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Best American Fantasy 2008
edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
Prime, 336 pages

Best American Fantasy 2008
Ann VanderMeer
Ann VanderMeer has been a publisher and editor for over twenty years who currently serves as the fiction editor of Weird Tales and as a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. She is the founder of the award-winning Buzzcity Press. Work from her press and related periodicals has won the British Fantasy Award, the International Rhysling Award, and appeared in several year's best anthologies. Ann was also the founder of The Silver Web magazine, a periodical devoted to experimental and avant-garde fantasy literature. A Best of the Silver Web anthology is forthcoming from Prime Books.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Steampunk
SF Site Review: The New Weird
SF Site Review: The Silver Web, Issue 15
SF Site Review: The Silver Web, Issue 15

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix
SF Site Review: Balzac's War
SF Site Review: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Even with the demise of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, there are many Best of the Year anthologies out there. But this is not just another collection of best fantasy stories, there's another qualifier in the title. American, in this case, seems to equate with the continental United States; at least, the writers represented here are all resident in the USA, and these stories were all first published there. I hope we can presume that this is not some protectionist ploy designed to preserve the purity of American fantasy from magic realism turned out in Mexican sweatshops or the European model smuggled across the border from Canada. But if so, what is this collection trying to tell us: that there is something distinctive about American fantasy, marking it out from the literature found anywhere else?

One thing certainly is distinctive: the range of publications in which these stories first appeared. The usual genre suspects are barely represented here, one tale comes from Weird Tales, one from the Wizards anthology, one from F&SF, one from Asimov's and two from Eclipse. The places we would normally turn for our fantasy stories don't get much of a look-in. Instead we have stories from Mississippi Review and Harper's and McSweeney's and Barrelhouse, and two apiece from Cincinnati Review and Conjunctions and Tin House. That's a wider range of magazines that publish short fiction, let alone magazines that are open to the fantastic, than you are likely to find anywhere else.

Whether this indicates a peculiarly American hunger for short fiction or is just a consequence of the size and distribution of the American population, I don't know (I suspect the latter). But since all of these outlets are happy to take contributions from non-American authors, I wouldn't read too much about any distinctive characteristic of American fiction into this.

However, one thing I would note, and applaud, about this selection is that the wide range of sources challenges our notions of fantasy. This collection takes us far away from the standard tropes of wily magicians and mighty-thewed heroes and young boys destined to become king and the like. Only one story contains any of the trappings of goddesses and dark lords, Kage Baker's superb "The Ruby Incomparable," which neatly subverts the genre: the eldest daughter of a goddess and a dark lord refuses to follow in the footsteps of either of her parents, instead preferring self-fulfilment, education, the love of a mortal and the joys of motherhood. The ending may be sentimental, but the story is a delight.

But away from the familiar, the comforting and the clichéd, we get a range of fantasy that includes the absurd ("The Revisionist" by Miranda Mellis, in which catastrophe becomes a sequence of illogical and illusory events: "The made-up events were sometimes more believable than actual events. The actual events were often difficult to believe"; "Minus, His Heart" by Jedediah Berry, which proceeds with all the logic and the consequence of a bad dream); the parable ("Bufo Rex" by Erik Amundsen, in which we see fairy tales involving frogs from the point of view of the vengeful frog; "Mario's Three Lives" by Matt Bell, in which we see a computer game from the point of view of a Mario brother); the over-extended metaphor ("In the Middle of the Woods" by Christian Moody, in which a family's failures to communicate come out in the boy going to war against his father's mechanical constructs; "The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford, in which the image of drowning in debt is literalised to a stultifying degree); the over-elaborate joke ("Story with Advice II: Back from the Dead" by Rick Moody, in which a newspaper columnist continues to answer letters from readers from beyond the grave). These are not necessarily good stories, certainly I wouldn't be inclined to include any of these four in a collection labelled "best" and I thought both the Berry and the Ford were particularly weak, but they are all interesting, if only in the light they cast upon what is available to us within the fantastic.

Not that these approaches to fantasy are necessarily distinct from the more familiar reaches of the genre. There are elements of the absurd in much of the work of Kelly Link, for instance, as in her story here, "Light," which contains an unholy mixture of slackers and pocket universes that never quite makes sense and yet that still works as a story. There are elements of the parable in one of the best stories gathered here, "Ave Maria" by Micaela Morrissette, in which the perennial figure of the wild child is refigured as someone who has taken on the attributes of a bird, but what makes this story work so well is the way it is used to cast a cynical eye upon the "benefits" of civilisation. And the over-elaborate joke surely applies to the very best story in this collection, "The Last and Only, or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French" by Peter S. Beagle. This elegant tale, which only gets better on each re-reading, tells of a middle-aged American who becomes French, indeed he becomes more French than the French; but what really makes this rather jokey premise work is that the real focus is on his loyal, patient, beautifully characterised wife.

None of this, of course, is particularly American, though there does seem to be a whisper of something in Beagle's story that is, perhaps, characteristically American: a distrust of the foreign. This is explicit in "Abroad" by Judy Budnitz, in which the experience of being in another place is one of increasing loss and isolation. But it is there also in "The Seven Deadly Hotels" by Bruce Holland Rogers and "The Naming of the Islands" by David Hollander, two pieces (not stories, there is no story in either of them) that follow the same structural plan, a sequence of idiosyncratic encounters with the strange in which initial attraction leads eventually to horror. Hollander's is the more grisly, and he at least tries to provide some linkage between the episodes, in which outcasts find themselves thrown up on a succession of islands where death lies in wait. Rogers's is the more subtle, though he abandons any pretence of linkage as different first-person narrators register at different hotels whose initial welcoming luxury proves deceptive.

Even tales that don't venture far from home, such as "Memoir of a Deer Woman" by M. Rickert, a typically mordant account of a woman who turns into a deer, and "Chainsaw on Hand" by Deborah Coates, about a woman whose ex-husband may see angels, convey the sense that home may be a trap but it is still better than being away from home.

And yet, even this nervousness about, even outright feat of, the foreign or distant, which runs through not just these stories but many others in this collection, is hardly limited to America. No, I have to conclude that these stories, the good (by Beagle, Morrissette, Link, Baker) and the indifferent, represent a wide and appealingly idiosyncratic perspective on fantasy. There is a broadness of devices, styles and topics explored here that stands as a wonderful corrective to the narrow and repetitive tone of too many fantasy collections. But maybe we should accept that "American" is included in the title simply as a device to differentiate this from so many other Best Fantasy anthologies that bedevil the marketplace these days.

Copyright © 2009 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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