Book Review: Project Unicorn, Volume 1: 30 Young Adult Short Stories Featuring Lesbian Heroines, Sarah Diemer & Jennifer Diemer (2012)

July 30th, 2014 11:02 am by Kelly Garbato

Monstrously Beautiful

five out of five stars

Project Unicorn (“A Lesbian YA Extravaganza!”) is a ya fiction project created by the wife-wife writing team of Sarah Diemer (Love Devours; The Dark Wife) and Jennifer Diemer (Sappho’s Fables). Though the project is currently on hold, the idea is this: every week they post two free short stories on their website; these are gathered in a monthly zine, along with two previously-unpublished titles, which you can buy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords. There’s also a quarterly edition that includes the contents of the previous three ‘zines, which is also available on etsy. As of this writing, there exist six zines and two volumes.

I first discovered Project Unicorn by way of “The Witch Sea,” an enchanting story about a witch named Meriel and the unexpected love she feels for a sea creature named Nor. A multi-generational feud has placed Meriel in the heartbreaking position of denying Nor that which she most desperately years for: the depths of the sea. I loved it so much that I promptly added all of Sarah Diemer’s titles to my wishlist.

The stories found in Project Unicorn, Volume 1 are every bit as magical as “The Witch Sea.” Beautiful, glorious, rainbow-hued magic. Accompanied by a menagerie of fantastical creatures – Kelpie unicorns, werecats, Victorian mermaids, kind-hearted witches, demons, even trees made human – the authors invite us to find and embrace the weirdness, the alienation, the darkness within ourselves. Those monsters staring at us through the glass of a magical compact? They are different from us, but…also the same. And that’s a wonderful thing. There’s light in the forest, yo.

It’s difficult to pick just a few favorites, packed as Project Unicorn, Volume 1 is with gems. I’m partial to those tales in which the plucky – yet still unsure and awkward – heroine comes to the rescue of a nonhuman creature. In “Surfacing,” the narrator’s cruel brother John delights in dragging mermaids – plentiful in the seaside town of Port Luca – into the forest to suffer a slow, painful death by suffocation. No one stops John and his friends, even when they brag about their exploits; the mermaids are just pests, after all, more closely related to fishes than humans. One day the narrator happens upon this murder in progress, and does the unthinkable: she stands up to her brother and saves the girl. And herself.

More than anything (save for lesbian protagonists, of course), this is a common theme in Project Unicorn, Volume 1: Self-discovery. Acceptance. Redemption. Transformation.

In this vein, “Two Salt Feet” springs to mind. While running an errand for her mother, Sam somewhat inadvertently helps to liberate a mermaid from her tank in the meat market. When the vendor fishes her out for sale to a customer, the mermaid unexpectedly sprouts legs and loses the webbing between her fingers; she becomes human! After years of being hunted and consumed by their earth-dwelling cousins, the mermaids are evolving. And Sam, for one, is on board.

In the Author’s Notes, Sarah (herself a vegan – yay!) reveals the genesis of “Two Salt Feet”: “I was thinking about how having a voice is crucial for having rights, and began thinking about gay rights and voicelessness.”

Also worth a mention is “The Gargoyle Maker,” in which the breadmaker’s daughter falls for the gargoyle maker Annabella – the gargoyles being magical creatures who come to life at night and keep the nightmares at bay; a love which is doomed because one town only needs so many gargoyles, hence Annabella’s transient nature. I also loved “A History of Drowning” (the angel in the sea); “Mirrors” (the elf in the compact); and “Dreaming Green” (the seed in space), to name but a few.

There are also some wonderful retellings here. “A Craving” recasts the seven dwarfs as the villains; captors who exploit a trusting and indebted Snow White as a source of free labor. The witch, who shows up each day at Snow White’s door bearing apples for sale, melts her heart and frees her from a prison of dirty dishes and unmade beds.

Even more ambitious is “In the Garden I Did Not Sin,” in which Meno – the daughter of a fallen Eve, recently dead in childbirth – and Lysys, daughter to Lilith, meet outside the walls of a crumbling Garden of Eden. Sarah reports that “In the Garden I Did Not Sin” is “part of the larger world” of a novel tentatively titled The Apple Queen, which will explore the relationship “between Eve, the first woman, and Lilith…the first first woman.” Insert “hgfshghgf” noise here!

The supplemental Author’s Notes and Interviews, by the way? Well worth a read! Usually I skip the back matter, but in this case I’m glad I didn’t. The origin stories, if you will, are at turns interesting and revealing, especially since some of the stories have seeds in real life. For example, “Nike” is based on Sarah’s research on hotline prevention scripts, including a call she placed to the Trevor Project hotline. (This might explain its overly sunny “it gets better” ending, which is inspirational in this context but not necessarily helpful as an LGBTQ campaign.) Also: “The Mermaid Circus” is a real-life, honest-to-goodness tourist attraction in Weeki Wachee, Florida, and the Diemers’ rescue dog Link did go missing for a fear-making twenty-four hour stretch of time (though they did not conjure a demon to help find him, as does Corrine in “Devil May Care”).

One of the primary goals of Project Unicorn is to “give greater visibility to lesbian teens in young adult fiction and to normalize their presence in genre stories,” as well as “communicate a message of hope.” In this, the Diemers have done a lovely job. Plus the stories here just plain rock! I’m definitely picking up Volume 2, and await the arrival if The Apple Queen with bated breath.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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