Genre: Young Adult fantasy, zombie apocalypse, teen romance, short story anthology
Age Range: 12+
In Zombies vs. Unicorns, Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier bring together some of the biggest YA authors (both popular and critically acclaimed) to pick sides and write about their favourite creatures.
The impressive roster includes Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik, and Garth Nix…and the stylistic and narrative breadth of the collection shows.
This collection is fun, fresh, imaginative…and filled with zombies and unicorns.
Buy Zombies vs. Unicorns here.
There are a lot of stories here, so I’ll just highlight a few of my favourites (in order of appearance):
Garth Nix’s “The Highest Justice” considers the extent to which a unicorn’s healing power can go in service of justice. I’ve been a big fan of Garth Nix since Sabriel, and this one is in the same vein. It features a unicorn, but also an undead queen and a stalwart heroine. It’s brief and flirts with twee unicorny culture (Queen Jessibelle?), but Nix is great at describing the relationship between the living and the dead. The unicorn’s visibility or invisibility depending on the viewer’s virginal status leads to some comedy as Princess Jess seems to talk to herself while pursuing vengeance.
By contrast, Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” taps into the disturbing sexual undercurrent of virgin/unicorn imagery. If you’ve never read any Margo Lanagan, this story is a shock. If you have read any of her other stuff (like Tender Morsels, which won the 2009 World Fantasy Award) you will have carefully shielded your heart before you start reading. Because her writing is beautiful and brutal. (Trigger warnings for sexual violence and traumatic pregnancies apply.) The story is told from three perspectives, the hapless, goodhearted, doomed Manny Foyer, a shocked nameless midwife’s apprentice, and the shrewd midwife, Joan. Manny finds what he assumes is a raped girl and his attempts to help her go terribly awry. The apprentice and Joan deal with the aftermath, tending to a girl trapped in a castle. A tragically short-lived, mysteriously pearly baby features. The unicorn is central, but its role makes sense only through reading.
Kathleen Duey’s “The Third Virgin” features a unicorn who is a suicidal serial killer! An immortal unicorn becomes addicted to taking life in exchange for its healing powers. This story contemplates the toll of immortality and the unicorn’s destructive fascination with human fragility. In the present day, the unicorn eventually meets his match in a clever virgin with whom it strikes a deal. There’s also an interesting underlying narrative about the colonization of North America as the unicorn tries to evade an ever-more populated planet. (Duey’s most known for her middle-grade American Diaries and Survivors series, so the story is also a great opportunity to see an author’s breadth in skill.)
Reviewing my favourites, I sense my own bias towards fantasy that takes itself seriously. The other unicorn stories, Naomi Novik’s “Purity Test,” Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants” and Diana Peterfreund’s “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” are all tongue-and-cheek send-ups of sparkly unicorn culture. (Steven R. Boyett’s wise-cracking unicorn Ariel would be at home with Novik’s Belcazar.) These stories are fun (and I very much like other books by these authors), but they trade on our superficial fascination with sparkly things. My favourites push past the rainbow fart stuff.
Are unicorns for “virgins”? How does the idea of “virginity” get reassessed in each story? If there is an attraction between young women and these animals, what is the nature of that attraction? (For Duey it is spiritual. For Lanagan, the sexual attraction between beast and girl compensates for misogynist human culture.) If unicorns are immortal, how does immortality warp their perception of the humans who are so fascinated by them? With one exception, the unicorns in Zombies vs. Unicorns don’t solve problems for humans – in fact, they often bring trouble with them. But those who witness unicorns have an opportunity to reflect on what is possible in their world.
It’s been almost ten years since the publication of Zombies vs. Unicorns, and I’m struck by how well most of them have aged. Harry Potter and Twitter references made me realize how long certain cultural norms have been around. There are several gay characters and the characters have a mix of cultural backgrounds. The only story that seems dated is Cabot’s, wherein the now-outdated cellphone technology means that an inappropriate photo can be destroyed alongside the phone that took it. (Also, Cabot’s story isn’t up to her usual standard, this coming from a long-time Cabot fan.).
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL…
Because there’s also lots and lots of zombies in this collection. (My favourites are Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Carrie Ryan’s “Bougainvillea.” Ryan’s is narratively interesting, with two timelines that lull readers into underestimating the romance-novel reading Iza.)
Black and Larbalestier provide a short editorial dialogue in front of each story, something that I find really interesting. It clarifies to teen readers that stories exist and grow powerful in conversation with each other. That being said, I wish that the conversation didn’t have a combative premise (who “wins”: Team Zombie or Team Unicorn) and that Black had offered a more robust defense of “Team Unicorn” to balance out Larbalestier’s spirited assertion of the narrative superiority of zombies and her horror whenever the unicorn stories go into new territory (which they do!).
The juxtaposition of unicorns and zombies gives readers an opportunity to think about different frameworks for fantasy.
Of six unicorn stories, only two are medievalist fantasy (and of high quality); the others situate their unicorns in contemporary life. Lanagan’s medievalist fantasy nonetheless speaks powerfully to a culture of misogyny recognizable in our own moment. In the contemporary stories, protagonists struggle with the fact that their perception of reality differs immensely from that of the everyday individual. Seeing unicorns (and defending them) means protagonists must develop the strengths of character needed to live in a society while being different. By contrast, only one zombie story (Cassandra Clare’s “Cold Hands”) doesn’t start the zombie apocalypse in a reality recognizable from our own.
In her editorial commentary, Larbalestier argues successfully that zombies are more “democratic” and less tied to European aristocratic narratives about female purity. Sure!
But zombies come with their own narrative limitations.
Zombie narratives usually focus on survivors, which creates an artificial bias towards people who have survived by accident OR invites teen readers to believe that survivors are “special” because their skills makes them “better” than the average victim.
Zombies vs. Unicorns actually skirts this trap somewhat. Three zombie stories involve protagonists who are infected (Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Maureen Johnson’s “The Children of the Revolution” and Scott Westerfeld’s “Inoculata”)…a decision that has great potential to recast the zombie narrative. While Grayson in Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” becomes a fugitive to hide his zombie condition (and his embarrassing habit of eating people), his desire (and appetite) for Jack makes readers feel for a protagonist who is no longer human and straining to exist. By contrast, in “Inoculata,” the infected children join the dominant zombie population…as their evolutionary successors.
In the zombie stories in the collection, adults are either absent or irrelevant or villainous. This has the effect of letting teens have more power and decision-making skills than usual. But then what future is imaginable for these young people? This is a problem with YA sci-fi in general…and can be seen in a lot of children’s lit, too. Like the people who idealize Peter Pan, rather than realizing that his eternal childhood makes him tragically limited. If being a teen is the moment of greatest power, then where is there room for growth? Libba Bray’s moody “Prom Night” imagines the protagonist Tahmina’s grinding responsibilities as a teen cop very well…but with the zombies coming, what hope is there for her?
Maybe she needs a unicorn.