[GUEST REVIEW] T.K. Kenyon on ‘The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five’ Edited by Jonathan Strahan
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Twenty-nine of the best science fiction and fantasy stories of 2010. While all are excellent, a few are spectacular. The editor did not shy away from longer pieces in this well-balanced anthology.
PROS: Includes longer stories; well-balanced, excellent choices.
CONS: Like many anthologies, it’ll hold a heavy door open.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent, wide-ranging, balanced collection of the best speculative fiction of 2010.
Some anthologies saddle the editor with an unrealistic page limit, which means that the editor cannot include well-written but longer pieces of fiction due to space limitations. It’s devilish choice: include the best, long stories or else include many shorter stories that span the genre, but not both. Strahan’s publisher (Nightshade Books) evidently had realistic expectations for the size of this anthology. Thus, Strahan has included many longer stories that will be overlooked in other anthologies due to stricter page limits.
This well-rounded anthology includes twenty-nine of the best short forms of science fiction and fantasy of 2010. I say “short forms,” but the average length of a story in this anthology is over 18 pages long, which translates into an average of 9000 words per story. This means that the fiction in this anthology hovers in that gray area between short story and novelette, and includes some novellas. These are not quick, slight stories to be gulped while waiting in the dentist’s office. These stories will fill you up.
Strahan is obviously an exceptional editor, both for his taste in stories and for his careful balancing of the anthology. Of the twenty-nine stories, fourteen are written by men and fourteen, by women. (K.J. Parker, the notoriously reclusive writer who will not divulge even gender, is the twenty-ninth author.) There are fourteen stories that I categorized as science fiction, and fifteen that were fantasy. There are stories from the steampunk tradition, the AI Singularity speculation, and a nice helping of space opera, plus stories with zombies, water nymphs, killer unicorns, merfolk, and The Thing.
One of the best reasons to read an anthology is to find new authors. Strahan has again found a nice mix of authors in various stages of their careers. He has included some very well-known names such as Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and Robert Reed, to name only a few, as well as authors who are less well-known and are early in their careers, such as Hannu Rajaniemi, Sarah Rees Brennan, Sara Genge, Lavie Tidhar, and Ian Tregillis, and thus will be great finds for speculative fiction readers. I’ve got a new list in my Kindle to start plowing through.
While all the stories here dearly deserve to be included in this Best-of anthology, I’ve reviewed some standouts in more detail below.
“The Spy Who Never Grew Up” by Sarah Rees Brennan is a refreshing mash-up of Peter Pan and James Bond. Her Majesty’s Secret Service is in need of some specialized skills, and only Peter can provide them. Unfortunately, there’s only one thing he wants in return, and it’s not money. This rollicking tale is by turns funny and horrifying, but always a great read and intensely written.
“The Exterminator’s Want-Ad” by Bruce Sterling is a sociological science fiction tale of what happens if the hippies take over, kind of Hair meets 1984. The characterization and voice in this short (for this anthology) piece are stunning.
“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund is a fantastic (in all senses of that word) tale with excellent story depth and characterization. Peterfreund manipulates the reader’s perception of the killer unicorn foal to show, by turns, that it is both adorable and a predator that may kill anyone it feels like eating. The main character is crystal clear and beautifully drawn. This is one of the most memorable stories in the collection.
“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis is an excellent space opera that carefully combines exquisite details of solar system colonization and spaceship engineering with a wonderful character story. While there’s a tribute to Heinlein in there, the story is spectacular and all Landis. If you like space opera, this story may be worth the price of the anthology.
“Amor Vincit Omnia” by K.J. Parker is a police procedural mystery wrapped in magic. The first scene is hard to understand as the reader is dropped headfirst in Parker’s mystical world, but the story quickly teaches the reader how to read it and opens up a wonderful narrative. It’s a significant accomplishment and an excellent story.
“The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan delves into the so-called sixth sense and uses it as a metaphor to describe madness and organic brain disease in a tour-de-force character-driven science fiction story. Language and deeply felt characters take the center stage.
“The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman is a languid lake of a fantasy story, where still waters do indeed run deep. Gaiman masterfully leads the reader with the lightest touch through to the terrifying end.
T.K. Kenyon is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, novelist, award-winning short story writer, pharmaceutical industry regulatory consultant, technical writer, molecular virologist, neuroscientist, minivan-driving mom, happy wife, cat slave, exercise slacker, surfer, high-handicap golfer, scuba diver, gourmet chef, mostly vegetarian, chocolatier, gardener, capsaicin addict, caffeine junkie, Apache and Scot descendant, native Arizonan, Connectikite, unapologetic Oxfordian, nouveau feminist, political moderate with extremist tendencies, radical atheist, Buddhist-curious, occasional UU, Tamil Ayer Brahmin Hindu by marriage, ex-actress, grown-up child beauty queen, PhD, MFA, BS (in so many ways), ASU Sun Devil, Iowa Hawkeye, UPenn Quaker, and always looking for something interesting to do. She tweets at: @TKKenyon and blogs at TKKenyon.blogspot.com.
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