This collection of fantasy from 2021 features some of the most engaging writing you’ll find today. With multiple awards to their names, writers like Fran Wilde, Catherynne M. Valente, Yukimi Ogawa, P. Djèlí Clark, Elizabeth Bear, Karen Russell, and several others weave stories about such things as magical Martians, riddling dragons, pregnant unicorns, and (my favorite) literal pop-up magical fashion boutiques.
Still, while I was excited to receive my copy of The Year’s Best Fantasy: Volume 1—not least because I recognized some of its names as among the great writers working today, and also because the cover image is surreally beautiful—I was disappointed in the lack of any translated stories. The fact that magazines like Future Science Fiction Digest, Samovar, and Clarkesworld regularly publish speculative fiction in translation would suggest that at least one translated work would make it into an anthology like this.
Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing mix that Guran has put together here, especially since she allows the stories to mingle, without section barriers like “folktales” or “mythology” to separate them. The result is a steady stream of dreamy, gritty, realistic, and magical worlds that influence one another until, for instance, Russell’s story about the pregnant unicorn bonding with a single, forty-year-old, soon-to-be-mother resonates with Kathleen Jennings’s simple fairy tale about a girl fulfilling her mother’s dying wish.
While some stories are clearly fabulistic (for example, E. Lily Yu’s “Small Monsters” or P. H. Lee’s “Frost’s Boy”) or influenced by myth (Valente’s “L’esprit de L’escalier,” based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice), many are deliciously difficult to classify. Wilde’s “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.,” for example, reads like a story set in the late 1800s, with women and men desperate to pounce on a particular atelier to secure the most fantastic (in all senses of the word) ball gowns of the season. Then Wilde drops in a line about people checking maps on their phones in the hunt for the magically-appearing atelier, and the time-period becomes wonderfully irrelevant. Wilde’s steady build-up of clues about the nature of the atelier and the whereabouts of the protagonist’s mother (who used to work in the shop) makes this story the perfect one to welcome readers into the collection.
Similarly difficult to classify is Clark’s “If the Martians Have Magic,” a story so unexpected that I spent time while reading it just wondering why I haven’t read more stories like this before. Usually “Martian” equals “science fiction” and “magic” equals “fantasy,” but Clark seamlessly weaves the two genres together with a story about humans and Martians achieving an uneasy truce after the Third Martian Invasion. A young Haitian woman named Minette has found a way to psychically merge with a trio of Martians and help them access their own ancient magical ways. The tension on Earth between those who welcome a new kind of alliance with peaceful, magic-wielding Martians and those who insist on continuing the war until the Martians are defeated adds a dimension of urgency to this remarkable story.
If a reader is looking for more fabulistic writing, Guran offers several satisfying examples. Among them is Yu’s “Small Monsters,” which patiently traces the adventures of, well, a small monster as it escapes the abuse and violence of its parent, alongside its meetings with various other creatures that try to use or eat it and its final symbiotic relationship with a “clawed creature” who teaches it resilience and confidence while also offering the protection of layers of scavenged materials. Lee’s “Frost’s Boy,” meanwhile, is a fairy tale about a handsome young man who freezes his enraptured victims … that is, until one resourceful and intelligent mother cooks up (literally) a scheme to thaw the man until he is safe enough for her daughter to marry. Marika Bailey’s “The White Road; or, How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” is the powerful tale of a crow named Broadfeather who, to earn a name for himself among his people, scrupulously moves the bones of those kidnapped into slavery from the bottom of the sea to space, where they take their place among the stars.
For those interested in a more classical kind of fantasy, Bear’s “Red Mother,” set in an ancient Viking village, pits a seer searching for his brother against a dragon who loves riddles (and who, it turns out, made her nest in the nearby volcano). In James Enge’s “Drunkard’s Walk,” a wandering drunk (who might also have magical powers) must face off against a strange spell that has altered the laws of physics in one particular town. For lovers of modern fantasy, meanwhile, Guran includes several candidates: the above-mentioned story “The Cloud Lake Unicorn”; Ogawa’s surrealistic “Her Garden, the Size of Her Palm”; Andrew Dykstal’s story about a witch who watches over workers in a strange kind of mine (“Quintessence”); and the ebullient “A Minnow, or Perhaps a Colossal Squid” by Carlos Hernandez and C. S. E. Cooney, in which an eccentric genius and sirena-researcher asks that, when she is changed into a fish for payment of her debts (as is the way on her planet), she be turned into a giant squid who will be eaten by the very sirenas she has been studying.
As someone who tends more toward science fiction than fantasy in her reading, I am thankful that this collection found its way into my hands. These stories are richly diverse in plot and style, and this range made Guran’s anthology the kind of book that I will recommend to genre and non-genre readers alike.