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Year's Best Fantasy 8

1/07/2011. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy Year's Best Fantasy 8 edited in the USA - or Buy Year's Best Fantasy 8 edited in the UK

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Year's Best Fantasy 8 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. pub: Tachyon Publications. 376 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US), $18.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-892391-76-6.

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The year of which this is the best fantasy is 2007 and the book was published in 2008, though I suppose it doesn't matter. Fantasy is pretty timeless. The stories are arranged here in order of my preference but frankly the top ten are pretty interchangeable as to position. They were all wonderful.

'Winter's Wife' by Elizabeth Hand was simply brilliant. An old-fashioned woodcutter named Winter gets himself a wife from Iceland on the Internet. She is strange and very cool. At thirty pages this is practically a novelette and the telling is not rushed. The first person narration by a simple country lad is so well handled that it reminded me of 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. Excellent.

‘Sir Hereward And Mister Fitz Go To War Again’ features a brave warrior and an ancient wooden puppet animated by sorcery in a world where each city state has its own real live god. Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz work at upholding an ancient treaty. Garth Nix creates a highly detailed fantasy world which could easily be the basis for a novel or two. A very good story and I certainly wouldn’t mind reading more about Mister Fitz.

'Who Slays The Giant Wounds The Beast' by Mark Chadbourn is set in Elizabethan England. The Queen's top spy, Will Swyfte, is trying to save Edmund Spenser from the Faerie Queen, who he loves madly. This was brilliantly imagined with good historical details and well told.

Neil Gaiman is a big name writer, famous for ‘The Sandman’ among other things but I am not familiar with his work. Having read 'The Witch's Headstone', I will keep an eye out for it. This charming little tale of assorted characters living in a graveyard had wit, a plot and fine writing. The latter quality is common in this age of polished prose but the first two are often lacking.

‘Dance Of Shadows’ by Fred Chappell is a marvellous fantasy in a mediaeval sort of setting where shadows are collected and traded. A great nobleman hires Astolfo the greatest of the shadow traders to find the owner of a delicate female shadow he has acquired. The story is narrated by Falco, Astolfo’s humble apprentice, and features a misanthropic shadow painter and a grumpy ballet director. It all sounds perfectly daft when explained but when read it is nearly perfect.

‘Grander Than The Sea’ by T.A. Pratt is a fantasy detective story about a mad sorcerer trying to raise from the sea an ancient Lovecraftian god to destroy the world. Roger Vaughn is kept in an insane asylum but has made a copy of himself to finish the job he started a hundred years ago. Marla Mason runs a secret agency that protects an unknowing world from sorcery and must stop him. This is humorous wizardry written with great panache and is highly enjoyable.

In 'Such Small Deer', Chris Roberson takes a couple of well-loved characters from Victorian literature and makes a story from a throwaway line in Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Adventure Of The Sussex Vampire'. The hero is Abraham Van Helsing. The villain, a famous doctor whose identity is kept secret until the end. Good fun can be had exploiting characters now, presumably, in the public domain, as Alan Moore has shown.

Two strangers appeared in the woods and a young boys burning desire to go to the city was granted instantly when he clasped 'The Stranger's Hands'. Tad Williams fable of wish fulfilment is entertaining and has the air of a child's fairy tale but makes a very good point. There is an underlying theme of ex-tyrants in hiding which is aptly modern.

'A Diorama Of The Infernal Regions' by Andy Duncan is an inventive fantasy full of lively language about an orphan girl and her dealings with a wizard and the devil's son-in-law. Great fun and Tim Burton could make a brilliant film of it. Really. Someone should send him a copy. At 28 pages, I think it’s the second longest tale here but it never flags.

‘The Forest’ by Laird Barron is probably the most literary story in the book. They all strive to be literary, of course, but this reads like Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess with a kind of effortless ease to the performance; no strained similes or clever tricks. Our hero, a cinematographer, is invited to a mansion near a ghost town where his former lover is dying of cancer and a genius scientist is conducting strange experiments. Very interesting.

In 'The Ruby Incomparable', a living saint and goddess has married a brigand of a sorcerer, much to the consternation of the world at large. Kage Baker's story is about one of their daughters and despite its gaudy trappings is basically about motherhood. And why not? Fantasy can be wedded to any theme and this had interesting characters and a mildly surprising conclusion. Apple pie, thankfully, was not mentioned.

'Stilled Life' by Pat Cadigan is about a girl who does the living statue gig in Covent Garden and a mysterious Svengali who takes it to a whole new level. A strong sense of place and a sympathetic narrator made this a gentle pleasure.

'Paper Cuts Scissors' by Holly Black is about a library where the characters come out of the books and party. Our hero is trying to find his girl-friend who has put herself into a book. A bold premise, neatly handled.

'A Portrait In Ivory' by Michael Moorcock is about Elric having his portrait done in the aforesaid medium. My indifference to this story is clearly not shared by editors as I keep coming across it in anthologies.

These also ran and ran very well, too. In many a lesser collection any of these would have been listed among the favourites. 'Poison' by Bruce McAllister is about an Italian witch and a boy. It was nice. ‘The Great White Bed’ by Don Webb is about a book that reads you! Odd. ‘Princess Lucinda And The Hound Of The Moon’ by Theodora Gross is a fairy tale. It was okay. ‘Debatable Lands’ by Liz Willliams is a straight monster haunts the swamp story lent some resonance by an interesting hero. ‘Soul Case’ by Nalo Hopkinson has helpless villagers seeing off marauding soldiers which is always nice. Missing boys come back as werewolves in M. Rickert's melancholy story, 'Don't Ask'.

And so to the experimental stuff. Daryl Gregory wrote 'Unpossible' in both the second person and the present tense. Either one of these would prejudice me against it but both together is too much. The story was good but would have been better told the usual way, either first or third person. There is an awful lot of competition in the markets nowadays and some editors obviously like tricks that make you stand out. I first encountered this mode of telling in Gerry Conway's ‘Spider-Man’ stories of the 1970s and I hated it instantly.

'Under The Bottom Of The Lake' is a metafiction by Jeffrey Ford. Metafiction seems to consist of the writer telling you how he's making up the story as it goes along. If you've never met a fiction this is your chance and I hope you like it. I didn't. I am in agreement with the principle of experimental works being published - yea, even unto second person present tense narration - and this example had some merit with its rich vocabulary and clever prose but the general idea is not to my taste.

Overall, however, this is possibly the best fantasy collection I have ever read with several tales that were simply gobsmackingly good. It seems that back in 2007 there was a trend towards fairy story settings and magical stories but with an adult, sometimes ironic twist. This gives you the childish pleasure that got you into reading fantasy in the first place and still treats you like a grown-up. The prevalence of sorcery is partly because some of the best stories here are extracted from another anthology, ‘Wizards’ edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. That’s a book worth looking out for and so is this one. Highly enjoyable and I cannot recommend it enough. Five stars with bells and whistles.

Eamonn Murphy

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