Monday, March 26, 2007


Title:Best New Fantasy
Editor:Sean Wallace

Best New Fantasy is a collection of 16 fantasy stories selected by editor Sean Wallace, most of which fall into a fairly contemporary definition of what fantasy is today. A genre I’m not especially familiar with these days having burnt out on the old clichés. With that the only writers in this collection I was previously familiar with would be Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, M. Rickert and Laird Barron. Reading the collection I was quite impressed by the standard, there weren’t any stories I didn’t particularly like, though perhaps a few that I could take or leave.

The collection starts with Pip And The Fairies by Theodora Goss. Phillipa, Pip, is an actress in a popular soap. But with the death of her mother things change. A writer who did a series of books about "Pip" meeting fairies. Largely forgotten and out of print, there is a sudden resurgence, giving an extra dose of nostalgia. Phillipa quits her job, moves back home and faces up to that extra batch of ghosts.

Joe Hill continues the collection with his piece, My Father's Mask - where Jack wants to spend the weekend hanging out with a guy from school, and more importantly, his hot sister. But his parents have other ideas, and he finds himself in the back of a car heading out to his dead grandad's house in the country. To make it better his mother tells him stories, he is to old for that, but is amused none the less. When they get to the house the rooms are full of masks, and his parents slip on masks and new identities. Things get weird and Jack doesn't know what is going on, but perhaps his mother wasn't telling stories?

Heads Down, Thumbs Up by Gavin J Grant is an odd piece. A breathless fairy tale world, revolving around a kid in a school class, and how as the boundaries of reality flow back and forth affects whether it is a good fairy tale or bad. The story whips passed at such a pace, all wondrous and dizzying, so that it is finished before you realise that you don't actually know what just happened.

Eugie Foster’s Returning My Sister's Face is probably one of the most "traditional" pieces in the collection, with that it is possibly also one of the least interesting in this context, though not actually a bad story. A samurai warrior betrayed, becomes haunted by his dead sister, who extracts a promise of revenge from him. Leading to spectral visions, drunken samurai, and classic ploys and shenanigans as each side tries to out trick the other.

The Farmer's Cat is a timeless fairy tale by Jeff VanderMeer. Set in Norway, a farmer finds himself plagued by an annual infestation of trolls. Which looks set to destroy his life, his family have left him, the trolls are ruining his land, and they have even eaten his cat! But when he gets a new cat from a travelling salesman the tables are turned, honour and promises are important even to trolls, and trickery is at work.

With A Very Little Madness Goes A Long Way , M. Rickert establishes some interesting ideas, but in the end, for me, it just kind of fizzles out. A couple move house after the death of their daughter, but the crows seem to have followed them, to be watching them. The woman's brother is on his way to see her, to reveal that she isn't what she seems, when he has an encounter with a dark force. After that, things get nasty, there are deaths all over the place, and it would appear that there is no hope. Ending the piece during the darkest phase would have left it feeling ambiguous, and it would have made some sense. But instead the ending which is extracted feels a little hollow, ambiguous still, but even more confused.

Christopher Barzak’s The Language of Moths is one of the most magical stories in the collection, with a really nice use of language. The story alternates between two points of view - a brother and sister. There parents take the pair away to a cabin in the woods, their father desperate to restart his career by finding a rare moth that he remembers seeing as a child. The trips changes both their lives. The boy is 14, and always left to take care of his sister by his overly distracted parents, though when he is given a chance to get spend sometime on his own he takes it, leading to his first sexual experience, with another boy. The sister is 17, and autistic, her brother is an intense old man to her view, who she can't communicate with, however the realisation that she can understand the language of moths changes everything.

In The Dybbuk in Love by Sonya Taaffe, a young woman called Clare meets a wandering spirit from Jewish legend - the Dybbuk. A spirit who has fallen in love with her, who she can see taking possession of those around her. One minute she’ll be talking to a stranger, the next their entire persona changes, and it is clear the Dybbuk has taken them for a moment, breaking through to court her again. By turns she is inspired by his knowledge, fascinated by his charm, and unsettled by the whole experience of encountering the restless spirit.

Gulls by Tim Pratt is one of the shortest sharpest little stories in the collection. A woman takes her bored nephew away from the rest of the family, headed towards the beach, where the pair have a strange and distressing encounter. One of those pieces which could probably be more adequately be described as a horror story than a fantasy. The Maiden Tree by Catherynne M. Valente is another short piece. An updating and grungification of Sleeping Beauty, taking things to a darker extreme. One of the pieces I was less keen on, on the whole.

Laird Barron provides another piece which probably tips more into horror than fantasy with Proboscis. Ray, keen to kick start his TV career, tags along with his ex-brother-in-law Cruz on a bounty hunting trip. The capture is tough and gets messy after that anyway, depressed by these events he isn’t thrilled when Cruz takes a detour for a little known tourist attraction and drink. However when he makes his own way to the attraction after an argument and as night falls, he starts to become uneasy, there is something in the darkness.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Eating Hearts has parallels to Eugie Foster’s in that they both have that traditional oriental myth feel. Eating Hearts is a little more “fantastic” than Foster’s “ghost story” though. A young woman, Horanga is after the perfect magician, and Chuan is the latest in her strings to find one. Their conversation is a little flirtatious, as they spar over definitions of magic and of perfection. Chuan proves something of his ability, discerning along the way that there is more to Horanga and her search than initially evident. A tricky little story. Followed by the brief and dream like Dancing In The Light of Giants, contributed by Jay Lake, a little girl dances for her elders. Young and full of life she dances for the giants, knowing one day she will be one of them.

Kelly Link is a tricky and master of the short story, and Monster is certainly a good example of what she is capable of. School camp, and the boys of Bungalow 4 are running out of time to do their camp out. They are rather reluctant to do so, especially after Bungalow 6 claim to have encountered a monster when they were camping out. Monster is filled with the fun and games of child hood, the pecking order, the kids who are being bullied, the experience of summer camp. Which is all good and well, and lots of fun, but when the boys go out, they are unprepared for what they encounter.

At The End of The Hall by Nick Mamatas is a hard one to pin down. A woman lies old and weary in a hospital bed, life hasn’t quite worked out as well as she had hoped, her family are something of a disappointment. Lying there her head is full of thoughts, of the giant robots from the cover’s of her brother’s science fiction magazines when they were kids, to the power of wishes. All her life she has resisted making wishes, not because she doesn’t believe in the power of the wish, but because she has seen so many wishes frittered away on silly things. Here and now, perhaps it is time, at last for her to make a wish?

To a degree Summer Ice by Holly Phillips is the least genre orientated of the entire collection, and it does beg the question of how it qualifies to be in a fantasy collection at all. Though it certainly has a charm, and I enjoyed it more than some of the more blink and you miss it pieces that are included. Manon has just moved to a new city, taken on as a young instructor at the art school. She has been given praise for her talent, but she is less than confident about that, let alone actually knowing how to teach other young people to become artists. She keeps herself busy, works with the other residents of the block of flats on the new roof garden their land lord has allowed them to have, works with a volunteer group in the community to clear waste ground. But it is in the ice cream shop that she visits as often as she can, tempted by the sweet treat in the hot weather, that she finally starts to become inspired.

In reflection I think I would pick out My Father’s Mask, The Farmer’s Cat, The Language of Moths, The Dybbuk in Love, Monster and Summer Ice as the stand out stories, those which I enjoyed the most in this collection.

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