Review: Zombies Vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Zombies Vs. Unicorns book coverThis is fun collection of mostly urban fantasy stories centering on (duh) zombies or unicorns. It is framed as a competition between the two editors, where Team Zombie is led by Justine and Team Unicorn by Holly. There are twelve stories in the collection but I was only able to read ten of them due to a weird printing error (pages from one story later in the book replaced pages in two other stories earlier in the book). Not sure how that happened with a major publisher like Simon & Schuster, but okay…

The first story is “The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix, on Team Unicorn. It’s a fairly simple fantasy story about a princess being given what’s rightfully hers with the help of a unicorn dispensing justice.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson is the first Team Zombie story. It’s about a zombie named Grayson who’s got a big crush on a boy named Jack. There are some pretty funny moments in it. When he’s talking about how he doesn’t know who he was before he caught the prion that makes him a zombie, he says about the prion:

That means it has to be drunk, snorted, dripped, or anally inserted. Yeah, I don’t want to know what the fuck I was doing either.

The story’s told mostly in second person (“you”), which I am not a fan of. (Actually, it drives me crazy and I sort of hate it. But I didn’t hate this story, mostly because it moves at a fair clip.)

The next story is “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik, a unicorn one. It’s also funny. An evil magician has been kidnapping baby unicorns and an adult unicorn is on the hunt for a virgin to help stop the bad guy.

The next two stories—“Bougainvilla” by Carrie Ryan and “A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan—are the ones that got the pages from another story dropped in the middle of them. So I can’t say anything about them.

“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson is another zombie story. It too is funny (this is a theme for much of this collection). In this one, a college girl dreamily follows her boyfriend to England to pick berries only to find that this is backbreaking, soul-destroying work. After he abandons her for the greener pastures of London, she ends up getting a gig babysitting some weird kids. Some very weird kids.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund gives an interesting take on unicorns. Maybe they’re not what they’re supposed to be—maybe they’re vicious killers. But what about a baby one?

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld is another zombie story. A few years after the zombie apocalypse, some teenagers are bored living with each other and a handful of adults, running pointless drills to stay prepared. So one of them figures out a way to make things more interesting—for both the kids and the zombies.

The next story is “Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot and it has the honor of being my favorite story in the collection because of its humor. A seventeen-year-old is given a unicorn for her birthday and doesn’t know what to do with her—until she figures out a perfect way to use her, to great effect.

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare has a slightly different take on zombies (the book says it’s like the voudin tradition of the possessed dead) that leads to a very different love story.

Kathleen Duey’s “The Third Virgin” takes a dark look at the downside of being a unicorn with healing powers. It’s told from the perspective of a unicorn who just wants it to all be over.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray is definitely the most haunting in the collection, ending with a surprise for the reader and a promise of an unpleasant surprise for the characters.

A lot of these stories are fairly long, but they also are pretty deep. They explore different themes and in the end, I can’t say whether zombies or unicorns won. That will have to be up to you. But if you like fantasy/dystopian, you might enjoy this collection even though it’s almost ten years old.

Review: Dread Nation (Dread Nation #1) by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation book coverThis is really a remarkable and very powerful book. First off, it’s a very engaging and exciting story with some action. You’ve got the Civil War setting and you’ve got zombies. I’m pretty sure that Civil War era isn’t a common setting in YA historical fiction, so that’s a nice thing right there. But Ireland has really twisted that setting with her introduction of zombies, or shamblers as they call them in the book (which is, by the way, an awesome term).

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead rose up off the battlefield and that started the epidemic. The Civil War ended because the North and the South basically needed to band together to fight the shamblers. Slavery is illegal, but it’s not exactly a time of respect for black people. And Ireland did something else really interesting—she took the concept of the schools that they used to forcibly send Native American kids to back in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were horrible places where the primary goal was to eradicate Native American culture. Ireland took that concept and created combat schools for Native Americans and black people to learn how to effectively fight the shamblers. Because apparently it’s their duty to do that while the white people get to mostly laze around.

This is all a great and very creative setup, but what really makes the book is the main character. Jane McKeene has everything you could want in a protagonist. She’s smart and has serious moxie—you’d have to be a pretty weird person not to like her. Some of this is her training, but most of it is just who she is. She is a black, which seriously limits the roles she can play in life. But she doesn’t let that stop her. She was born to a white woman in Kentucky who was married to a rich man off in the war. I didn’t expect to get the full story on that but we do near the end, and it surprised me.

Okay, so that’s the basic setup. But there’s more to it because Jane gets herself mixed up into some intrigue. The school she attends—Miss Preston’s School of Combat—is just outside Baltimore, which claims to be shambler-free. But all is not as it seems. After a bold rescue of an entire room of people, Jane ends up getting the attention of the mayor of the city. Soon she is paired up with a boy named Jackson and a girl from her school, Katherine, on an adventure none of them wants. Fortunately, Jane’s there to save the day in her own way.

Let me just say that Jane’s voice is amazing. She’s so distinctive but is absolutely believable as a girl in her circumstances. When asked “Wherever did they find you?” she answers, “At the junction of hard luck and bad times,” because that’s what her momma used to say. She’s pretty unflappable, but even she has moments where the horrors of the attitudes of the times make her a little emotionally vulnerable: when Jane and other black kids are jogging into a new situation, she thinks:

Old Professor Ghering called Negroes livestock the night of the fateful lecture. I can’t help but think of him as we scurry along.

I loved that moment (for a character in a book) because it shows just how awful that racist climate is—even someone who knows better falls prey to shame. It’s insidious. She’s a very complex character.

Some of the other characters are also fairly well-developed. Katherine in particular is interesting because she’s walking a fine line that really challenges her. She’s very different from Jane at the beginning of the book, but less so at the end. Her circumstances make her different partially because she can pass for white. A couple of the other characters that mattered were Jackson and Gideon, and I have to say that they could both have been developed a bit more. I wanted more of both of them.

I should mention that Jane is technically bisexual because this has been another touted feature of the book. I say technically because it wasn’t integral to the story at all—it felt tacked on. Like, ooh, let’s make her bi, too! Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing that, but it’s just not interesting or admirable.

Race, on the other hand, is absolutely intrinsic to the story. No way could this book have been written if race wasn’t addressed head-on. Ireland is unapologetic about it, too. The racism is painful and very real. A preacher in the book says:

“I know that you can deal with the obstinate Negroes as long as you remember that they are, at their heart, children. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ as the Scripture tells us.”

On the risk for black people attempting to pass as white, Jane thinks, “There’s nothing white folks hate more than realizing they accidentally treated a Negro like a person.” The woman who raised Jane (a former slave at her house) once told her about the “bad old days”:

It was bad then, Janie. A different kind of bad, but bad all the same. … So don’t let nobody tell you any different about the old days. Life is hard now, nothing but suffering, but some kinds of suffering is easier to bear than others.

This will be a hard book for some to read, but I still think it’s worth it. It tells us some truths about the times even while doing so through the screen of zombies.

Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Only Ever Yours book cover

Only Ever Yours is Irish author Louise O’Neill’s first novel and it’s remarkable. You know how some books stay with you, or basically haunt you? This is one of those. She creates an extreme and disturbing dystopian world that is still very credible. Think The Handmaid’s Tale. It messed with my head so much that I had to tell other people about it—I needed to get it off my chest to spread some of the feeling of disturbance around.

I’ll give you a basic setup of the world of the book. Men control virtually everything. Or, they control everything that matters, leaving a few women in charge of controlling the “designed” girls that are brought up entirely to satisfy the all-important men in one way or another. They are test tube babies, basically, and each have a number assigned to them (their model number). Everything they do relates to a specific cohort of young men. Each year, the society designs three times as many girls as there are two-year-old boys. The girls’ roles are determined on their sixteenth birthday, where they will each become a companion (the designated son-breeding machine assigned to one of the cohort), a concubine, or a “teacher” at the center they themselves were raised in.

O’Neill’s main character is called frieda (aka #630) and the book is told entirely from her (very warped) perspective. She’s approaching her sixteenth “design day.” frieda doesn’t know how messed up her world is and O’Neill does a magnificent job of withholding details of that world, letting just enough info leak out to keep you really interested. You know throughout the book that the ending isn’t going to be nice—whatever role she is assigned, it’s terrible. All the girls strive to be companions, but even that has a very disturbing consequence, besides the inherent being-a-slave part. But the ending still surprised me.

The world is so extreme that some might find it hard to buy into. After all, the girls all are basically willing participants in a system they don’t question. But I found it credible because girls and women have a track record of participating in their own subjugation (judging others for not wearing enough makeup or for dressing “slutty”, voting for a man who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, or in more extreme cases, forcing young girls to marry or arranging cliteredectomies… the list goes on).

You can buy Only Ever Yours on Amazon