Book Review: Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

I’ve actually been remiss about reviewing this, because I read it a while ago, meant to write it up, and then spaced. But then I read it again, remembered how awesome it is, and made a note to talk about the greatness that is Zombies vs. Unicorns, perhaps one of the most inspired and brilliant literary anthologies I have ever read. You might think I’m exaggerating here, but I’m actually not. Seriously. This book is really good.

I take a position of neutrality in the great debate that lies at the heart of this book, which meant I was able to enjoy all the stories equally. Zombies vs. Unicorns features 12 stories by some pretty terrific young adult writers, including Garth Nix, Libra Bray, Meg Cabot, and Scott Westerfeld. Six unicorn, six zombie. Each preceded by commentary from the editors, bantering with each other as they carry on the eternal argument over whether unicorns are zombies are superior. They weren’t afraid to pull out the big guns on each other, either. I think all anthologies from now on should include warring editors, because it made this book so much more exciting.

There are several things I like about this book. The first is the broad diversity of the stories, which you would expect when each is by a different author. They’re written in a myriad of styles but they also take the legends behind them in radically different directions. There are love stories and postapocalyptic stories and gory stories, and not necessarily featuring the characters you would expect. One of the most disturbing stories was about unicorns, the best love story involved zombies. This is a book that turns assumptions about the subject matter on its head. Given how trendy zombies in particular are right now, I think that’s saying something. These authors really strutted their stuff and reminded me of why I’m so excited about what is happening in young adult fiction right now.

My favourite story in the book is ‘Prom Night,’ by Libra Bray. I like that it’s at the very end, because I can savour the book and draw it out and then delve into the best bit. I’ve always been a save the best for last type, what can I say. It has some of my favourite elements of storytelling, including a postapocalyptic world, an abrupt ending, an undercurrent of tension, and ambiguity. It’s delicious and crisply written and it fills all my requirements when it comes to a good short story.

But, really, everything in here is pretty awesome. One thing I really like is the casual inclusion of characters from different religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds. You cannot assume that all of these characters are white and Christian. Nor can you assume they are straight. I feel like YA has done a much better job recently than adult fiction when it comes to forcing people to rethink the way they casually identify characters, and making stories diverse without it feeling forced and clunky. The integration feels natural and appropriate to the story and, as a reader, you can’t fall back on your default when you envision the characters in your mind. You have to let them identify themselves to you.

We could talk a lot about the symbolism and mythology behind unicorns and zombies and the different ways people explore it; the connection between unicorns and virginity, for example, is played with a lot over the course of the book. We could also talk about why it is that both zombies and vampires are experiencing a pop culture resurgence right now and what that says about us culturally. But that would take time away from discussing how awesome this book is, and, people, it is awesome.

I loved Meg Cabot’s sendup of the pink sparkly unicorn trope in ‘Princess Prettypants.’ Kathleen Duey twisted the unicorn narrative in ‘The Third Virgin’ with…well…I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say she wasn’t the only one unafraid to push the unicorn stories into the land of darkness, creepiness, and deep disturbance. I’m looking at you, Margo Lanagan.

Zombie love, of varying sorts, popped up in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s entry along with Cassandra Clare’s. Apocalypse did come up a few times and I liked Scott Westerfeld’s take on it, playing on the inertia that would inevitably happen in a real apocalypse. Let’s face it, the end of the world would probably be pretty boring after a while. It’s hard not to imagine that, eventually, the excitement would wear off and we’d be left wondering what to do next, sinking into a slow decline of dessert points and pointless drills. Carrie Ryan also explored the theme of what happens after the apocalypse happens and people start challenging the narrative they’ve been sold in ‘Bougainvillea.’

Garth Nix managed both unicorns and zombies in his story, and they didn’t even fight! (Woe.) Naomi Novik’s ‘Purity Test’ was just plain funny, while Diana Peterfreund’s version of the unicorn legend was a rather fresh and intriguing take. Maureen Johnson skewered some pop culture and also managed to integrate a high degree of creepiness.

Really, it’s a book featuring an all star cast of contributors, taking some old themes and bringing them in new directions. There is nothing not to love here, people, I promise you. Well, unless you like your unicorns insipid and harmless and your zombies lurching and lacking in capacity.