As I read this anthology, I thought of the Clarion West students I have been meeting each summer since I moved back to Seattle. Quite a few of the writers in this book recently attended Clarion or Clarion West, and this showcases some of their work. I look back at my own time at Clarion West wistfully, with regret, wishing I had been more mature at the time (I’d barely turned twenty) and had made better use of the privilege. These writers, in contrast, have matured quickly and have turned out some first-class work.
Another thing that struck me as I read the stories herein is an awareness of the many facets of fantasy. Not many deal with themes that would be called traditional. Sure, there’s the odd vampire, but most of the stories are exceedingly inventive. Some are told from a mainstream perspective, with only a slight bit of fantasy at the end. These I found refreshing; the realism only added to the sense of wonder. A few had no fantasy elements at all that I could find, but I don’t mind that either.
As usual, some stories impressed me more than others. The strongest stories are at the very beginning and the very end. I think it was Harlan Ellison (one of my teachers at Clarion West) who I first heard give these tips on anthology editing: you put your best stories at the beginning to draw them in and at the end to leave them with a good taste in their mouth.
The anthology starts off with an excruciatingly dark story called “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” that won both the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. This tale by Alyssa Wong is about a creature in a human woman’s body who’s actually a type of vampire that feeds off emotions. It’s bleak and heartbreaking and very well told. Another story that impressed me is “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. This has very little of fantasy in it until the last few paragraphs, but it is nonetheless intense and absorbing, and when the finale comes, it is easy to see the setup. Comedy is hard to do well, especially comedy in the genre of fantasy, but Adam Ehrlich Sachs pulls it off in the trilogy of humorous short-shorts called “The Philosophers.”
The best story in the book, though, is the last novella, which takes up almost a quarter of the anthology’s length. It’s a beautiful tale of a Pakistani grandson searching for the truth about his grandfather’s past called “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik. It takes place in a juxtaposition of the cultures of the United States and Pakistan, and weaves its fantasy flawlessly into a touching story of family, love, loss, and redemption. When I finished it, I felt that I had been privileged to encounter something truly special in literature, a feeling I have all too rarely nowadays.
The rest of the stories in the anthology are competent, and some are very good. As in most story collections, not all of them appealed to me, but that’s a near-universal situation with anthologies and collections – at least the ones that I have not put together myself. It’s a matter of taste, after all. I might have tweaked it a bit and subtracted or added this or that story. All in all, though, it’s a good collection with some real classics in it, and it’s well worth the read.