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Horton year's best fantasy cover

"[A]lmost every year," writes Rich Horton in his introduction to Fantasy: The Best of the Year (Prime), "I find that writers, especially at the shorter lengths, remain stubbornly individual, and don't particularly hew to any party lines. So I'm not sure what overarching story themes defined 2005."

In fact, there was one quality that came through time and again during my reading of the four Year's Best anthologies for 2005: the power of what is left unsaid. The monster half-glimpsed by night, the dark past alluded to but never fully revealed, the magic that might simply be a delusion of grief (but also might not), the mysterious onset of invisibility (twice), the endings left full of possibility.

This is nothing new. Fantasy as a genre has arguably always felt less need to explain itself than SF; it thrives in the gaps between suggestion and comprehension, between perception and imagination. Sometimes a clearer picture is simply unnecessary; there is no need for the reader to know why, in Anne Harris's very funny "Still Life, With Boobs" (in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy 6 [Tachyon]), the heroine's breasts develop a tendency to leave her body and go gallivanting by themselves. The result, not the mechanics, is the point: like the eponymous organ in Gogol's "The Nose," the wayward boobs live an extroverted high life that is impossible for, or avoided by, their nominal owner, highlighting insecurities and repressions.

Similarly, the impact of many of those stories put forth as 2005's best resides precisely in their unexplained aspects. In both Claude Lalumiere's "Being Here" (Hartwell & Cramer) and Steve Rasnic Tem's "Invisible" (Horton), for example, the emotional weight of the story depends upon a dual isolation: the affliction itself—finding that one can no longer be seen by others, whether abruptly (in the former) or gradually (in the latter)—and the inability to understand it. Without an explanation, there can be neither rationalisation nor escape. The same principle, naturally, applies to horror; scarier the devil you don't know, or at any rate don't see and must imagine instead.

Whether the 'less is more' dictum is equally applicable to the anthologies themselves is a less straightforward matter. It might be argued—by Dan Hartland here on this very site, say—that having four Year's Best anthologies for a single genre (or, in one case, two) is overkill. Does nearly 1,400 pages run the risk of leaving too little unsaid?

In terms of content, it need not be a problem if each anthology carves out its own niche, establishes its own personality; the genres of fantasy and horror are surely large enough to accommodate more than one vision of what constitutes a year's Best or most representative work. In terms of the way the books are put together, a little more direct editorial comment would, in certain cases, be welcome—what prompted the choice of a particular story, for example.

Hartwell & Cramer year's best fantasy cover

Hartwell and Cramer might benefit from saying a little less (is it truly necessary to tell readers the meaning of the story they are about to read?), but there can be no doubting what their vision is. The twenty-three selections in their book suggest a certain conservatism both in what constitutes a fantasy story, and in where one might be found. There is a clear slant towards traditional magazines: four stories come from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, three from Realms of Fantasy, two from Asimov's. Seven of the rest are taken from just three anthologies. Four more come from (two) online sources, but there is a distinct lack of small press magazines in the mix; Postscripts puts in an appearance, but possibly only because the story in question—the sadly unremarkable "Comber" (also in Horton)—is by Gene Wolfe.

Furthermore, with the exception of Garth Nix's "Read It in the Headlines!"—a gleefully silly giant-monster-storms-city tale, told entirely through mock newspaper headlines—the trend is definitely towards solid storytelling over anything more experimental. This is not to say that the material is conventional; there are a number of very strong picks. Bruce Sterling's "The Denial" (also in Jonathan Strahan's Fantasy: The Very Best of 2005 [Locus], and Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror [St Martin's]) plays moving and clever games with perceptions of reality after a devastating storm hits the Ottoman Empire. In "Monster" (also in Strahan), Kelly Link tells an utterly creepy and mordantly funny campfire tale, all the more effective for its blurred ending. There's also a strong strand of more overt humour evident in stories such as Neil Gaiman's mannered "Sunbird" (also in Horton and Strahan), and Heather Shaw's cheeky "Single White Farmhouse." Yet the apparent editorial vision does make for a certain lack of variety in style if not subject matter; additionally, a number of stories are quite forgettable, such as Candace Jane Dorsey's warm but slightly bland "Mom and Mother Teresa".

Horton, by contrast, is much more adventurous in his choices, turning to a number of online and small press venues (alongside two each from Fantasy & Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy), and presenting a much quirkier collection as a result. Five of his eighteen stories appear in one or more of the other anthologies. Peter S. Beagle's beautiful high fantasy fairytale "Two Hearts" (also in Strahan) and Elizabeth Bear's alternate-history detective story "Wax" are thus set alongside the self-aware likes of "Five Ways Jane Austen Never Died" by Samantha Henderson and "Three Urban Folk Tales" by Eric Schaller, both of which play with narrative technique and structure, and evoke emotion with very economical brushstrokes.

Similarly, Theodora Goss's wonderful "Pip and the Fairies" (also in Strahan), which follows a woman returning home upon the funeral of her famous mother, mirrors its themes of memory, grieving, and return by allowing different layers of the protagonist's past and present to bleed into one another. Several other entries use genre tools or familiar stories to unusual ends: Gregory Feeley blends Jack and the Beanstalk with early-modern economics in "Fancy Bread," while Matthew Hughes does absurdist Victoriana à la Jack Vance in "The Gist Hunter." Michael Canfield's "Super-Villains," meanwhile, provides a rather unusual reading of comic book heroes, while losing none of the genre's irrepressible energy and tone.

Strahan year's best fantasy cover

Strahan's collection is a mixed bag, half excellent, half unremarkable. Of the sixteen stories on offer, eight are also available in the other anthologies. This is hardly Strahan's fault, since a number of them genuinely are among the best of these reprints: the Link, Gaiman, Sterling, Goss, and Beagle stories already mentioned, together with strong offerings from Jeffrey Ford and Jeff Vandermeer (respectively "Boatman's Holiday," also in Datlow/Link/Grant and "The Farmer's Cat", also in Hartwell & Cramer), plus Paul Di Filippo's "Emperor of Gondwanaland," whose open ending is another exercise in skilfully leaving things unsaid. The problem comes with the rest of Strahan's selections, few of which are comparable to the duplicated pieces, although Seana Graham's "The Pirate's True Love" is immense fun, and Christopher Barzak's "The Language of Moths" is a beautifully-written, extremely moving coming-of-age story told from the perspectives of a teenage boy struggling with his sexuality, and of his autistic elder sister. Others, like Ellen Klages's "Intelligent Design," feel somewhat inconsequential by comparison.

The Datlow, Link, and Grant Year's Best Fantasy and Horror number nineteen is, of course, the behemoth of the field. The various 2005 overviews that open the volume are as interesting as ever (although one could also wish for more paragraphing in Datlow's piece), but—at the risk of expanding a large book still further—might it be worth separating the coverage of novels from that of the short story market? It is surely impossible to concentrate fully on both short and longer fiction—Datlow, indeed, makes it clear that her commitments to the former mean that she has little time to read novels—and the resulting treatment of the year in novels feels cursory.

Datlow, Link & Grant year's best fantasy cover

Still, the book's remit is shorter fiction, and in that it remains formidable. Out of the thirty-nine stories and poems included here—eighteen fantasy, including one substantial novella, and twenty-one horror—only three appear in any of the other anthologies. Four come from Fantasy & Science Fiction, three from Datlow's late-lamented SCIFICTION, and two authors feature twice (Ford and Goss, once each among the fantasy and horror selections). Beyond these few correspondences, the range of source material is considerable, with the only noticeable trend being that the fantasy stories tending to come from (usually print) magazines, and the horror generally from anthologies or single-author collections. In her analysis, Datlow notes that the best horror material is often found not in dedicated horror magazines—of which there are, in any case, few—but in fantasy and other mixed-genre venues. There is also a marked willingness to look beyond North America for both authors and settings: there are several very English stories (and signs of an emergent subgenre of Church of England ghost stories, no less!), several more set well outside the English-speaking world, and two in translation (Isabel Allende's "The Guggenheim Lovers," and Pentti Holappa's bittersweet "Boman").

Pick of the crop—and, astonishingly, not printed anywhere else—is Geoff Ryman's exuberant "monkpunk" tale, "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai," which uses the tale of a monk's efforts to save his country to explore the decline of magic and wonder, the complicated reality of heroism, and the impact of colonialism and "development" upon East Asia. All this without breaking a sweat, or its irreverent tone. Marley Youmans's haunting, ragged tale of seashore and grief, "An Incident at Agate Beach," has another ambiguous ending. Kim Newman's novella "The Gypsies in the Wood" is an accomplished and thoroughly entertaining take on a familiar idea—Fairyland meets Victorian England, uncanny changelings and government cover-ups ensue.

As in Horton, there is much experimentation in form and style to be found, and at times there is only the lightest of genre elements present. Elizabeth Hand fractures time in "Kronia", while Howard Waldrop presents his giddy grail-hunt "The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)" as a series of rambling interviews with an ageing vaudeville performer. Most successfully, Stacy Richter filters fairytale drug abuse through academic report in "A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility," a story made all the more powerful and fascinating for its unusual, oblique approach.

Despite the bipartite structure of the project, with one editorial strand for fantasy and one for horror, the boundaries between the two genres are far from distinct. While several of the horror stories are fantasy-free, many are not, and often it is only by checking which editor has written the introduction that it is possible to tell into which field a story falls. Categorisation, just like whether a story qualifies as "Best," is evidently in the eye of the editor; Jeffrey Ford's "Boatman's Holiday," printed as fantasy in Strahan, makes Datlow's horror selection. Datlow also names Laird Barron's excellent and disturbing "The Imago Sequence" (from Hartwell & Cramer) as one that would have made her selection, had space permitted. Genre-bending is alive and well on another front, too, if less markedly so; as Horton notes in his introduction, a number of stories blend science fiction and fantasy (which is another way of saying that there seem to be a number of magical robots around this year).

One final theme at work in this year's short fiction, reflected most clearly in the Datlow/Link/Grant anthology, is the readiness with which contemporary issues are addressed. An unease about US foreign policy and its effect on the world's perceptions of its citizens are reflected in two stories where Americans abroad meet dire threats and/or sticky ends ("American Morons" by Glen Hirshberg, and "Vacation" by Daniel Wallace). Tom Brennan's stark "Scarecrow" looks at the dehumanising effects of anti-immigrant resentment in an unspecified country. Nisi Shawl's "Cruel Sistah" addresses racial insecurities through a transplanted Celtic folktale. Similarly, "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant (in Hartwell & Cramer) is a haunting allegory for the legacy of war, in which border shifts between countries cause a corresponding shift in people's minds, altering their language and culture in a matter of moments—without, entirely, removing memories of the old.

There are fillers and missteps. Each anthology has some well-meaning but—whether through tired ideas or poor execution—unmemorable entries. Delia Sherman's "Walpurgis Afternoon" (in Datlow/Link/Grant and Hartwell & Cramer) is fun but never really goes anywhere. "Empty Places" by Richard Parks (in Horton) one of the few stories in these anthologies with a more traditional fantasy setting, fails in large part for leaving virtually nothing unsaid. The protagonist's every mental second-guess is shared with the reader, and the resolution is too baldly stated. Likewise, "Hot Potting" by Chuck Palahniuk (Datlow/Link/Grant) seems to be simply an exercise laying the gore on thickly. And repeatedly.

Clearly, all four anthologies cannot be essential, any more than every story can be a unbridled success. With most of its best material also printed elsewhere, Strahan's collection struggles to establish itself as a separate entity, but it does carry most of the big hitters. Hartwell and Cramer under-represent non-traditional outlets of short fiction, but manage to pack in plenty of quality stories nonetheless. Datlow, Link, and Grant give the best value for money—and a number of excellent entries found nowhere else—but some of the more straightforwardly horrific outings will presumably leave some fantasy fans cold, and vice versa. Even if Horton misses a few of the best stories (Ryman, Sterling, Link), however, it is he who serves up the most diverse and entertaining selection.

Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, UK, where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.

Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle University. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
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