Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Thirteenth Edition - Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (eds)

Short stories are a whole different ball game from novels. The emphasis is on brevity - instead of long and intricate character development or world-building, you need clever and concise descriptions that can set the background with the minimum of flab. Stephen Donaldson put it very well - he compared novels to a mud-slinging contest, where you can throw handfuls of words at the reader and hope that some of them stick, whereas short stories need to cunningly place the words in the reader's pockets. I like my short stories to be short, too - novellas seem to be the worst of both worlds; not enough material for a book, not enough editing for a short story.

One of the reasons I've posted so few reviews here recently is that I've been finishing off some large anthologies, full of lovely short stories. I originally thought I'd write mini-reviews for each one, but given that this book alone has nearly 50 stories in, that would a) take far too long and b) be pretty boring to read... so, I'm going to try clumping a few together and just talking about the ones that stood out, for whatever reason.

Not surprisingly, some of the best stories come from the big-name writers. There are two by Neil Gaiman (Harlequin Valentine and Keepsakes and Treasures - A Love Story), both of which have his trademark theme of fairytale/mythical characters in the modern world, with a rather dark edge. Michael Marshall Smith, who is great at writing dysfunction and (particulaly) dysfunctional relationships, also has two stories in this collection (Welcome and What You Make It) - the former somewhat better than the latter, which has an interestingly nasty main character in a raid on a near-future Disneyland, but a disappointing conclusion. And Kelly Link's story The Girl Detective is, of course, excellent - Link's style is unique, like the disjointed logic of dreams, and it takes great skill to pull off a multiple-viewpoint plotless story with this amount of success. Ursula K LeGuin also has a poem and a story in this collection, but the poem is nothing special and the story, Darkrose and Diamond, is some awful teeny-goth romance that only narrowly avoids being the worst story in the collection.

Short stories are a good medium for humorous fantasy - the best examples here are Eleanor Arnason's The Grammarian's Five Daughters, a traditional fairy tale template with an interesting twist, and Susanna Clarke's excellent The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse, which is her usual brand of 18th-Century-England-Meets-Faerie, set in the town of Wall from Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Kim Newman's You Don't Have To Be Mad... tries a bit too hard to be funny, but gets marks for the sneaky references to the real live villains of 80's Britain.

As for horror, the winners here are the chilling and claustrophobic White by Tim Lebbon, and the nasty little piece The Emperor's Old Bones by Gemma Files; Ian R MacLeod's The Chop Girl also deserves a mention. There are also quite a few elegant and moving fairy tales, notably The Paper-Thin Garden by Thomas Wharton and Jeffrey Ford's At Reparata. There's even a good ghost story, Small Song by Gary A Braunbeck, which takes the spookiness out and leaves in the poignancy.

The rest of the stories range between average and pretty good and there are very few real duds. A contender for Worst Story is The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman by Steve Millhauser, which has a plot seemingly lifted directly from an episode of Buffy, but this is pipped to the post by Paul J McAuley's Naming the Dead - an interesting concept of ghosts and spirits, but his main character's affected voice is like nails down a blackboard. My main criticism of the book as a whole is that many of these stories have now been anthologised elsewhere, so I'd read quite a few of them before. However, as the book's a few years old now, that's rather inevitable and not a complaint about the quality. Overall, a very good collection and certainly worth buying.



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