Book Review: “Zombies vs Unicorns”

I remember getting this book. I thought it looked fun and silly and it was full of authors whose work I loved and several I didn’t know. I’ve never been one for short story collections or anthologies, I do read them but I like going on long journeys more so than short trips. Within Zombies vs Unicorns there are 12 stories tied together by  commentary between Justine Larbalestier, captain of team Zombie, and Holly Black captain for team Unicorn.

After reading Ender’s Game I felt like I needed a pick me up and I grabbed Zombies vs Unicorns for a palette cleanser. I figured it’d be a nice flash from the past from when I was in high school/college and versus were hugely popular. (They probably still are, but I’m out of the loop). I also loved the colorful cover that appeared when I took off the book cover. It’s grusome and gory. I mean look at this, it’s actual art of zombies and unicorns fighting. You don’t get a lot of books that take their theme and run wild with it. (10)

The art was done by Josh Cochran, who according to his interview with said:

 I referenced Hieronymus Bosc’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” and used that as a starting point.

And it for sure gives off those vibes.

First we have our hosts, our guides through this series of stories. Justine Larbalestier is an author who I  didn’t think I’d read before. But I have. When I was younger, maybe middle school, I read her Magic or Madness series which I remember throwing me because I hadn’t realized it was set in Australia and kept getting thrown by different terminologies.  She is very adamantly team Zombie. Then there’s Holly Black, who before I left for Korea I’d read almost everything of hers I could get my hands on, which is probably a leading factor on why I have this book. She’s team Unicorn. The book opens with an introduction about how this collection came to be as well as a conversation between the two and a note that each story is marked with a zombie or an unicorn so that readers who want one or the other (or our two team captains) don’t have to read the other teams works.

It was very silly to me at first and I was delighted. But as I continued through the book and read the openings it started coming off mean. A bit that one played more fiercely and roughly than the other that I found quickly lost its luster and just made me feel bad for the other team. Guess I learned that good sportsmanship and friendliness even in a competitive book is important to me and constantly putting down the other team because you don’t like their topic isn’t something I’m a fan of.

But I guess for me it’s also reflected in the topics. To me, Unicorns are absolutely a harmless mythical creature. Zombies are gruesome and in almost all cases, it’s a reanimated dead person that’s falling apart and I get how that can make someone uncomfortable and they wouldn’t want to read it. A good example is that I love the TV series Hannibal and find the way they did the show absolutely beautiful but I also get that it’s gory and is cannibalism at its core which I’m sure grosses people out. So I respect that. I don’t think they’re (unicorns and zombies) on the same level. People can prefer not to read a story about a unicorn but I doubt in most cases it’ll keep someone up at night or trigger their anxiety. But that’s me. I also know some people are super scared of horses, so maybe those people wouldn’t be down for unicorns. But I did do a poll on my twitter and everyone who voted voted for team Unicorn.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

“The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix

We open with a combo historical story. This one is a zombie story and a unicorn story even though it’s team Unicorn. It follows a princess who enlisted a unicorn to help keep her mother alive so she can say goodbye to her father and enlist justice since her mother was murdered. It was interesting to me as a premise and tale but not my favorite or least favorite in the series.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

This is one of the many romantic zombie stories. This one stars a boy who has prions (an infectious disease) that the government sort of controlled and cured but hadn’t fully done so and he escaped but still hungers after flesh. He ends up falling for a boy whose father has trained him to be a ruthless killer and struggles with his hunger for other people and his infatuation. I liked the premise of this one but I also got very uncomfortable with the mac and cheese descriptions and comparisons. I don’t know, this story might’ve ruined mac and cheese for me.

“Purity Test” by Naomi Novik

An evil wizard has gone about kidnapping baby unicorns in the hopes of achieving eternal life so a unicorn has nabbed the first “virgin” it could find, which was a homeless lesbian who wasn’t a virgin wearing a U.S. marine jacket, to help save the day.

I liked this one a lot. It was very tongue in cheek about unicorns and the myths surrounding them. I liked the relationship between the heroine and the unicorn, it felt fun and light hearted.

“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan

When the world started to come to an end a young girl gets whisked away to the island, Curaço, her mother is from and her father takes control and rules the island keeping zombies or mudo and pirates at bay. There are two different types of zombies in this world, slow shuffling kind and faster more dangerous ones, lihémorto. The story jumps between the past and the now. To her growing up on the island, the captains of various ships bringing her gifts, treasures they’ve ripped from their families to win her father’s favor, including harlequin books that lead her to have romantic dreams about pirates and being saved from this world and boring day today, and a pretty beaten up board game. Until of course, paradise is ruined and she’s got to choose between her dreams and her training.

This one is the first post-apocalyptic story in the book and while I absolutely loved how it ended I realized something very important that sort of made the rest of this book difficult for me with the zombie stories. During a pandemic I’m not comfortable reading about the end of the world caused by an infectious disease. I also have a hard time liking heartless characters so while I got the characters I also didn’t…like them.

“A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan

A very drunk man is out and about in a historical world trying to find a place to pee. He does not want to pee on the flowers and eventually finds a spot. After his need is dealt with he spots a unicorn and follows it and finds a maiden who looks like she’s been assaulted and he sets about adjusting her clothes so no one sees her in such a state only for her guards to find him over her and take him prisoner. He stands before the queen who asks if he is the one who assaulted her and she says he wasn’t so he returns home only to get jumped by the guards again a few months later because the princess is pregnant.

The conversation at the beginning of this short story ruined this one. They sort of bleep it with little stars but it gives away the thing you don’t realize till you’re near the end of the short story. But if you read the introduction Justine Larbalestier spoils it. So if you want to read this story skip her introduction and read it at the end. You’ll probably agree with her, but still…absolutely ruined it for me. But I think this story in general is pretty dark and the changes in main character/ POV (point of view) is not my favorite thing, especially in a short story. This one is pretty low on my list in the collection, and I honestly don’t know how much of it is because I read the intro before getting into it.

“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson

A college girl is lured to England by a very stoned boy she’s in love with to pick berries for the summer and it seems romantic but ends up being awful and he leaves her to fend for herself since he has money but this trip ate up all of her savings. So she struggles on until she gets an offer to babysit at a mansion for a famous actress. But all the children are a little…odd and the actress is a part of a cult, but she decides it’s harmless and takes the job.

This zombie story was kind of fun? Like not my favorite zombie story in the entire set, but it wasn’t post-apocalyptic it was more about a dangerous cult.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund

Unicorns have come back from extinction and it turns out they actually are preditors and not pretty harmless things. A girl who survived a unicorn attack goes with her friends to a freak show that’s been set up in town and there’s a unicorn on display. She can tell because of her blood that it’s real and the unicorn tries to bow to her but she panics and runs away. But she’s drawn back and ends up taking the pregnant unicorns child in despite believing that unicorns are evil and knowing her parents who are highly religious will believe she’s invited magic and witch craft and demonic evil into herself. But she can’t help it and sets about taking care of the small creature.

This might have been one of my favorites in the book. I’d read a whole novel about this concept and story. Give me killer unicorns and the people who they’re drawn to. Though again, part of the intro sort of spoiled this one. Not by much but a little.  For me this one I believe is the winner for team Unicorn. Though I think Purity Test comes in a very close second.

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld

The world has ended and a small band of people are living on a US sanctioned pot farm. It’s got an intense fence around it and they’re doing their best to go through lessons and survive. Our main character has a crush on this girl whose changed up her look over the past month and learns that she’s immune to zombies. She got bit and got a little sick but healed and she offers the main character a chance to escape and be blood sisters and immune.

I don’t know how I feel about this one. On the one hand post-apocalyptic and mildly depressing. On the other hand a cure? Kind of? It’s an interesting concept but there’s also no knowledge on what happens next on any front. Cool imagery though.

“Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot

For her birthday Liz’s parents are putting together a surprise party and Liz is trying to figure out what her big surprise is. Not a car, even though she wants one, because she knows her parents can’t afford it but there’s something in the barn. Turns out it’s Princess Prettypants, a unicorn that farts jasmine that she really doesn’t want. Much to everyone’s disappointment in her. But when her best friend calls in a panic that a boy she liked did something bad she has no one else to turn to to help her friend, except Princess Prettypants.

I loved this one. It’s pretty up there on my list, which is mostly team unicorn to be honest. Plus the awkward teen life was strong in this one.

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare

There’s a town, Zombietown or Lychgate where the dead come back to life. A young girl who is in love with the town’s prince watches a car hit him and has to wait for him to come back and wonder why he hasn’t come back yet, knowing that his uncle who doesn’t want him to rule probably murdered him and is feeling awful over the fact she wasn’t allowed at the funeral and knowing all the zombies in town are watching her, waiting.

Out of all the Zombie stories this is by far my favorite one. Maybe the only one I 100% liked. It’s not post-apocalyptic as it’s just a cursed town, and it’s romantic and full of justice and listening to the unheard and just so good. I crown this one the winner for team zombie.

“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey

A unicorn has woken into the world not knowing where it came from or what it’s suppose to eat until it runs into a virgin in need of help. The virgin can hear the unicorn and talk with it, but their dad was badly injured so the unicorn heals the man and realizes it can eat some of the man’s life. Word spread and the unicorn heals people and takes some of their life force, first fairly and then as much as it wanted with no repercussions. The unicorn is immortal and in search of someone to talk to, only virgins in need it seems is able to understand it. So it meets a boy and helps him by freeing him but then realizes it’s been a terrible creature, essentially murdering people left and right and sets off to commit suicide. Till it meets a girl who survived a great fire and was badly burned who also wants to end her life. They strike up an agreement.

This one I think needs some trigger warnings. There’s so much suicide and attempted suicide within this story as well as a conversation that amounts to pretty much just saying that someone kept attempting suicide for the attention which is…rough. This is a gory and difficult story I think, one of the most for team unicorn, and really not my favorite. It’s not the only “evil” unicorn story in the group but it’s pretty dark.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray

The world has ended and all adults have died. The virus seemed to hit adults first and then they would turn on their children. The adults built an electric fence around the town but when the teens realized they were just struggling with the inevitable they kicked out all the adults. The leaders of the school (student government essentially) have become cops and spend their time killing zombies that appear at the endge of the electric fence. Tonight is the night they’d planned long ago back when school had been a thing, the best prom night ever. They wander around town taking care of different problems as we learn more about them, the town, and the inclosing end of everything.

This one I wonder if I would’ve had a different opinion on if I was still a teen. I’ve found as an adult I’m no longer particularly happy with stories where all the adults are dead. But in this case I still have a bazillion questions like what about kids? Are all the kids dead as well? Only teens survived? How do they still have gas? How do they still have a running movie theater and electricity? How big is this town/city that has the electric fence? How is anyone getting around if only the “police” are allowed to use a car? How is everyone chipping in and spending their time? It just seems like only one other kid has taken on a job and that’s at the diner, and everyone else is just….doing nothing.

But this was another postapocalyptic story and one with a dark dysmal ending that just left the book on a weird note that kinda threw me. Like so many of the zombie stories were paranormal romances but they chose one of the dark non-romantic ones to end on and I think with the state of the world right now it just was not the note I wanted to end on.

This book in general was an interesting collection and I read some really great stories in it as well as some that just missed their mark. But I think that’s how most collections are. I think the book itself is absolutely amazing, but maybe 1/3 of the stories were winners for me. And I do think not being a teen anymore as well as living in a world with a highly infectious diesease running rampant, killing and maiming many, that I’ve learned zombie stories without happy endings are going to have to be avoided by me for the awhile. Give me the short story “Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare or Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and that’s about as much as I can take. As a person who loves horror this surprised me but I also get it when I stepped back and realized why the zombie stories were making me so unhappy. I do wonder if I just can’t do any dark/horror stories for awhile. I guess we’ll see as I go through my bookcase.

Have you read  Zombies vs Unicorns?  What did you think? Which team would you’d be on?

Want to read Zombies vs Unicorns? You can get a copy hereand support local bookstores while you do.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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