Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: The Year's Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection

I've previously read at least one of the The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling: the 7th (1993). I suspect that I've read another, but if I did I don't remember which one it was. Anyway, I generally enjoyed the 1993 edition (with the glaring exceptions of "Dying in Bangkok" by Dan Simmons and "The Last Crossing" by Thomas Tessier—I had to stop reading both of them before finishing because they were so vile), so when I spotted this in a thrift shop I decided to purchase it. I will review each story separately and then the collection as a whole at the end.

"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" † by Ursula K. LeGuin
I've read this story before and it wasn't any better this time around. This story won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1988. I can't help but think there must've been a paucity of contenders. LeGuin's worldview is essentially no different than that of a certain telepathic gorilla.[1] There isn't a single compelling character, least of all the Coyote (who is a terrible stereotype of 'trailer trash'). LeGuin is lauded in the introduction to the piece for invoking American folklore instead falling back on the usual British/European fantasy tropes. But…she actually doesn't. This is just a fantasy where North American animals can talk. There's no folklore involved. LeGuin has much better fare to offer (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, or the first three Earthsea novels).

"A World Without Toys" * by T. M. Wright
The characterization and the examination of said characters by the omniscient narrator were very good. The plot was a little aimless, though, and the frequent, terrible rainstorms didn't really make sense—they felt like poor excuses to interrupt the narrative and delay progress towards the conclusion.

"DX" by Joe Haldeman
I didn't really feel like this deserved to be called fantasy. It's a poem about the Vietnam War that, while intriguing, only pauses at the very end to posit alternative outcomes. Unfortunately, the stanzas of the poem are typeset all over the page, so figuring out the right order to read them in is rather difficult and rarely rewards you for your efforts. I've written poems like this and they expect too much from the reader. Also, there was too much foul language used for my taste.

"Friend's Best Man" by Jonathan Carroll
For the first half of this story I thought it was going to turn out to be pseudo-sci-fi, like the movie Martian Child (or its source material). However, things eventually take an unusual turn. The character of 'Jazz' was realistic and engaging; the other characters (including the narrator)…not so much. The ending was handled just right.

"The Snow Apples" † by Gwyneth Jones
I thought this was one of the better entries. The characterization is rather shallow, but once you read it you'll agree that it's rightly so. The basic plot is familiar: the actions taken to avoid prophecy inadvertently (inevitably?) lead to its fulfillment. The way Jones gets us there is unique and created a fair amount of dramatic tension.

"Ever After" † by Susan Palwick
When I saw the title of this short story, I was deathly afraid that it was going to turn out to be the source material of the deplorable Drew Barrymore film of the same title. Fortunately it was not. Both are derived from the Cinderella fairy tale, but this one handles it so much better. There is a fabulous twist (which justifies the title) that makes this one of my favorite stories in this collection.

"My Name is Dolly" * by William F. Nolan
This is the kind of stuff that kids in high school write (at least, several kids in my high school were writing things of equal caliber). I'm surprised it caught the attention of the editors.

"The Moon's Revenge" † by Joan Aiken
I liked this story okay. Despite having a similar fairy tale-like quality, it wasn't as good as "The Snow Apples", but was much better than "Csucskári", in terms of craft.

"Author's Notes" * by Edward Bryant
This 'story' was actually a series of Author's Notes that accompanied a short story collection by Bryant, called Night Visions 4. Since the notes weren't true they were a sort of meta-fiction. Unfortunately presented all together without the context of Night Visions 4 robbed it of its impact. By itself this 'story' is pretty lopsided.

"Lake George in High August" * by John Robert Bensink
I also felt like this one matched the quality of horror fiction written by my former high school peers. Since there were no fantastical/supernatural elements, I didn't really feel like it belonged in this book.

"Csucskári" † by Steven Brust
This story had a lot of potential but ultimately suffered at Brust's hands in his attempts to make it sound like a story told around a campfire. The frequency at which he switched from past to present tense and back again was distracting. Also, the narrator kept apologizing for not introducing relevant information sooner (e.g. "I forgot to mention, she had an iron nose") which was extremely annoying. I didn't appreciate the other parentheticals from the narrator, either. And sometimes the way that Csucskári overcomes certain challenges are explained to vaguely and too hastily, which makes them seem like dei ex machina. Overall, these 'techniques' of his made it seem like he was trying too hard.

"The Other Side" * by Ramsey Campbell
This story does a great job of establishing an appropriate atmosphere of "something's not right here".[2] The main character isn't very likeable, but he's not meant to be (probably so we can feel like he got his just desserts). The progress of the story up to the climax was very well-handled, but the dénouement was a bit disappointing.

"Pamela's Get" * by David J. Schow
This was another story that took a long time to reveal it's fantasy/horror element. The narrator presents the four main characters as the greatest possible group of friends, but I didn't find that I liked any of them. I was kind of relieved when they all started getting jettisoned from the story. The climax was unexpected on several accounts, but it wasn't explained very clearly—I had to reread it three times to get it.

"Voices in the Wind" by Elizabeth S. Helfman
This story definitely had a feminine voice to it. I was hoping it would be more profound than it actually was. But instead it ended on a whimper.

"Once Upon a Time, He Said" by Jane Yolen
This was an 18-line poem (the introduction was at least three times as long). The last few lines were enlightening, but the first two-thirds of the poem was nonsense essentially at the same level as A Fine Eye for Garbage.[3] Fortunately, the poem is so short that you don't lose much by reading the whole thing.

"The Circular Library of Stones" by Carol Emshwiller
Here is another piece with a distinctly feminine voice. Unfortunately I commiserated more with the daughters because the old woman just frustrated and annoyed me.

"Soft Monkey" * by Harlan Ellison
This story won the 1987 Edgar Allen Poe for Best Short Story. And I think it's garbage. The profanity and imagery Ellison regularly employs are detestable. The plot development was disjointed and unorganized. The backstory was incomplete and muddled. I never felt any concern for any of the characters, nor did any of them demonstrate any character growth.

"Fat Face" * by Michael Shea
This story is written as part of the Cthulhu mythos.[4] The story does a pretty good job of establishing a mood very similar to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft except bleaker. The opening scenes were irrelevant and a bit gratuitous. But once you get past that, the dramatic tension is relentless. Shea has a few unusal vocabulary words that he's inordinately fond of; they kept cropping up and were sometimes distracting.

"Uncle Dobbin's Parrot Fair" by Charles de Lint
The frame story of this piece was okay, but the several accessory stories only served to weaken it. The breaks between frame story and the accessory stories weren't always as well-delineated as they could've been. At the end you find out that this may have been intentional. Also, de Lint's wistful treatment of the 1960s was a bit nauseating.

"The Pear-Shaped Man" * by George R. R. Martin
This story is creepy rather than heart-pounding. Martin does a pretty good job of slowly increasing the dramatic tension without any of the scenes feeling forced so that the plot can progress—with one exception. In the final scene the protagonist is forced to go confront the eponymous pear-shaped man by herself. But based on her behavior up to this point she never would've agreed to go alone. She would've insisted on her roommate coming with her…but then the final moments couldn't have gone the way they did. So that scene did feel forced and that's an unfortunate way to end a story.

"Delta Sly Honey" * by Lucius Shepard
This one could be fantasy, but chooses to be ambiguous. It retains the necessary feeling of eeriness, but never confirms or denies whether the goings-on are supernatural. I wonder if "Delta Sly Honey" (DSH) stands for "deliberate self-harm".

"Small Heirlooms" * by M. John Harrison
This one was disappointing on several levels. First, it barely belongs in this anthology; there's practically no fantastical/supernatural elements. Second, a substantial portion of the story are random fragments of stories written by a deceased character. It fell like Mr. Harrison needed an excuse to publish all the little scenes he'd written that refused to coalesce into a full story. Third, the moment when the meaning behind the title was revealed came across as nonsensical.

"The Improper Princess" by Patricia C. Wrede
The main character was interesting, but overdone. She seemed like a 20th-Century woman trying to make her way in a Medieval fairy tale—the contrasts were too stark. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this story. Unfortunately, it read like a chapter in a book rather than a stand-alone short story: the ending was completely open-ended and nothing—nothing—was satisfactorily resolved.[5]

"The Fable of the Farmer and the Fox" by John Brunner
Being a fable, this entry was pretty short. I'm not sure I understand the fable. And I don't think it's because I'm moneyless—I think it's because it's a poorly-constructed (and possibly nonsensical) fable.

"Haunted" * by Joyce Carol Oates
This one is a slightly different take on the concept of horror than most of the others in this anthology. Instead of asking "what if something horrible happened to a person?" it asks "what if a person did something horrible?" Not everyone might agree with me because something horrible happens to the narrator and something worse happens to her friend. But the story is subtly focused on anguish the narrator feels because she was partially responsible for what happens to her friend and because she never tells anyone what really happened. As such, it was an interesting character study. However, I hated Oates' prose—her nonstandard punctuation (some of which included stream-of-consciousness, which I've always hated) was confusing and frustrating rather than innovative or daring (which she probably wanted it to be).

"Dead Possums" * by Kathryn Ptacek
This story had a lot of promise and then self-destructed at the end. It made the main character likable and invoked pity about the life that he'd suffered. Then it tried to turn around and make him the villain so that he can get his just desserts (it's not written very clearly, but it seems he's turned into a dead possum on the road so that he can be run over repeatedly by cars). Ptacek didn't make a good enough case for him actually being the villain, so his punishment at the end felt arbitrary and mean-spirited. Also, I have trouble believing that the leader of a Bible-quoting religious movement would openly engage in an adulterous relationship—even if it's a fringe sect.

"Pictures Made of Stones" * by Lucius Shepard
The moment when this story (a poem, really) definitely enters the realm of fantasy is subtle, but I appreciated the way it was developed. The scenes with the 'neckties' (a synecdoche for civilians) were too long.

"Splatter: A Cautionary Tale" * by Douglas E. Winter
The format was interesting: each paragraph was labeled with a title from a popular horror movie. Also, each paragraph seems more like the outline of a chapter for a book rather than a paragraph in a short storie. I'm not sure what to make of it, though, because it reads like a rather scathing indictment of horror entertainment—yet the author himself is a prolific horror writer. Is he really saying that his craft leads people to do horrible things?

"Gentlemen" * by John Skipp and Craig Spector
Very disappointing story. The set-up was decent, though profanity-laden and too long, but the follow-through fell flat. The appearance of the supernatural element was a non sequitur (and not well-described, at that). It felt like they dreamed up an interesting character, but got bored with him after a while and scribbled out a nonsensical ending just so they could get it over with.

"Demon Luck" by Craig Shaw Gardner
This was a fun story for two reasons. First, the plot takes some humorous, atypical turns. Second, along the way the author pokes fun at certain tropes in fantasy (such as overuse of apostrophes in names to make them sound more exotic [6]).

"Words of Power" by Jane Yolen
I feel like it's still okay for me to complain about how overtly feminist and anti-man this is since men were so poorly represented by "Gentlemen" (see above). This story doesn't simply feature empowered women, it turns feminine attributes (e.g. menses) into sources of power (magic). That was too much. These ideas get tempered, slightly, at the end of the story, but it was too little, too late. If you can look past this feature, the story's actually a fine one.

"Jamie's Grave" * by Lisa Tuttle
Tuttle does a good job, I think, of putting the reader inside the head of her character. And everything is set up so that, at the end when the plot takes a sudden turn, everything makes sense (even if you don't want it to).

"The Maid on the Shore" by Delia Sherman
The title of this story has two meanings: it can refer to the maid (the narrator) who lives on the shore and it can also refer to the effect that the visit of a ship (The Cape Town Maid) has on said narrator. I enjoyed the story, but it took too long to get around to the actual story—and the ending was very abrupt.

"Halley's Passing" * by Michal McDowell
Don't waste your time with this story. The violence is graphic and gratuitous. The ending, which explains the title, was superfluous and a non sequitur.

"White Trains" by Lucius Shepard
This second poem from Shepard is a little quicker to the point and demonstrates a superior command of imagery. Unfortunately, he expends part of this creativity lauding sexual license, which I cannot condone.

"Simple Sentences" by Natalie Babbitt
This quick story was humorous and completely enjoyable. I can only imagine how much better it would be to hear it orally performed with the intended accents (Cockney and Upper Class RP).

"A Hypothetical Lizard" by Alan Moore
Moore has an excellent command of language and imagery. There are elements of the story that are intriguing, but the subject matter (a tormented relationship between two male prostitutes) was not one of them. The title of the story is played on in three different ways during the story, the last is the cleverest. The story, like Som-Som (a female character who is introduced at the beginning), is two-faced. One half (the aforementionted relationship) is organic, like the fleshy half of Som-Som's face. The other half of the story (Som-Som's personal history) is hard and sterile, like the ceramic half of Som-Som's face. The authors felt this was the best story in 1987 (and it won the World Fantasy Award for that year). I'd like to agree, but I wish Moore had chosen a less repugnant subject matter.

The cover touts the book as the best fantasy, but roughly half the stories would be more correctly classified as horror (no doubt thanks to Ellen Datlow). I've indicated these with an asterisk (*). After two years of publishing these anthologies they decided to be honest and name them The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.[8] Within the fantasy the fairytale/mythic subgenre was overrepresented (no doubt thanks to Terri Windling). I've indicated these with an obelisk (†). Some of the stories in this collection were pretty good, but quite a few were duds. Generally, the exerpience was good enough that I'd be willing to read others of Datlow's and Windling's The Year's Best collections.


[1] See the review my Dad wrote of the book Ishmael here.

[2] Actually, I was reminded, more than once, of my story The Really Real Clowns (which you can read here), even though this one wasn't nearly so disjointed.

[3] You can read it here.

[4] If you've never heard of H. P. Lovecraft or Cthulhu, see

[5] After writing that I discovered that this is, indeed, just a chapter in a book: Dealing with Dragons (see here). The BYU 38th Ward Book Club read this once, for one of our meetings, however, I missed that reading and that meeting. Alas.

[6] I was reminded a little bit of "I Hate Dragons" by Brandon Sanderson. You can read the 'dialogue-only' version here or the fleshed out version here.

[7] See

[8] You can see the contents of all the anthologies so far at

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