Fantastic Reviews - Anthology Review
Years Best Fantasy & Horror 16 cover Years Best Fantasy & Horror 16 ed. by Datlow & Windling

St. Martin's - copyright 2003
543 pages + 134 introductory pages
cover art by Thomas Canty

Book reviewed July 2004

Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          The well-deserved success of the Lord of the Rings films has brought renewed attention to the field of fantasy.  The only possible downside to this is that the films may reinforce the public misperception that "fantasy" is synonymous only with Tolkienesque high fantasy.  In fact, fantasy encompasses any story that departs significantly from our real world experience.  To see just how broad is the field of fantasy and how little of it involves dragons and wizards, I direct you to Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's annual survey of fantastic short fiction and poetry, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

Datlow selects the horror stories and Windling the fantasy, but they define these terms broadly enough that they collectively cover all of fantastic literature, save only science fiction, which they leave in the capable hands of Gardner Dozois, who prepares a companion volume collecting the best SF of the year.

The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror always gives your money's worth, and the sixteenth edition is no exception, offering thirty-nine pieces of short fiction and nine poems, all first published in 2002.  Even with the editors' preference for short pieces over novelettes and novellas, that still gives you a fat 543 pages of fairly small print.  Add to that another 134 pages of introductory material, including year-end summaries of fantasy, horror, film and television of the fantastic, comics, and animé and manga.  These summaries are very helpful guides to the state of the fantastic arts, although Datlow's summary of horror is less useful than the others, as she rattles off recommendations far beyond what a mere mortal could hope to read, without describing trends in the field as the other summaries do.

Datlow and Windling draw their fiction and poetry selections from a remarkable array of sources.  They include material that originally appeared in twenty different periodicals, nine different original anthologies, seven single-author story collections and, for good measure, the World Fantasy Convention Program Book and the Tori Amos 2002 Tour Book.  Let us pause now for a collective "Holy shit!" at the volume of material Datlow and Windling must read every year to prepare this anthology.  The burden may finally have worn down Terri Windling, as she has passed the responsibility for the fantasy portion of this annual collection to Kelly Link and Gavin Grant beginning in 2004.

The sources represented here demonstrate how deeply fantasy and horror have penetrated literature.  Many of the stories come from mainstream publications like The Atlantic Monthly, The Arkansas Literary Review, and Conjunctions, and from collections by authors who are not thought of as genre writers, including Luis Alberto Urrea, Haruki Murakami, and Susan Power.  The poetry comes primarily from mainstream periodicals, such as Poem, The Chicago Review, and The Antioch Review.

Many of the pieces from mainstream sources are "slipstream" fiction, which uses fantasy elements sparingly, thus retaining a mainstream feel and blurring the boundaries between genres.  One may wonder how much of this slipstream fiction arrives by stealth, coming from editors unaware they are publishing fantasy, and even authors unaware they are writing it.  On the other hand, several mainstream periodicals have knowingly begun to allow in the riffraff; Conjunctions and McSweeney's have even had recent issues entirely devoted to fantastic literature.  (McSweeney's also had a recent issue of sequential art, i.e., comics, so that publication has clearly gone to hell.)

Datlow and Windling have done a remarkable job of tracking the cross-pollination of mainstream and fantasy fiction, and of ferreting out excellent examples of the slipstream form.  And yet, perhaps they have done so to a fault.  They largely ignore genre fantasy both in its traditional "high fantasy" form and its most contemporary forms.  The most notable omission is the outrageous and bizarre "New Weird" subgenre, perhaps the most important development in fantasy of the past few years.  The editors do include a story by China Miéville, the leader of the New Weird charge, but it is a Lovecraft tribute, not in his New Weird style.  Absent are many noteworthy examples of the form from 2002, say for instance, Miéville's The Tain (review of The Tain) and A Year in the Linear City by Paul di Filippo, with its memorably strange one-dimensional urban setting.

This is quibbling of course, but then half the fun of a best of the year anthology is to quibble over what was included and excluded.

The work that Datlow and Windling have included is generally strong, displaying a high level of creativity and craftsmanship.  There are two stories that I found particularly outstanding, both by relatively new authors, one - Adam Roberts - who has quickly become one of my personal favorites in the past couple years, and one - Carlton Mellick III - whom I had never heard of before.  "Swiftly" by Adam Roberts is set in the world of Gulliver's Travels, after human beings have enslaved the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians.  The story's protagonist works to free them, with unintended consequences, yet remains steeped in prejudice toward his fellow humans, exactly like a reader of Gulliver's Travels who doesn't get the point.  Mellick's "Porno in August" is a surreal and disturbing depiction of how men and women may be dehumanized.

Two others in this collection that I especially liked were "Unspeakable" by Lucy Taylor, a powerful examination of the effects years later of a particularly cruel form of child abuse, and "Some Other Me" by Brian Hodge, a short and subtle but deeply affecting account of a man's guilt and regret over his brother's death.  Hodge is one of only three authors to have landed two different pieces of fiction in this collection (the other two, Neil Gaiman and Jeffrey Ford, are widely regarded as among the world's leading fantasists) and his "Nesting Instincts" is also quite good.

A few of the slipstream stories suffer from the self-conscious writing style that mars so much mainstream fiction, but there were only a couple that I actually disliked.  ("Puce Boy" by Michael Libling is dreadfully contrived and heavy-handed and "Hide and Seek" by Nicholas Royle is a trite exercise in stating the obvious.)

          A great many readers who think they don't like fantasy will find much to enjoy in this book if they give it a chance, and even very experienced fantasy and horror readers should discover some new writers to watch.
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Copyright © 2004 Aaron Hughes

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Links of related interest:
The SF Site Featured Review: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Tenth Annual Collection
-- Ellen Datlow --
The Sluice: site dedicated to The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 28 December 2010