edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant
“As in every year since 1988, the editors tirelessly scoured story collections, magazines, and anthologies worldwide to compile a delightful, diverse feast of tales and poems. On this anniversary, the editors have increased the size of the collection to 300,000 words of fiction and poetry, including works by Billy Collins, Ted Chiang, Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth Hand, Glen Hirshberg, Joyce Carol Oates, and new World Fantasy Award winner M. Rickert. With impeccably researched summations of the field by the editors, Honorable Mentions, and articles by Edward Bryant, Charles de Lint and Jeff VanderMeer on media, music and graphic novels, this is a heady brew topped off by an unparalleled list of sources of fabulous works both light and dark.” (via Amazon)
Good Things: Hey, look, it’s an anthology! I grabbed this one pretty randomly off the shelf at the library. I’ve been meaning to read more short stories, and “the year’s best XYZ” seems like a pretty reliable endorsement, no? Flipping through it, I landed on a poem by Catherynne M. Valente, “The Seven Devils of Central California,” and that’s when I knew the book was coming home with me–Central California doesn’t get featured a whole lot in fiction, especially not the San Joaquin Valley, where I’ve lived for 20 of the last 24 years of my life. Unfortunately, that particular poem ended up being a bit too obtuse to end up on my favorites list, but there are a number of stories that really impressed me, listed here in the order they appear in the book:
1) The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics, by Daniel Abraham. The title sums it up pretty well: a money-changer encounters a dangerous, powerful man, and is forced to outwit him in three puzzles regarding money, exchange, and value in order to escape with his job and his life.
2) “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche,” by Delia Sherman. A beautiful trickster tale set in Louisiana, where a young albino girl named Cadence makes a deal with a devil. Probably my favorite of the collection.
3) “Winter’s Wife,” by Elizabeth Hand. Teenage American Justin’s neighbor, Mr. Winter, marries a strange woman from Iceland who is more than she seems.
4) “The Gray Boy’s Work,” by M. T. Anderson. This is one of the few more obscure, opaque works in the collection that left me interested instead of annoyed. A sort of spooky American fairy tale; a boy’s father returns from war, and embodied concepts like Despair and Victory haunt their house.
5) “The Hill,” by Tanith Lee. A historical mystery, where an English spinster librarian is hired to sort the library of a near-empty mansion with an expansive menagerie, and the animals begin to act very strangely. (Miss Constable had a strong, practical narrative voice that I liked quite a bit; the drawback for me was the exoticization of non-English countries that, while appropriate for the story’s time period, still bugged me.)
6) “Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again,” by Garth Nix. A surprisingly sad fantasy by the author of one of my favorite fantasy series; a knight and an animated puppet travel from town to town, righting a very particular kind of wrong. I’ve read some of Nix’s books and short stories aside from the Old Kingdom series and generally found them disappointing in a good-but-not-as-good sort of way, so it was great to finally read a story that engaged me as fully as Lirael, Sabriel, and Abhorsen did.
7) “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change,” by Kij Johnson. Dogs have gained the ability to speak, and many have subsequently been abandoned by their masters, who have become uncomfortable with the way the master-pet relationship has changed and is continuing to change. A young woman, Linna, visits abandoned dogs at a park to record their fables about One Dog, and to try to help them.
Bad Things: My main complaint with this volume is that, for something titled “the year’s best XYZ,”there were a lot of stories that left me unimpressed. I’ll admit that I skipped over a fair number of them, especially when I started noticing a pattern where many of the stories a) were narrated first-person by b) a young-to-middle-aged white guy who c) acts as a thoughtful observer to certain mystical or horrific events that teach him an important lesson about his young-to-middle-aged white guy life. Do you know what I mean? There was such a narrow scope, and it started getting really repetitive. I really would have liked to see the inclusion of more POC, and stories from more countries and with a greater variety of circumstances. It’s supposed to be the year’s best, for pete’s sake! The ones that really tended to grab me (as you can see above) varied from the pattern or stood out in some way.
Overall: A somewhat uneven collection of stories with some incredible standouts and some forgettable works. Includes a long series of introductions listing the best fantasy and horror novels, media, comics, and music of 2007, if that sort of thing floats your boat. It’s unfortunate that 2008 was the last year of the anthology, because while I suspect that I would continue to skip a portion of stories for more recent years, there would be a few really knockout pieces that would, like this one, make the whole thing worth it.