Year's Best Fantasy

edited by David Hartwell

Published by Eos

492 pages, 2001


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Fantasy’s Vast Scope

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

There hasn't been a "year's best" anthology dedicated exclusively to fantasy since 1988, when Daw Books released the 14th and final volume of their Year's Best Fantasy Stories series. Although the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling annual that began in 1988 was then called The Year's Best Fantasy, by its third year it had been more appropriately renamed The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the title that it still sports today. Finally -- with a volume dedicated to the late Arthur Saha, editor of the defunct Year's Best Fantasy Stories -- noted science fiction, horror and fantasy anthologist David Hartwell, with help from Kathryn Cramer, has launched a new Year's Best Fantasy series, published by Eos.

Hartwell's editorial mission is markedly different than that of Terri Windling, who is responsible for the fantasy half of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Windling makes a point of finding fantasy stories in unlikely venues, for example, in literary journals or in collections by authors not usually associated with fantasy. When she turns her eye towards what is published as fantasy, her tastes are fairly specific. She prefers the blend of medievalism, neo-Gothicism, coming-of-age tales, New Age mysticism, retold fairy tales and Celtic folklore that define the Minneapolis aesthetic that she helped shape in the 1980s (its most famous practitioners include authors such as Charles DeLint, Steven Brust, and Emma Bull). Although her choices from non-genre sources often turn up gems (for example, in the 12th volume, Sylvia Brownrigg's terrific "The Bird Chick" and Judy Butnitz's faux-naïf "Hershel"), her genre selections have over the years acquired an aura of sameness, giving a narrow view of what is actually happening in the field of short fantasy fiction.

Hartwell, on the other hand, explicitly -- and exclusively -- focuses on genre fantasy sources for his volume. Further, his volume covers the gamut of genre fantasy, and indeed this hefty volume includes wonder stories, adventure fantasy, supernatural fantasy, satire, humorous fantasy, retold fairy tales, historical fantasy, magic realism, weird tales and more. While Windling's approach is to present excellent fantasy literature of a particular type regardless of its origins, Hartwell is looking for the best work from writers actively working in the fantasy field. It's a subtle difference that yields very different results. Emphasizing that difference is the fact that there is but one story that appears in both the Hartwell and the Datlow/Windling anthologies this year: Nalo Hopkinson's Caribbean fantasy, "Greedy Choke Puppy."

Year's Best Fantasy does include, among its 23 selections, several tales conforming to the Windling mode -- it is, after all, the dominant style in short fantasy fiction these days -- notably those by Brian Stableford (this one was culled from a Datlow/Windling anthology, Black Heart, Ivory Bones), Kain Massin, Renee Bennett, Charles DeLint, Zoran Zivcovik, Greg Costikyan and Sherwood Smith. Smith's "Mom and Dad at the Home Front" is my favorite of these. It's a charming vignette featuring parents coping with their children being regularly whisked away to experience daring adventures in magical lands -- like Peter Pan's friends to Never-never Land, or Dorothy to Oz.

Hartwell claims that 2000 (the year covered by this volume) was not an especially good year for fantasy fiction. Well, then, I'm eager to see his selections for a good year, because this, for the most part, is a truly exciting assemblage of tales.

YBF opens with a solid triple play. John Sullivan's "Everything Changes" -- a melancholy portrait of a powerful and ancient dragon confronting the political and technological changes of human society and how they affect his place in life -- deftly juggles revelation and implication to create its evocative world. Nicola Griffith's "A Troll Story: Lessons in What Matters, No. 1" uses the narrative device of a story within a story, which, when skillfully executed, creates vibrant resonances between the layers of storytelling -- and this is indeed a very skillful story. In the dead of night, a child who was recently embroiled in a violent act is visited by a mysterious and eerie being who then recounts a fabulous tale that questions ideas about heroism. The framing sequence is imbued with a paralyzingly creepy atmosphere and the imbedded tale is filled with memorable scenes and images. Storm Constantine's "The Face of Sekt" is a baroque tale of ancient gods set in an imaginary fantasy land that evokes the ancient wonders of Babylon and Egypt. Its unusual combination of mythic grandeur and personal struggle is both immediate and fascinating.

With these three stories, the stage was set. They were told in radically different voices and combined exciting ideas with vividly imagined worlds and thus announced a captivating book. Two items on the contents page did give me pause, though. Not coincidentally, these are the longest pieces in the book.

They are the two representatives of the commercial epic fantasy genre that grew out of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. George R.R. Martin's "Path of the Dragon," originally published in Asimov's, is an excerpt from Storm of Swords, the latest novel in his fan-favorite Song of Ice and Fire series. Terry Goodkind's "Debt of Bones" was first published in Robert Silverberg's hugely successful 1998 fantasy anthology, Legends. It's true that both Martin and Goodkind are bestselling authors with huge sales appeal, but, in a way, that only reinforces why these novellas shouldn't have been included. Neither of these originates from a source that Martin and Goodkind readers (who are mostly the same readers) are likely to have missed, while those who don't care for this subgenre might feel that these two long stories threaten to dominate the book. One of these formulaic stories would have helped cement the anthology's stated and achieved goal of diversity, but two novella-length stories, occupying nearly a third of the book, is overkill.

Otherwise, this is a truly diverse and exciting anthology. Hartwell's selection emphasizes, more than any recent anthology that I've come across, the rich imaginative potential of fantasy fiction.

I gasped at Don Webb's eerie Lovecraftian pastiche, "The Prophecies at Newfane Asylum." I chuckled at Robert Sheckley's wry dig at stock investors, "Magic, Maples, and Maryanne" and at Scott Bradfield's sardonic jab at corporate culture, "The Devil Disinvests." I was intrigued by Naomi Kritzer's transposition of "The Golem" into Second World War Prague -- an obvious juxtaposition performed by many writers, but Kritzer's voice and ideas made it feel fresh and urgent. I was moved by Sarah Singleton's intimate mermaid tale, "Ebb Tide," which evoked Ballard's classic "The Drowned Giant" but went in a direction all its own. And, most of all, I was dazzled by Michael Swanwick's muscular and virtuoso homage to Roger Zelazny (at least, that's what it read like to me), "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O."

Finally: an anthology that showcases the potentially vast scope of fantasy, instead of trying to squeeze it into a specific school of writing, a rigid definition, or a one-note commercial category. Hartwell celebrates the genre's achievements in all its thrilling and gaudy glory. This book is a great start to a new series. I look forward to many more. | July 2001

 

Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.