"Year's Best Fantasy 2," ed. Hartwell and Cramer

Pros: Wide range of styles and sub-genres; good stories; no total clunkers
Cons: The wide range of styles means you won’t be thrilled with everything; only a handful of real gems
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 11/20/2002

“Year’s Best Fantasy 2,” edited by David G. Hartwell (and Kathryn Cramer, who is mysteriously only credited on the inside of the book, not on the cover), is a fascinating sampler of fantasy styles and sub-genres culled from stories published in 2001. On the one hand, this means that you’re less likely to enjoy every story than if you picked up a book of stories all set in a sub-genre that you already knew you liked. After all, some of the stories in here are almost bound to be of a style that you don’t enjoy as much. On the other hand, this is a wonderful way to discover new and interesting styles, authors, and sub-genres that you haven’t explored before. Since each story was previously published, and the intro to each story says where, it also gives you the chance to find out which fantasy venues are likely to carry stories you’ll enjoy, so you can go subscribe to magazines (or pick up story collections) that will truly appeal to you.

General Notes

All of the stories are very good in a technical sense; that is to say, that while I might think that some of them are not entirely interesting or have shallow characters or that some lack a certain spark that I look for in my favorite writers’ work, I wouldn’t say that any of these writers are “bad.” You won’t find lots of sloppy editing, dropped plot threads, and so on. That is one advantage to reading this sort of “year’s best” anthology.

At their worst, some of the stories made me shrug. At its best, I couldn’t put this book down to go get dinner! Of course, the stories that made me shrug might make your heart beat faster, and the ones that delighted me might annoy you. So I’ll give you a brief overview of each story and let you decide for yourself whether this book is worth the trip. If you don’t want individual story details then skip down to the “Overall” section, near the bottom.

The stories range from light, fluffy, entertaining pieces to deeply religious stories, to somewhat disturbing and horrific tales. There are bits of sex and gore around the edges in places, so this anthology probably isn’t appropriate for kids.

Individual Stories

The introduction of the book is woefully sterile and unemotional, not to mention boring, but it’s also blessedly short.

“The Finder,” by Ursula K. LeGuin: This story is certainly the longest in this collection (95 pages!), and definitely the one that gets top billing. However, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t wow me. It’s set in the world of LeGuin’s “Earthsea” books. Perhaps if I’d read those I might have found this story more interesting, in the vein of learning more about that world. Perhaps then it also would have had more depth. As it was it seemed a relatively standard fantasy fare (wizards, magic, prejudice against wizards, and all that). Parts of it did shine, however, particularly when the story took on a fairy-tale feel or dealt with certain characters, and I think that if it’s a genre you particularly enjoy, you’ll love the story much more than I did.

“Senator Bilbo,” by Andy Duncan: Racism in Tolkein’s Shire?! Neither particularly deep nor surprising, but definitely fun and amusing, and even a bit poignant at times. It’s an odd mix of real-world politics and the most popular fantasy world of all.

“Big City Littles,” by Charles de Lint: In which a children’s book author has a surprising encounter of the fairy tale kind. A charming urban fantasy that takes place in a modern, “real” world, but definitely takes a left turn into fairy tale land almost at the start. Already you can see the wide range of sub-genres represented – the first three stories are all completely different types of tales.

“What the Tyger Told Her,” by Kage Baker: This was the first story that I delighted in, instead of simply enjoying. In this tale set in the not-too-distant past, we meet a young girl, a dysfunctional family… and a talking tiger. It’s an evocative, engrossing, and psychologically fascinating tale.

“Something to think about, isn’t it?” said the tyger.

“In the Shadow of Her Wings,” by Ashok Banker: This tale is a truly unusual blend of fantasy and technology, politics and mysticism, set in near-future India. It isn’t entirely engrossing, but it is a fascinating concept piece.

“The Heart of the Hill,” by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson: This tale takes place in Bradley’s famous “Mists of Avalon” world. I did come away from it feeling that if I had read that huge tome more recently (it’s been about 15 years, I think!), I might have found this story more interesting. It’s still a pretty little piece about a couple of priestesses-to-be in a magical post-Arthurian time.

“Queen” by Gene Wolfe: This is a cryptic piece about a rich man, a poor woman, and a coronation. It is oddly biblical and religious in nature, but remains roundabout and subtle in its approach to its topic. It didn’t entirely grab my imagination, but it was interesting to read.

“The Black Heart” by Patrick O’Leary: The editors describe this piece thusly: “A war between good and evil begins and ends in that most mundane of transitional spaces, the airport.” This is an odd blend of science fiction and fantasy – and in some ways, science fiction versus fantasy.

“On the Wall” by Jo Walton: For those of you fond of odd and unusual fairy tale retellings, there’s this piece by Jo Walton. It’s the story of the childhood of Snow White’s stepmother, told from the perspective of the mirror on the wall. This one is a bit disturbing, but very effective.

“Hell Is the Absence of God,” by Ted Chiang: A brief disclaimer here, as this is definitely a piece about religion: I’m not a religious person, by any definition of the word. So I can’t tell you whether or not, as a religious person, I’d be offended by this unusual tale. What I can tell you is that, as a non-religious person, I was fascinated by this tale, and never felt like I was being preached at in any way. The author very much allows his tale to speak for itself.

The tale takes place in a modern world where God’s power is very real. Angelic visitations happen, in a very Old Testament sense; the results of one angel’s appearance were 4 miracle cures, 2 non-cure miracles, and 8 casualties. When a person dies you can see his soul ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell. The story deals with three people who have all been affected by these visitations in different ways. Where these people go, and how they get there, is a bizarre and amazing little tale that I couldn’t tear myself away from.

“The Man Who Stole the Moon,” by Tanith Lee: This is one of Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth stories. It has fascinating characters, and a dark and twisted fairy tale feel.

“Firebird,” by R. Garcia y Robertson: This one is a delightful and frightening fairy tale woven of lies, truth, witches, werewolves, Russian nobles, French knights, and the firebird’s egg.

“My Case for Retributive Action,” by Thomas Ligotti: If you’re already familiar with Ligotti, then you’ll know immediately what sort of odd, unusual, dark, creepy feel this story has. If you aren’t, then I’ll try to explain. This takes place in a sort-of modern (or almost-modern?) world, in which a faceless corporation may be doing dastardly things to crazy people. Like many of Ligotti’s tales this is a blend of horror and fantasy, somewhat slow in its execution. It’s also one of his more accessible stories – one of the few that has a clearly discernible plot and events – and for that reason perhaps is not one of my favorite Ligotti stories. He’s at his best, I think, when he’s being more poetic and metaphorical. However, I can see why an anthology attempting to appeal to a wide range of people would choose this particular story of his.

“The Shadow,” by Thomas M. Disch: A frightening tale of the shadow nature of people. Modern, with touches of both fantasy and horror.

Like Angie, we all have shadows. Stand in the light and you will see your own.

“Stitchery,” by Devon Monk: A quirky tale of an extremely surreal modern (semi-futuristic?) rural life, and a very weird – yet utterly normal – love. Perhaps the most surreal tale in here, I enjoyed this one for its quirkiness, but it didn’t strike as deeply as a love story perhaps should have.

“To Others We Know Not Of,” by Kate Riedel: This is the tale of a man with a very unusual curse – to be able to sense and feel the pains of others – and the woman who loved him. Or perhaps it is the tale of a man with a gift who is determined not to face it. Another modern tale in a mostly-normal world, this is one of the most emotionally accessible and poignant tales in this book.

“The Lady of the Winds,” by Poul Anderson: This one is set in a fantasy world, and is a tale of Cappen Varra (those of you familiar with the Thieves’ World series of books may recognize the character name). It’s a light-hearted encounter between a roguish bard and a temperamental goddess. The characters are rather stereotypical, but the story itself has a little depth and some enjoyable humor.

“His Own Back Yard,” by James P. Blaylock: An unusual trip down memory lane for an otherwise normal man in a normal modern world. You can easily feel, taste, and see the places in this evocative piece of writing.

“A Place to Begin,” by Richard Parks: This tale of sorcery takes place in a fantasy China. It’s an intriguing and lush fairy tale with compelling characters.

“Nucleon” by David D. Levine: This one is an unusual variation on the “mystery shop” line of stories (the one that keeps showing up on shows like Outer Limits). Again it’s a modern-world almost-normal tale with a streak of fantasy running through it.

“My Stolen Sabre” by Uncle River: On the one hand, I’m not all that fond of either real-world war stories (this one starts in the Civil War) or stories about sentient objects. On the other, this one is written in such a grandiose and entertaining style that I couldn’t put it down. Heck, I couldn’t even stop reading bits of it to my husband.

My sabre… well, I thought of it as that for over thirty years… was asleep at the time that it was stolen.

“Apologue” by James Morrow: This is the weirdest little story, of old, retired movie-monsters coming out to help rebuild in the wake of 9/11. It seems like it should be silly, but instead it’s surprisingly touching.

Overall

In general I love short stories. I enjoy being able to read a whole story at once, since I don’t always know when I’ll have time to pick up a book again once I put it down. This book provides a fantastic sampler of styles and fantasy sub-genres. It might introduce you to a style that you come to love, or a new author that joins your list of favorites. On the other hand, if you already know that you only love a specific type of fantasy (epic fantasy, or Oriental fantasy, or urban fantasy, or fairy-tale fantasy, or fantasy/horror, or fantasy/science fiction, etc.), you won’t get as much out of this book, because there are so few pieces in any one area.

I applaud the editors’ attempts to cover all of the fantasy genre, instead of only presenting their one or two “pet” sub-genres (in particular I appreciate their willingness to include cross-genre work: F/H and F/SF). On the other hand, I sometimes found myself wondering if, in their attempt to cover all the bases, they necessarily always picked stories that were worthy of the title “Year’s Best.” It can be hard to tell in a collection like this, where all of the authors have talent and skill, whether the stories that I thought were shrug-worthy simply didn’t appeal to my personal tastes or truly weren’t that good.

Ultimately, I think that this book is perfect for certain people: those who love the wide-ranging variations on the fantasy theme and want to see more, and those who want to experience a sampling of the possibilities so that they can find new magazines, authors, and genres to read.

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