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REVIEW: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 2 edited by Jonathan Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: A respectable anthology, especially when one considers my marginal success rate enjoying fantasy stories.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of twenty-four science fiction and fantasy stories first published in 2007.


PROS: Twenty good stories, five of which are excellent.

CONS: Four stories were mediocre or worse.

BOTTOM LINE: A good sampling of sf/f stories from 2007 even though the Editor’s tastes did not always align with my own.

There are more short fiction anthologies published every year than I can possibly keep up with. While original anthologies are fun to read, I also try to make room for “Best of” anthologies because I like to stay in touch with what’s considered the best. That’s a subjective term, isn’t it? Best, in this case, means according to the anthology’s Editor – and that assumes we disregard other external factors that come into play when choosing stories…namely availability, size limitations, perceived balance in gender/race, gaining a mix of different styles, etc. It’s a wonder that these things can come together at all and still manage to contain stories that are generally considered good by other anthologists and award shortlists.

Jonathan Strahan’s anthology series, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, is a draw for me because it offers some picks for the best fantasy, a genre that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I have a less-than-perfect track record enjoying fantasy stories. Sometimes they work for me, sometimes not. On the other hand, I like to expand my readerly horizons and some fantasy stories are really good. A logical choice, then, seems to read fantasy stories that are the cream of the crop. (I’m completely ignoring the sometimes-blurry boundaries between genres for the moment, because sometimes one has to draw a line in the sand. But I wonder, is there a fantasy fan in a Bizarro universe who has a smattering of success with sf? Hmmm…)

Given my track record for fantasy, it is little surprise that some of the least enjoyable stories for me in this volume were fantasy stories. That said, considering the same, there were a welcome number of fantasy stories that I did thoroughly enjoy. Standout stories in this volume include:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang
  • “Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory
  • “The Coat of Stars” by Holly Black
  • “The Prophet of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka
  • “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter

Taken as a whole, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two is a respectable collection indeed.

Individual story reviews follow, with previously reviewed stories noted where appropriate…

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project] Ted Chiang is often regarded as an excellent short story writer and with his wonderful story, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the story of a Baghdad merchant who learns of the existence of an amazing artifact: a gate that acts as a wormhole allowing time travel across the space of 20 years. Chiang, using a “stories within stories” approach, has the Alchemist who owns the gate teaching the merchant about the rules of time travel – all while being firmly planted in Arab culture and mores. The author also treats the theme of time travel head-on by using cool time convolutions that are integral to the story. Meticulously tight plotting, excellent storytelling and great uses of time travel mark this story as a winner.

The protagonist of the fable-like “The Last and Only Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French” is an American who, at first, simply shows a liking for all things French, but then slowly morphs into a full-fledged Frenchman. He begins speaking French, eventually loses the ability to speak English, and is ousted from his job at the library and, ultimately, his country. He is welcomed by the French people as a hero but his transformation is not yet complete, and he manages to even out-French the French. With a seemingly-simple plot, the author deals with weighty issues of patriotism and devotion. The story is not so much a statement on patriotic pride as much as it asks us to question our patriotism and what it actually means to us. Weighty issues, to be sure, but it’s Beagle’s storytelling skills that kept me reading.

Charles Stross’ farcical “Trunk and Disorderly” is part homage to the type of mystery written by P.G. Wodehouse, and part comedy. Well, maybe mostly comedy as it seems that the plot hangs on the narrative’s jovial tone rather than the other way around. The story concerns a decadent man (Ralph) who spends his spare time competing in suicide drops from space while mostly ignoring the robot he doesn’t know he truly adores (Laura). When said robot leaves, our self-absorbed protagonist finds himself on Mars, through reasonable circumstances, where he finds his amore an unwitting pawn in an evil game by a Shady Antagonist. Thus our stalwart hero, now awakened to the true value of love, attempts to rescue her, all the while dragging along a miniature wooly mammoth, the pet of his sister that he promised to babysit. As usual, Stross skillfully tosses around cool ideas and terms like they were parts of speech…like referring to humans and bots as squishies and clankies, for example. The end result is a fun story that more humor than sf.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2008 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.] Glory by Greg Egan starts with a head-expanding, hard-sf treatment of space travel, and then settles comfortably into a story about two visitors (Joan and Anne) to an alien planet interested in learning the advanced mathematics of an extinct race. Joan and Anne use technology that gives them the appearance of the natives, which allows each of them to contact one of two dominant species: the Ghahari and the Tiran, who are at war with each other. The story mainly follows Joan’s interaction with the Ghahari, specifically acting as an archaeologist at the site of some buried stone tablets that (hopefully) detail the extinct aliens’ answer to a unified theory of mathematics. The politics between the races proves a decent source of drama, but I have to admit that the ending lacked any of the spark promised by the slam-bang beginning.

“Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory revolves around a woman named Julia who mentally disappears at ever-increasing lengths. She can do ordinary things like eat, walk and the other minutia of everyday life, but her mind is clearly elsewhere. (The cause is speculated as a petite mal seizure or a mild autism.) When Julia’s faculties return, she copiously records the extensive results of what was occupying her mind, usually some mathematical or other scientific problem. This story begins twenty-three years after Venya has gone about her own life and left Julia in the care of her brother, Kyle. Venya receives a plea of help from Julia in a rare lucid moment and sets out to follow through on a promise made long ago. The wonder of this story is not in its science fictional content, which is minimal and only incidental to the story, but rather in how the author has crafted an entrancing piece of fiction that draws the reader towards the selfless characters while he creates an impending error of dread and import as the story progresses. That wonder is kicked up a notch when you realize the nature of promises made. Powerful, emotional stuff

In “The Dreaming Wind” by Jeffrey Ford, a small town is affected by a strange annual event – a late-summer wind that temporarily causes waking dreams. The effect on the residents is generally positive, despite their pretense of dread. When the winds don’t blow through town one fateful year, the people are despondent…until the children do something to replace the emptiness left by the wind’s absence. This is, to be sure, an interesting concept, but there are limits, I think, as to how well it can carry a story. But Ford’s prose is certainly elegant and highly descriptive, evoking clear imagery and characters.

Holly Black’s “The Coat of Stars” is a touching story about a costume designer who comes to terms with his family and a lost love. The marvelous thing about this story is how the author creates these fleeting moments of character reconnection that are totally effective and real. But this is a fantasy story (as evidenced by Rafael’s experience with the legendary faeries of his youth) and despite my usual indifference towards it – especially fantasy with faeries and elves – this one worked quite nicely for me. I actually found myself rooting for Rafael and was genuinely concerned when it came time for him to make a serious decision about leaving his past troubles behind, or staying to work things out. Good stuff.

Ted Kosmatka’s gripping alternate history story, “The Prophet of Flores,” posits a world where creationism is accepted as fact and evolution has been scientifically proven false; and where the discovery of a new “hobbit” race threatens to upset the very fabric of society. This is seen through the eyes of Paul, a very bright scientist who emerged from an abusive household. Paul’s drive to understand the truth leads him into dangerous territory, and gives cause for some genuinely tense moments. At the heart of the story is a cool sf-nal idea which is nicely built upon to create a riveting account of one man’s journey for truth and understanding. Nicely done.

The premise of Alex Irvine’s “Wizard’s Six” is interesting enough: a man is tracking a rogue apprentice wizard who is “collecting” (choosing, really) the six children he needs to become a practicing wizard. We don’t really need to know the reason why the apprentice wizard must be stopped; the premise is intriguing enough on its own, especially as the protagonist, Paulus, wrestles with his acceptance of his task and the killing that must follow. All of this is shrouded in some mystery when we learn that Paulus is under a spell of forgetfulness. Sadly, the back story of Paulus and how he came to be where he is not nearly the payoff it needed to be to make this story work as a whole.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2008 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.] Like its title suggests, Daniel Abraham’s The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics reads like a fairy tale. (And despite having “economics” in the title, this is far from a bore-fest.) The story is a series of encounters between the selfish Lord Iron and the commoner Olaf, who toils at the postal authority exchanging currency. Olaf suffers the whims of Lord Iron who first threatens Olaf’s job and then his life. Olaf puzzles through these challenges using his cambist skills – but are those skills enough to save him? The fun is in watching Olaf figure out how to beat Lord Iron at his own game. Lord Iron is immediately dislikable and Olaf is the underdog the reader will be rooting for. The ending might have been a bit predictable, but the ride was still fun.

In “By Fools Like Me,” Nancy Kress takes the idea of banned books and turns it around a little. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, some time after the eco logical “Crash”, trees are not only scarce, they are the made God’s divine gift. Therefore books are a sin since they waste the precious resource. In a small village, a girl named Hope discovers a preserved cache of books and shows them to her grandmother. Together they hide their “sin” from Hope’s mother, who is doing her rotation as the village preacher. Kress creates a nice, bleak mood with this story, but I can’t help feeling that, based on some of the author’s past stories, some spark was missing.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project] Bruce Sterling’s “Kiosk” is one of those stories that looks at technology and its effects on society. Set in a worldwide economic slump, the story initially focuses on Borsilav, a simple street merchant who captures a renewed wave of recycled consumerism by selling fabricated merchandise from a small, one-person kiosk. The poor-man who makes something of himself is a gratifying storyline, and it’s interesting to see how Borislav envisions and shapes the economic future. But as soon as Borislav offers the kiosk to the politician, the story loses its heart. It changes from personal story to political tool and not even the planned rebellion can restore its former glory.

“Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss is a fantasy story that’s a mashup of hero quest story and Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan” poem. Sadly, this just didn’t work for me at all. The narrative delivers beautiful prose, to be sure, but Kamora’s one-thing-leads-to-another quest to marry a dragon who assumes human form doesn’t quite make it into the proper intersection in my personal Venn diagram of fantasy and stories that agree with me.

Neil Gaiman’s “The Witch’s Headstone” is the story of a boy named Bod (short for Nobody) who lives in a graveyard among ghosts. Against their wishes, Bod visits the neighboring Potters Field where he meets a kindly-but-sad witch, or rather, the ghost of one, for whom Bod decides to do something nice. You don’t have to be a fan of fantasy to enjoy this story since Gaiman’s writing is quite engaging. This is the kind of story you might read to your kids; it’s tame enough to be suitable for them yet spooky enough to be entertaining as well.

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction.] In Last Contact by Stephen Baxter, an astrophysicist and her mother wait for the end of the world. Pensive, creepy, frightening and sad are all words could be use to describe this well-written story. Caitlin is the astrophysicist who blames herself for the impending “Rip” that threatens the Earth, even though she was just the one to discover it. Maureen is her recently widowed mother who is partially coping by pretending life will go on, even though she’s fully aware that this is the end. Knowing exactly when it is going to happen and being completely helpless about it throws a beautifully gloomy shadow over the story. Seeing society’s behavior, which ranges from sheer panic to quiescence, is downright creepy. Well done.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Fast Forward 1.] In “Jesus Christ, Reanimator” by Ken Macleod, a reporter follows a man claiming to be Jesus Christ, back for the Second Coming. It’s interesting to see the humorous speculation on how the modern world and Jesus interact. (Jesus has a blog!) With regards to the truthfulness of his claims of identity, there are believers and disbelievers. In the end, the truth might not matter so much.

The world of Susan Palwick’s “Sorrel’s Heart” is one of freaks and normals. The story follows two freaks (Quartz and Sorrel) as they try to avoid the hatred and violence of the normal society. Sorrel is an empathic young girl who wears her heart on her sleeve – literally – her heart is physically outside of her body. Quartz appears normal, but likes to cause pain in others. They strike a deal for mutual survival whereupon Quartz will voice his violent intentions to Sorrel, thus satisfying his need to cause pain. They try escaping to mountains (not before finding love between them) only to find that the hatred for freaks is more widespread than they thought. This is a decent premise and the writing shows talent, but the symbolism here is a little on the heavy side.

Michael Swanwick creates an entirely new, though not altogether unfamiliar, creation myth in “Urdumheim”. This is the story of the People who fled slavery into nothing, creating a world from something that did not exist. Life was like paradise until their former captors, the Igigi from Urdumheim, catch up with them. The Igigi feed on the language of the people and each encounter leaves a victim with a smaller vocabulary, eventually devolving them to animal-like state. To fight the Igigi, the People (led by King Nimrod) create Death and War. The Igigi respond by creating Murder. As fantasies go – and those who know me know of my sketchy success with the genre – this one was entirely readable and enjoyable.

M. Rickert’s “Holiday” is about a writer, the son and victim of a pedophile, who is visited by the ghost of a famous murdered young girl. Other ghost victims visit the man as he tries to figure out the reason they visit. A reason is never explicitly given and by the end of the story, I was initially disappointed about that unfulfilled promise. Yet I just couldn’t shake the story’s unsettling tone and felt that I missed some subtle clues. Re-reading the last few pages more carefully showed that was indeed the case, and while I still think there were some unanswered questions, the picture is lot more focused – and even more disturbing – than before.

“The Valley of the Gardens” by Tony Daniel is a grand-scale space opera of war and love, told in two eventually-connecting threads. In one, a famer tends to a fence that he cannot cross, meets a girl from the opposite side (who also cannot cross) and they fall in love, with the fence being the only possible meeting point. In the other thread, a man fights aliens called Buboes. (I couldn’t help but picture Bubo, that cute mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans). The problem here is that the cool ideas thrown about (nanotech, quantum entanglement, sentient beings, planet-sized computers, etc.) come so fast and furiously, and thus the relationships between characters are so underdeveloped by comparison, that the reader hardly has any time to care about one or the other. In that respect, this story was a disappointment; even more so when you consider that I’ve really enjoyed some of the author’s past work.

Elizabeth Hand’s “Winter’s Wife” is told from the point of view of a young boy named Justin. (His age is inconsistent. At one point, he is described as fifteen years old, and later he says he is entering eight grade which would put him at thirteen.) Justin and his mother live in the woods of Maine where they meet a handyman loner named Winter. Winter goes to Iceland for a week and returns with an impish wife named Vala who soon exhibits strange, mystical behavior. (Her touch is ice cold, she manages to freeze-fry a hummingbird, etc.) Weirdness gives way to vendetta when a local businessman who owns the woods next to Winter’s land decides to cut down a centuries-old birch tree. Then, the true power of Vala becomes apparent. Sort of. This is the kind of fantasy where the mysticism and paranormal phenomena occur but are never really explained to any degree of satisfaction. Sadly, these are the types of fantasies with which I have the most difficult time enjoying.

[The following story was originally reviewed here.] In The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small by Chris Roberson, Cao Wen, working for the Minister of War, is researching the enemy, Mexica. His search leads him to seek out Ling Xuan, a “temporary resident” (for the last 20 years) at the Embroidered Guard, a military unit of the Celestial Empire. Ling Xuan is suspected of holding vital information about the enemy, but Cao Wen learns that the prisoner holds information even more important to the future of the Empire. As with other Celestial Empire stories, this one transpires on a personal level; in this case, Ling Xuan is the focus of our sympathy. His only crime is having a desire to know the order of the universe. (There are laws to prohibit such learning.) To see him manipulate Cao Wen is a personal victory for him and an engaging event for the reader.

Elizabeth Bear’s “Orm the Beautiful” tells of the last dragon who must protect the memories of his kind, which are kept in the precious stone remains of his brethren. When men threaten to takes the stones and separate them, Orm the Beautiful makes the ultimate sacrifice with the aim of keeping the together. Though it’s a little jarring for the narrative to switch from classic fantasy trope (dragon living in the mountain) to contemporary setting (dragon setting down in Washington, D.C.), this story works and is touchingly effective.

“The Constable of Abal” by Kelly Link follows a thieving witch (Zilla) and her daughter (Ozma) as they flee the town of Abal after Zilla kills the Constable. Zilla and Ozma can see ghosts and Ozma keeps the ghost of the Constable at the end of a ribbon. Zilla takes Ozma to a faraway city to finally become respectable, trying to rid her life of the ghosts. Once again I am faced with a fantasy story that makes it difficult for me to shed any expectation of logic. I’m usually OK with magic and such if there is consistency and rules applied, but this story is largely nonsensical without even a traditional plot to hold it together. For example, Zilla forces young Ozma to look and act as a boy, which she eventually turns into (!) but then turns back into a girl again. Huh? In the end I was left wondering what clues I could have possibly missed that would explain the point of this story.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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