I have to be honest – if you’re going to read one sci-fi/fantasy anthology this year, this one would be a really good choice. In the first place, because it collects a lot of wonderfully diverse material. There’s the acidic action and wry cynicism of Abercrombie’s fantasy here, in "Tough Times All Over". There’s a more whimsically fantastical feel, laced with a degree of tragedy, a focus on character, on growth, in Amal El-Mohtar’s "The Truth About Owls". There’s space opera sci-fi mixed up with a coming of age tale, humour mixed with horror in Holly Black’s "Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)", and there’s a kind of relentless courage and a broader moral question looped into the more contemporary sci-fi of Elizabeth Bear’s "Covenant". Given the sheer number of stories in this collection, I’d say that there’s something for almost everyone.
The same is true of the approaches taken across the anthology toward those topics. There are some excellent character pieces, an author diving in to explore their protagonist, what makes them tick, what drives them. The tone across these is wildly different (K.J. Parker’s dryly cynical accidental wizard wouldn’t merge well with the bare-faced grotesqueries surrounding Caitlin Kiernan’s serial killers, for example) , but I don’t think there was a bad one in the bunch. There’s more plot-driven pieces as well, keeping the reader turning pages to see what happens – Garth Nix, for example, produces a wonderful take on this with is cryptic Shay Corsham Worsted, which begins and ends in enigma, leaving the reader wanting to know what happened before the start, and after the end of the story.
To be fair, some of the stories worked a little better for me than others; some of the pieces seemed to tie fantasy up with magical realism, and it was at once eminently readable and entirely baffling. There were moments when what an author was trying to achieve was clear, but the prose wasn’t quite navigating where it needed to go. That said, I can’t think of a single story in this rather mammoth collection that was actively bad – just a few that didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped. On the other hand, that may be due to the aforementioned diversity – there’s a lot of content here, something in the area of 600 pages of narrative; maybe those that didn’t quite click with me would be someone else’s story of the year.
In any event, the collection presents a great many stories across a wide breadth of areas within the genre. And all of them are well written, and many of them are enjoyable (a few seem to have been written purposely to not be enjoyable, per se, and they succeed admirably). There’s some works here by well known authors, some more niche that I’d heard of, and a few interesting new discoveries – and all are worth your attention; the relatively short lengths of their stories belie their quality and their impact on the reader. At any rate, all of this collection may not be for you, but there’s probably quite a few pieces that will be – I had a few favourites, but the quality was uniformly good.
If you’re in the mood to sample something new, something interesting, something unique, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here. Strahan really has done an excellent job of gathering up some of the best short works of sci-fi and fantasy from the last year, and it’s absolutely worth giving it a read.
(I’ve put the table of contents – snagged from Tor - below; there are so many authors in here, it may help to know if one you particularly want to read is present, or if you’re looking for a particular story)
• “Tough Times All Over”—Joe Abercrombie
• “The Scrivener”—Eleanor Arnason
• “Moriabe’s Children”—Paolo Bacigalupi
• “Covenant”—Elizabeth Bear
• “Slipping”—Lauren Beukes
• “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”—Holly Black
• “Shadow Flock”—Greg Egan
• “The Truth About Owls”—Amal El-Mohtar
• “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”—Theodora Goss
• “Cold Wind”—Nicola Griffith
• “Someday”—James Patrick Kelly
• “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)”—Caitlin R Kiernan
• “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”—Alice Sola Kim
• “Amicae Aeternum”—Ellen Klages
• “Calligo Lane”—Ellen Klages
• “The Lady and the Fox”—Kelly Link
• “The Long Haul From the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION”—The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”—Ken Liu
• “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”—Usman T Malik
• “Four Days of Christmas”—Tim Maughan
• “The Fifth Dragon”—Ian McDonald
• “Shay Corsham Worsted”—Garth Nix
• “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”—K. J. Parker
• “Kheldyu”—Karl Schroeder
• “Tawny Petticoats”—Michael Swanwick
• “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”—Rachel Swirsky
• “The Insects of Love”—Genevieve Valentine
• “Collateral”—Peter Watts
• “The Devil in America”—Kai Ashante Wilson