Back in 2007, Holly Black and Justine Larabalestier got in an argument about which fiction creature was superior — zombies or unicorns. Spurred on by that debate, they each recruited some of their author friends to write short tales in which they present the storytelling possibilities of the two mythic beasts. With header notes for each story in which they discuss the historical background for the different takes on the creatures, Holly Black heads up Team Unicorn, and Justine Larbalestier heads up Team Zombie.
Writing for Team Unicorn, we have Kathleen Duey, Meg Cabot, Garth Nix, Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik, and Diana Peterfreund. Writing for Team Zombie, we have Libba Bray, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfeld, and Carrie Ryan.
Zombies vs. Unicorns was a fun anthology to read. The stories ranged in tone. At the lighter end we have Naomi Novik’s “Purity Test” featuring a hung-over, not-quite-virgin recruited to help a unicorn rescue the baby unicorns that have been stolen by an evil wizard who lives in New York City with a dungeon guarded by a troll. Written with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it sends up all the clichéd ideas of unicorns and makes us realize why we all love(d) them. We also have Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants” which features a rainbow-farting Lisa Frank-esque unicorn. How do you explain having one of those as a pet?
Towards the more serious end of the spectrum, we have the more serious “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson. This was one of the strongest entries in the collection, with the story of a teenage boy who gets an infection of a zombie prion, but then gets treated with a cure after partially undergoing metamorphosis. How do you live as part-zombie, part-human? And what do you do if you fall in love, but want to eat your soulmate’s brain?
“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan is easily the most haunting and original tale for the zombies. It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world where pirates roam the seas with zombies lashed to their hulls to unleash as weapons when they strike land. A privileged young woman on an island plantation, who remembers what life was like when she was a little girl before the outbreak, has to decide how far she is willing to go to protect her way of life.
Two other highlights for Team Zombie include “Innoculata” by Scott Westerfeld. Again set in a post-apocalyptic world, this time we join a group of teenagers who are living surrounded by barbed wire on an abandoned federal pot farm in the South. The story explores what it means to be a zombie, and whether the zombie virus is actually a form of evolution for humans.
Finally, “Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare explores the more voudoun type of zombie in a city that, because of a curse, lives with their dead walking the streets. When a young man dies, what happens when his sweetheart has to spend the rest of her life with him as a zombie?
Team Unicorn stuck closer to the standard fantasy unicorn trope than Team Zombie did with their iconic creature, but I also think that the unicorn stories were slightly weaker. What I found particularly interesting was that while there aren’t any “good” zombies, there are a few different variations on killer unicorns. Diana Peterfreund penned “The Care and Feeding of Your Killer Baby Unicorn,” about a young woman who, because she is descended from the lineage of Alexander the Great, is able to actually fight the killer beasts that have, due to habitat loss, reemerged in settled lands. Even though her parents know the unicorns are demons, she is tasked with raising, and taming, one of the fearsome creatures. In the other killer unicorn story, “The Third Virgin,” Kathleen Duey explains that though unicorns are known as healers throughout most fairytales, they extend healing by taking some of your life in the future.
Zombies vs. Unicorns was a fun anthology to read. Because of the YA audience, the zombie stories are not particularly graphic; in fact most of them do not have brain consumption. Zombies vs. Unicorns may not appeal to horror fans, but if you enjoy YA fantasy, you’ll enjoy reading this volume. I always consider an anthology a success if I get exposed to a few new writers that I want to pursue further, and I definitely did here.