The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 by Ellen Datlow

(2007-03-27)

  

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Robert Gavin, eds.
St. Martin's Press, Paperback 2006

Fantasy and horror short fiction is ubiquitous.  The number of print publications continues to increase, and with the advent of the Internet, one can find tons of it (in wildly varying degrees of quality) with just a few mouse clicks.  In some ways, there's too much.  Keeping up with major print publications in speculative fiction such as Analog, Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy is hard enough: throw in the growing number of small press publications and online magazines such as Strange Horizons, Ćon, and the late Sci Fiction (edited by Ellen Datlow), and discovering all of the best in speculative fiction by oneself becomes nearly impossible.

That's what the "Year's Best _____" collections purport to do for the reader.  Of course, they complicate matters by multiplying just as quickly as the outlets for original fiction.  There's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, The Year's Best Science Fiction, Science Fiction: The Very Best, Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, Year's Best Fantasy, etc., and they often overlap significantly in content, to the point that Locus Magazine has taken to reviewing the collections all together so as to avoid repetition.  With the number of year's best anthologies out there, how do they distinguish themselves from each other?

Well, one way is to provide me with a review copy, and I can say without any hesitation that The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006, collecting the best short fiction and poetry from 2005, is the only year's best anthology I received for review last year.  Here's what I think of it.

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006's editors Datlow, Kelly Link and Robert Gavin and contributors Edward Bryant, Charles Vess, Joan D. Vinge, Charles de Lint and James Frenkel start things off with a summary of the year 2005 in fantasy and horror, from novels to graphic novels to short story collections to magazines to poetry to motion pictures to television to anime to music.  More notable items are given a paragraph's description, lesser works a sentence or two, and even lesser works are simply assembled into pages-long lists.  After all the works are covered, the obituaries begin, following a similar format.  Those with the most illustrious careers get a paragraph or two, while lesser stars get a sentence.  It's morbidly informative, reflecting both the industry's utmost respect for those who have helped shape the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres over the years and the necessity to keep the book within a reasonable page limit.  At over a hundred pages, the introduction is exhaustive in terms of its coverage and exhausting in terms of the sheer energy required to get through it. 

One of humanity's more endearing traits is to find meaning in everything, or if one is audacious enough, to impose upon others such meanings (which always meets with mixed responses).  What was 2005?  Datlow et al. wisely avoid the temptation to answer this question definitively, instead allowing the works they selected to speak for them and themselves.

A few observations that I have upon completing the anthology may reflect the state of the genres, but more likely reflect the preferences of the editors.  Is a year's best supposed to provide the best survey of the genre, or the best short stories published the prior year, or in other words, the best short stories based upon the editors' interests at the time?  Is this collection's almost complete absence of sword and sorcery fantasy (limited to Geoff Ryman's Confucian epic "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai") or graphically-depicted horror (an exception being Chuck Palahniuk's truly grotesque "Hot Potting") a reflection of the year 2005 or the editors' tastes?

Whatever the answer may be, in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 one will find a large amount of contemporary fantasy and horror (i.e., fantasy and horror occurring in modern day, real world settings), resulting in a fairly cohesive if less dynamic collection.  Indeed, between the two genres – fantasy and horror – it's sometimes difficult to categorize many of the stories other than through a rule of thumb by which the ones with happy endings are fantasy and the ones with tragic endings are horror.  Several standout stories straddle the genres in such a way.  Barbara Roden's "Northwest Passage," about an incident in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, is an atmospheric piece that succeeds through what is kept from the narrator, and how such absence works upon the mind of both the hero and the reader.  Fans of classic speculative fiction magazines such as Astounding Stories or Weird Tales will enjoy Albert E. Cowdrey's "Twilight States," where a bookstore customer inadvertently brings to the surface some memories from the proprietor's youth that were better left buried.  Elizabeth Bear's "Follow Me Light" re-imagines H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" as a modern-day love story that doesn't quite live up to its premise.  In the gut-wrenching "Going the Jerusalem Mile" by Chaz Brenchley, a married couple put their faith, both in each other and in a higher power, beyond all limits in the hope of starting a family.  Actually dating from 1959 (but published in translation in 2005), Finnish author Pentti Holappa's "Boman" is the story of a man and his talking dog filled with observations of modern society that are humorous and devastating in their insight.  "Boman" serves as a potent reminder of how some things haven't changed all that much in the past fifty years.

However, not all of the stories are in the here and now.  Jeffrey Ford determines that Charon needs a break in "The Boatman's Holiday" and has just the island getaway for him, Geoffrey Ryman sets "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai" in a vaguely East Asian world of magic and early industrial technology, and Bruce Sterling's "Denial" reveals that dreams of life after death can be more effective than one might think in a medieval Eastern European village.  Most notable of all, even if only for the amount of space dedicated to it, is Kim Newman's novella "The Gypsies in the Wood," a Victorian-era fantasy mystery in which the fair folk are the likely suspects.

The collection also contains several stories and poems examining fairy tale and legend.  "A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility" by Stacey Richter crams handfuls of fairy tale conventions into a postmodern blender with mixed but humorous results.  Robert Coover has a predictable but enjoyable take on the Bluebeard story with "The Last One."  The speaker in Jennifer Chang's poem "Obedience, or The Lying Tale" follows her mother's folkloric advice, more or less.  By far the most successful of these works is Howard Waldrop's "The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)," an ancient vaudevillian's anecdotal recounting of one of most unusual and entertaining chapters of the Grail legend.

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 is a worthwhile examination of fantasy and horror in 2005, succeeding more often than not, but perhaps over-representing certain subgenres at the expense of others.  At $19.95, it costs about as much as a few issues of F&SF, contains what its editors' think are the forty best stories and poems in fantasy and horror for the year (including stories from F&SF), and even includes a lengthy state of the genres summary for 2005.  While it's important to support the original short fiction outlets to help keep them going, for those who are overwhelmed by the abundance of choices, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror is an affordable and convenient option.

Recommended stories: "Boman," "The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)," "Going the Jerusalem Mile," "The Boatman's Holiday," "Twilight States."

© Arthur Bangs 2007

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