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The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007: Twentieth Annual Collection
edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant
St. Martin's Press, 472 pages

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007: Twentieth Annual Collection
Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow was the fiction editor of OMNI from 1981 until it folded in 1998. She later worked as the fiction editor of SCIFI.COM. Her well-deserved reputation as an editor for both The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series and for the Fairy Tale Anthologies series has garnered her numerous awards.

Ellen Datlow Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection
SF Site Review: The Green Man
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, 14th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 13th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Black Heart, Ivory Bones
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 12th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Silver Birch, Blood Moon
SF Site Review: Black Swan, White Raven
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, 11th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: 10th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Fairy Tale Anthologies

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
Kelly Link's work includes appearances in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the 'zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and the collection A Wolf at the Door (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling). She won the World Fantasy Award for her story "The Specialist's Hat" and the James Tiptree Jr. Award for "Travels with the Snow Queen."

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Trampoline
SF Site Review: 4 Stories
Jelly Ink

Gavin J. Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press and, since 1996, editor and publisher of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, a twice-yearly small press zine. Originally from Scotland, Gavin moved to the USA in 1991. He worked in bookshops in Los Angeles and Boston, and while in Brooklyn, worked for, a Web site for independent bookshops. He lives in Northampton, MA.

ISFDB Bibliography
Small Beer Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Who said the short fiction market was in trouble? This volume contains 41 stories and poems, and lists a further 834 titles in the Honourable Mentions. That's not far short of 900 works culled from the fantasy output of just one year, and presumably that's still some way short of the total published. A short fiction marketplace that can sustain such an output in what was not a particularly special year can't be doing too badly.

With the best will in the world, you and I could not read all of those stories. That's why we need anthologies such as this. Though it's also why we have to take them on trust. I certainly haven't read enough to be able to say whether these really are the best stories published during the year. Of course, there are one or two stories I have read that I might make a case should have been included but weren't; and there are a couple of stories included here that I would not be inclined to label "best" at any time. But that game really is a waste of time. No anthology is perfect; we are always going to quarrel with what was or was not included. Best simply to take it as it is and look at what this particular selection has to tell us about fantasy during 2006.

And the first thing you notice is how caught up it is in the past. By this, I don't just mean the way the past overhangs the present, as it does for example in "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" by Geoff Ryman, which is easily the best story here. It is a standard argument, presented in fictions probably for as long as we have been writing fiction, that only by recognising and coming to terms with the past can we escape it. Ryman offers a beautiful variation on this theme in which the past forces its way through our ignorance and complacency by means of a haunting sequence of photographs. If nothing in the story (and hence nothing in the rest of this very large book) quite matches up to the power of the opening image, in which a haunted house in Cambodia is "packed from floor to ceiling" with photographs of those murdered by the Khmer Rouge -- indeed the rest of the story largely repeats and amplifies this image -- that does not prevent this being a profound and moving meditation on the sins of the father.

Nor do I mean the stories that are simply set in the past, as for instance is "La Fée Verte" by Delia Sherman. Fantasy stories have always played with our notions of the past, often because what are perceived as simpler times allow more room for magic or, a slightly more subtle variant on this, because a time when there was a popular belief in magic permits the intrusion of real magic in the story. Sherman varies from this model in setting her story at the time of the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris in 1870, but the social unrest and personal danger of the moment does make it a time when people might be more accepting of, more hungry for the unreal. And Sherman's protagonist, a courtesan whose sexual career we follow, is a notably selfish, obtuse and rather simple character who seems barely aware that there is a war going on. So that when we glimpse something supernatural in the visions of the future vouchsafed during the intermittent appearances by another former prostitute known as La Fée Verte, we can never be entirely sure if it is real or not. Sherman's storytelling is delightfully subtle, her period setting and characterisation very skilful, though we might have hoped that these abilities had been put at the service of a tale that wasn't quite so slight.

But no, when I say that these fictions are caught up in the past, it is the literary past I refer to, the way that time and again we are presented with a marginal updating of an old literary form. This is particularly true of the numerous ghost stories gathered here; perhaps inevitably so, since the form itself, both in its subject matter and its traditions, is held captive by a very studied version of the past. Though it is worthy of note that such a high proportion of the horror stories chosen for this year do follow the mode and manners of the ghost story. Just about all of them pay reverence to the ghost stories of the past, perhaps most blatantly in Gene Wolfe's "Sob in the Silence," a nasty but inconsequential tale that, I suspect, would not have been included here if it didn't have Wolfe's name attached to it. (Ellen Datlow assures me this is not the case.) In fairness, though, the ghost story that most effectively raises prickles at the back of the neck is the one that sticks most firmly to the Jamesian tradition, "The Last to be Found" by Christopher Harman, even though the tale-within-a-tale structure means that we are at no less than two removes from the spooky manifestation during a game of hide and seek in an old house.

Even when we stray from the straightforward ghost story, much of the horror represented here adheres rigidly to familiar forms and structures and even, dare I say, cliché. Lee Battersby's "Father Muerte & the Flesh" is one of a series of stories with an attractive central character and setting, and it is told with a certain élan, but what he does with the material is dully predictable as a malevolent spirit is raised. And "First Kisses from Beyond the Grave" by Nik Houser promises much to start with as a disaffected teenager is accidentally transferred to a school for the recently dead, but in the end teenage angst doesn't seem to be much different whether you are dead or alive. It's not enough to have a neat setting, sometimes you need a plot to go with it. Maybe it's the school setting that's the problem, the need to somehow squeeze in all those familiar rituals that seem infinitely various yet perennially the same. At least, the school setting does no favours for Sarah Monette's "Drowning Palmer," in which a series of dreams during a school reunion prove the key to an old murder, the sort of story that may be completely original but still feels as if you've already read far too many versions of the same thing.

But it's not just the horror that feels as if it is constantly retracing earlier work. Sometimes the fantasy actually is revisiting what has gone before. "Winkie" by Margo Lanagan is a retelling of Wee Willie Winkie as something dark and angst-ridden and seems almost totally pointless. Ysabeau S. Wilce seems to have picked up from her reading the combined notions that fantasy must be written with an excess of words even if they get in the way of any complex image you are trying to present, and that fairgrounds and parties are essential settings for creepy unease. Fortunately, there is a neat little tale of betrayal buried under the verbiage if you can persevere long enough to dig it out. While Simon Clark's "The Extraordinary Limits of Darkness" has the gall to present itself as a companion to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, yet all we get is something trashy and febrile and as unsubtle as it is possible to be, with a team of over-hearty white hunters taking a train through 19th century Africa and taking pot-shots at the natives. To be honest I can't work out how this puerile nonsense got published in the first place, let alone how it got picked for a best of the year anthology.

Fortunately, not all the stories are as bad or as reliant on the familiar as that, and there are some that make a reasonable fist of looking forward rather than back, or at least take a reasonably hard look at today. Paul Di Filippo's "Femaville 29" is a wonderfully atmospheric post-Katrina tale of a refugee camp on the American mainland, and of the intriguing escape engineered by the camp's children. "Halfway House" by Frances Hardinge is both too prolix and too oblique to be entirely successful, but the story of feral children living tangentially to the world in a place where fairy tales seem to have a sinister validity is crowded with vivid images that stay in the memory long after any sense of what it might have been about has faded. "In the House of the Seven Librarians" by Ellen Klages has the too-sweet aura of wish fulfillment about it as a young girl is brought up in a library cut off from the rest of the world, and it could have done with rather more in the way of plot, but it is nevertheless charming and engaging. As is Jeffrey Ford's "The Night Whiskey," about the disturbing effects of a strange drink, and of the comic and unsettling "Drunk Harvest" it produces. In a collection that seems to favour the over-long and over-written (as well as the Wilce, I would note stories by Glen Hirshberg, "The Muldoon," Stephen Graham Jones, "Raphael," and Benjamin Rosenbaum, "A Siege of Cranes," all, especially the Rosenbaum, promising, but all tending to outstay their welcome), Ford's is the only story that would benefit from being longer and more fully developed.

The sense of looking back, of resting upon older models, that I have identified in this collection lies behind one of the disappointments for me. These are all traditional story structures. At its most interesting, fantasy is a form that allows an awful lot of play with the nature of story itself, and yet virtually none of the writers gathered here take that opportunity to play. The only exception is what is for me the best story after Ryman's: "Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery" by John Schoffstall, a glorious escalation of lunacy that leaves the rational world further and further behind, but that takes the reader willingly along on this joyous flight of the imagination. In this company it is a one-off; if we can take this volume as a true representation of fantasy fiction in 2006, then too many writers seem to have chosen the safe, the traditional route. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we remember that fantasy can also be dangerous, risk-taking, pushing us out of the comfort zone into new ways of looking at the world. Among the stories here, only those by Schoffstall and Ryman have taken that route; we must hope that in future volumes more will follow.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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