love with a unicorn, and the consequences of that, both for her and for the man who discovers her in a state of unconscious dishabille in the woods. It’s one of the few non-modern stories in this collection, and its tone is also the most distinctive. The story’s air of dark, sexually-charged fairy tale is very reminiscent of Lanagan’s novel Tender Morsels, and I found it similarly discomfiting. It was a good story, just a little jarring after some of the more humorous entries.

In “The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson, a young college student lands a job babysitting for the adopted children of a famous celebrity, but the kids are… not quite normal. But hey, that’s just what happens when you’re famous, right? Or is it? This story was hilarious – not particularly subtle about anything, particularly its poking fun at celebrity culture, but I didn’t care overly much, since I was too busy giggling.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund is the one story in the collection where the unicorns are actual bad-asses. As in: venemous, feral, predatory, human-flesh-eating bad-asses. And the narrator has special powers that draw the unicorns to her, but also lets her hear their thoughts… which is how she winds up taking care of an orphaned baby killer unicorn of her own. I really liked the concept and execution of this story, and thought a lot of the details were great. However, there was a lot of talk about how unicorns are Evil and Sinful and how this baby unicorn must be part of God’s Plan for the narrator, and she must figure out His will, which all felt somewhat shoehorned in and unnecessary.

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld takes place in one of the last holdouts of humanity after the zombie apocalypse, a la The Passage. They’ve been there for four years, and the adults seem stuck in panic mode, while the kids realize that if they want to survive long-term, something’s got to change. I liked the set-up of this story quite a bit, but to me it felt like the first chapter of a book rather than a stand-alone short story; it ended right as things started getting really interesting.

“Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot involves a shy, unpopular teen girl who really, really, really wanted a car for her birthday, but who wound up getting a totally lame, sparkly, lavender, flower-farting unicorn instead. Although this story made me really glad I’m not a teenager anymore (the narrator’s kind of bratty), it did have a solid emotional core to it, and it also had me giggling the whole way through.

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare is another zombie love story, of the young lord in a small zombie-cursed town who returns to life (or at least un-death) to be with his girlfriend again… and to demand justice for his death. While I liked the story overall, I have a hard time accepting traditional zombies as objects of paranormal romance, because cold, dead, slightly rotting flesh? Not romantic.

“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey is the only story told from the unicorn’s perspective, and he’s a killer unicorn who can heal, but can also suck years of your life away while he does it. That should be cool, but he’s not just a killer unicorn, he’s the whiniest, most self-absorbed killer unicorn to ever mope around emo-town. The writing was fine, but oy, I found the characters obnoxious.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray is, like “Inoculata”, another tale of a fortified compound of humanity after the zombie plague apocalypse. But in this case, it’s the adults who were most susceptible to the zombifying virus, so the compound now consists entirely of teens and children who must struggle to hold society together. Bray did a nice job of exploring the social and personal ramifications of a post-apocalyptic world without adults, plus this was one of the darker stories in here, and a good creepy note on which to end the collection.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bitten By Books, Book Chic Club, Bookish Blather, Cornucopia of Reviews, Dear Author, Janicu’s Book Blog, Kids Lit, Lauren’s Crammed Bookshelf, My Books. My Life., Reading Rants, Sarah’s Random Musings, Silly Little Mischief, Stiletto Storytime
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Since the dawn of time one question has dominated all others: Zombies or Unicorns?

Cover Thoughts: Just brilliant. I love that there’s no title, I love that underneath the black dust jacket is a super-detailed drawing (which continues in B&W on both the front and back endpapers) of an epic battle royale between a horde of zombies and a herd of unicorns.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 13: ““She was poisoned!” shouted Jess angrily. She pointed accusingly at Lieka. “Poisoned by your leman!”” – a mistress.

© 2010 Fyrefly’s Book Blog. All Rights Reserved. If you’re reading this on a site other than Fyrefly’s Book Blog or its RSS feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is being used without permission.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2010 7:33 am

    Is “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” explicitly part of Peterfreund’s Rampant series, or does it just fit into the world? I perked up when Peterfeund talked about religious orders of women being unicorn hunters, and this definitely sounds like one of them!

    And Kathleen Duey has a story in here? Interesting…

    And yeah, zombies are not romantic. That’s because, while the modern vampire and the modern werewolf (to a degree) have sexual elements, zombies don’t–they’re mindless consumers in our modern view. Stop trying to make sexy zombies happen, people. It’s freaking me out.

    • November 29, 2010 12:44 pm

      Omni – I haven’t read (or hadn’t even heard about) the Rampant books before reading this anthology, so I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely set in the same world, but there are some hints that make me think that maybe it’s a prequel or otherwise more closely related. The LibraryThing series page just lists it as “short story”, so that’s thoroughly unhelpful. Are the Rampant books worth reading?

      Oh, and re: the zombie romance, it actually worked out okay in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s story, but that’s because he only had the brain-eating part of the zombieism, and not the undead and rotting part.

  2. November 29, 2010 8:41 am

    This does sound like loads of fun!! By the way, all of your zombie jokes were new to me and I thought they were funny!

    • November 29, 2010 12:44 pm

      Kathy – And the variations on that joke are just about endless!

  3. November 29, 2010 11:28 am

    I think I might need this book.

  4. stilettostorytime permalink
    November 29, 2010 11:39 am

    Great comprehensive review! Thanks for linking my review as well! =)

    • November 29, 2010 12:45 pm

      stiletto – You’re welcome; always happy to share the linky love.

  5. November 29, 2010 3:06 pm

    Oh wow, you did a mini-review for each short story! You’re awesome! I want to read this now… I’ve recently been looking for lots of great short story anthologies and this one has some authors that I know and like. And wow, loving you’re zombie jokes.

    • November 30, 2010 10:11 am

      Sharry – I can’t do it for long anthologies like My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but when the number of stories is only in the teens, I like doing mini-reviews since the stories can be so variable!

      Also, if you’re looking for anthologies and don’t already have it, I highly, highly recommend Geektastic.

  6. December 2, 2010 3:55 pm

    Oh, wow, I have got to get this one. Sounds wonderful! I am a big zombie fan. In fact, my copy of Night of the Living Trekkies just arrived for me at the library. I hope it won’t disappoint!

    • December 3, 2010 9:27 am

      Darla – I’m not normally a big zombie fan, but Night of the Living Trekkiew looks brilliant… and I love the old-school sci-fi cover!

  7. December 2, 2010 4:44 pm

    This sounds hilarious!! I’m adding it to my list right now . . .

    I actually went out and bought a copy of Geektastic for my brothers for Christmas after reading your review. I couldn’t decide which geeky brother to give it to, so they’re just going to have to share :) Thanks for your reviews!


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