Mandy Reviews: Justine Larbalestier/Holly Black (Eds.)–"Zombies vs Unicorns"


Zombies versus Unicorns eh? Apparently it’s an age-old argument. Well, since 2007 anyway, when Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier began debating the virtues of each mythical creature on Justine’s blog, quickly turning the argument into a full-blown, tongue-in-cheek cyber-word-war.

The result of this word-war is the aptly titled anthology, Zombies versus Unicorns. Larbalestier is staunchly Team Zombie, while Black heads up Team Unicorn. The pair preface the twelve stories in the collection (six of each, pages marked with either a unicorn or zombie symbol) with hysterical banter that rivals the stories themselves for pure giggle-factor entertainment.

The author list is mind-numbing in a very non-Zombie kind of way; for Team Unicorn we have Meg Cabot, Kathleen Duey, Margo Lanagan, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik and Diana Petefreund.

Team Zombie boasts the names Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Maureen Hohnson, Carrie Ryan and Scott Westerfield.

Now, it has to be said that some of the featured stories are at the pointy-end of the Young Adult scale, and I wouldn’t recommend them to younger readers. There’s a reasonable amount of swearing, as well as some other icky stuff going on – yes, even ickier than dining out on live human brains. That being said, unlike many anthologies, there was barely a whiff of a rotten story between the pages (unlike rotting flesh). In fact, I found it difficult to pin-point a favourite, and there were certainly none that I wished I’d skimmed over. Each author managed to create a new or slightly different take on their chosen side of the mythological fence.

The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund was a stand-out, mainly because it’s so easy to empathise with main character, Wen. Quiet, religious and confused, Wen is struggling to find her own ideals and value system away from that of her parents. Her world is up-ended when she discovers she’s irresistible to Unicorns, and able to communicate with the dreaded killers on a telepathic level. In this world, Unicorns have come back from the brink of extinction and are blood-thirsty people-eaters living in the local woods and resemble goats rather than horses. Through a series of events, Wen finds herself as the guardian of a newborn Unicorn. Can she keep her secret? Should she dispose of the mewing, helpless predator straight away and be done with it? Will she go to hell if she doesn’t?

On a lighter note, Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson had me snickering with the kind of sick humour you know is just wrong. A teen lands herself a position as nanny to the five young children of a famous American actress in a small English town. There’s something not quite right about these kids, they don’t go outside, they moan rather than speak, and they’re fed via a computerised conveyor belt as their mother has no physical contact with them. All hell breaks loose when the mother – a beautiful, tattooed brunette with an equally famous partner and a penchant for adoption – leaves on a night out and the babysitter decides all the children need is a cuddle…

Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot has the most traditional Unicorn, right down to Jasmine scented, rainbow farts that turn sulphuric when her new owner is upset or angry.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love Will Tear Us Apart is my favourite of the zombie stories. Unusually for a short story, it is divided up into four chapters, bouncing around from present to past, telling the tale of Philip Grayson, a victim of a brain-devouring prion that he partially recovers from. I say partially, because the infection leaves him with a certain craving for human brains – and arms, and legs, and torsos. But Love Will Tear Us Apart is more than just zombie-fare; it’s a touching love story between Grayson and Jack (also known as the ‘Mac and Cheese’). Just how much restraint can one brain-eater have with the love of his life?

Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan is another of Team Zombie’s that’s worth a mention. Now, I have to admit I was one of the minority who didn’t adore Ryan’s ‘The Forest of Hands and Teeth’. I found it tedious reading. However, even though Bougainvillea is set in the same world after The Return, I really enjoyed the voice of this new character and the island setting. In fact, I hope to read more about her in the future.

The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey is another completely different take on the mythology of the Unicorn. Told from the un-named Unicorn’s point of view, this story touches on addiction, loneliness and the implications of immortality. Duey’s Unicorn has the traditional healing qualities of many old fairytales, but this beast also has the power to steal years (and life) from his victims and has a particular penchant for human babies.

I finished this anthology still undecided on the whole Team Unicorn versus Team Zombie argument. Both sides had riveting, bloody, sweet, gory and tender tales to tell. Although having a strange (or sick) sense of humour certainly helps, I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys seeing mythology turned on its head and made new again.

Oh, and don’t forget to check out the delightfully gross illustrations and endpapers. Yes, endpapers!

Zombies vs Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier.

November 22nd, 2010 by Allen & Unwin Children.

Paperback, 407 pages.

ISBN 9781742375502


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