I’m only about halfway through this book but I’m starting the review. There’s precedent for it. Sometimes I begin reviews as thoughts occur to me. For instance, the last time I read Martin Eden by Jack London I wrote a review in three installments and published it as three separate blog posts. It just depends on how much there is to say. This anthology is a very long one, though, and I want to jot down some comments while stories are still fresh in my mind. It’s difficult to remember twenty-eight stories covering six hundred pages after the fact. Unless they’re unforgettable, of course. Some of these are, but so far not many.
That’s the thing with best of the year collections: the selection constitutes the opinion of one or two editors, and we all have our own criteria of how we select our favorites. This collection leans heavily on fantasy, which is not often my forte. (Although I have put out one collection of exclusively fantasy stories: Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies, and fantasies do make occasional appearances in some of my other collections.) Many of the stories I would consider readable but so-so. Some, however, stand out.
I often comment on individual stories in collections and anthologies in the order in which they appear in the book, but I’m going to break rank and give first place to a story that blew me away as few stories have in recent decades. I’m not exaggerating in saying that this story alone makes buying and reading the entire anthology worthwhile. (We’ll put aside for the moment that I couldn’t afford to buy it and had to borrow it from the library. That’s been an ongoing issue with me for awhile, the finances, so we won’t bring it up again.) The story – novelette, actually – is “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong. It is pitch-perfect, not a word wasted. Wong won the Nebula Award last year for her short story “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – which was a good read – but I think this story is even better. I’ve seldom felt so strongly about a story in recent decades. The visceral thrill I got while I was reading it and the gut-punch at the end reminded me of my reaction to Harlan Ellison’s stories in the late sixties and early seventies when he was turning out one brilliant masterpiece after another. Alyssa Wong is a major talent, and if she continues to improve, we are going to see some amazing work from her.
Another story that stood out for me, not because of its idea but because of its execution, is “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi. The plot has been done many times before, both in literature and in film: it’s about an android call girl who is well nigh irresistible to men, even men such as cops who should know better. What’s unique about this story is that Bacigalupi tells it in a sleek, lean, condensed style that rapidly leads up to its strong climax.
Fan fiction, which is the borrowing of other universes and character for story ideas, varies from poor or mediocre amateur efforts to award-winning stories from major writers such as “Lost Girls” and “Sister Emily’s Lightship” by Jane Yolen. Delia Sherman dives into a steampunk version of the world of Sherlock Holmes in the imaginative and entertaining novelette “The Great Detective.” It’s an origin story, in a sense, but a most unusual and innovative one.
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From this point on, the review may become a bit disjointed, because I have begun research on a new writing project that may involve reading several books, and I am finishing up the reading of this book at the same time.
I mentioned that there are a number of so-so stories in this volume. There are also a number of pretty good stories.
But one story that stands out in the latter half of the book is “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan. It’s a character-driven story about a woman who works at a hotel near an airport in London, and the hotel is about to briefly grab the attention of the world because two astronauts who are heading for Mars will soon stay in the hotel for one evening. The woman’s mother used to work in aeronautics, and she has been incapacitated and is in an advanced stage of early-onset dementia because of an accident concerning the previous Mars attempt. A beautiful story that quietly but deeply touches the heart.
The story “Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin is so pure and powerful that I was weeping by the end of it. Few stories do that. And I realized that the strength in this one is born of a life lived in its deepest truths; that is, if the author had not lived through what’s in the heart of the story, she would never have been able to tell it with such clarity and heartfelt emotion.
Another story that strikes deep and true: “Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss. It’s a sort of fairy tale set in Eastern Europe. It immediately follows “Red Dirt Witch,” and the two stories have remarkable similarities in that they both seem to spring from the writers’ pasts and somehow link those pasts to the present in the conclusions. Beautiful tales, both of them.