Monday, October 4, 2010

"Zombies vs. Unicorns" ed. by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Summary: A collection of short stories about zombies and unicorns.

Musings: For fans of fantasy, sci-fi, and the bizarre in-between, the arrival of Zombies vs. Unicorns has been hotly anticipated.  Like any collection in which the stories are written for a specific purpose (i.e. none of the stories had been written or published previously), there are some hits and misses in the book.  And, despite my excitement over the topic and many of the contributing authors, I don't think I would recommend the anthology as a whole, though I might suggest specific stories.

I think the easiest way to break down my thoughts is by categories:

1) Zombies vs. Unicorns: I had the mistaken idea going in that the stories would actually be about zombies and unicorns, not simply alternating stories about each.  It makes sense that the two fantasy beings don't exist together--you'd really have to stretch to make up a dozen stories or so about the two--but I still did long for a zombie and unicorn showdown.

2) Zombies: As a whole, I thought the zombie stories were stronger, though when looking at my favorite stories, none of them were zombie stories.  As Larbalestier points out in the introductions to some of the stories, there is simply a lot more that can be done with zombies, particularly with their mythology (where did they come from, what is a zombie like, how can a zombie be destroyed).  "The Children of the Revolution" was probably my favorite, especially if you think of it as a snide, sarcastic look at what Angelina Jolie is doing with so many adopted children.  However, by the end, the zombie stories had mostly melted together into depressing end-of-the-world anguish, despite the "love story" aspect of some of them.

3) Unicorns: There were highs and lows in the unicorn stories.  Those that stuck to a traditional fantasy medieval-ish setting were the worst ("The Highest Justice," "A Thousand Flowers").  I began to think that there just wasn't enough you could do with unicorns to make a decent story.  However, Diana Peterfreund completely changed by mind with the great "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn," which managed to use the unicorn in a believable modern setting with an interesting protagonist.  Also fabulous was "Princess Prettypants," which delightfully answers the age-old question, "What would you do if you received a unicorn for your birthday?"  (My favorite line?  Young brother Ted saying, "I wasn't going to say anything because I thought you were cool, Liz.  My cool big sister.  But now that I know you don't like unicorns, I don't think you're cool at all" [292-293].) There was more fun and lightness in the unicorn stories as a whole, and they often provided a welcome break from the gloom of the zombie stories.

4) The "edginess": Zombies vs. Unicorns is marketed as young adult, but I was surprised by some of the "edginess" (it's a terrible designation, but it's the best I can think of) of the stories.  There's strong language, sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and gore.  I don't think any of it's necessarily inappropriate for a teenage audience, but it was stronger content than I had expected.  It also felt like some of the stories were trying hard to "push the boundaries" by being "dark" and including things like bestiality and masochism when it just didn't seem that necessary.  One after another, they just didn't pack an emotional punch.

5) The length: Even though it's a collection of short stories, the stories often seemed way too brief.  Characters felt incomplete or the story fell short of being fully realized.  I've read completely compelling stories that lasted only a few pages, but perhaps some of the authors in this anthology are too accustomed to writing full novels to achieve similar narrative success in a shorter format.  In fact, I felt several of the stories would have done better as a full novel.

6) The romances: A lot of romance in the stories, especially the "I've longed for you forever but we just haven't been able to say it" kind. A little tiresome.

7) Female protagonists: The protagonists of all but one story are female.  I don't know if this is because all but two of the authors are female or because the intended audience is largely female.  Or some other unknown reason.  Just something I noticed.

8) GLBT characters!: Happily, three of the stories had gay main characters just as a matter of course; their sexuality was part of their identity but not a central part of the story.  I love that I'm seeing that more often.

Although I was Team Unicorn going in, I felt my allegiance switching to Team Zombie half-way through (those early unicorn stories were just so bad!).  However, now that I'm finished, I feel completely sick of zombies and still relatively intrigued by unicorns, so I'm Team Unicorn to stay.

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