Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 11, a review

From 1975 to 1988 Daw books published The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories, an anthology edited initially by Lin Carter and later by Arthur W. Saha. I own only Vol. 11 but after reading it I’m now inclined to seek out more in the series.

Vol. 11 was published in 1985 and by then Carter’s reign as editor had given way to Saha. Saha has a rather interesting and wide-ranging background; according to Wikipedia he served in the Merchant Marine during WWII, is credited with the patent for fire-resistant paint used on early space satellites, hung around Beat poets, was a member of Mensa, and in 1967 was credited with coining the term “Trekkie”. Matching his experiences and personality Saha here put together an eclectic combo of stories that mostly works.

My primary complaint with Vol. 11 is again one of unfulfilled expectations. When you’ve got a cover like that pictured at right I was expecting more of a swords and sorcery bent. There are certainly a few S&S stories inside, but Vol. 11 is equal parts horror and magical realism, with a dash of romance and humor. Yet you’ve got a cover featuring a jacked, axe-wielding dude on the back of a giant snake, about to battle a giant owl-riding knight in plate armor, all taking place beneath the gaze of a half-naked lass lashed to a pole (for the record, there is no story featuring dueling snakes and owls, unfortunately—though there is a fair maiden lashed to a pole). So … yeah. Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that.

There are two excellent stories in Vol. 11. My favorite is the lead, “Draco, Draco” by Tanith Lee, which reminded me of Dragonslayer but with a grittier edge. It takes place in the wild, lawless years shortly after the fall of Rome and has a gritty, historical feel to it, albeit with an honest to goodness dragon. An Apothecary (I don’t believe we ever learn his name, but he’s a wonderfully drawn character, shrewd and incisive) is half-bullied into picking up an unhorsed warrior named Caiy (a blustery, posturing sort of fellow, though brave and strong). The two travel to a nearby village suffering under the thrall of a dragon. The villagers placate the beast by offering up a virgin for consumption. Caiy attempts to play the role of hero and the results are anything but what you’d expect. I enjoyed every bit of it.

Gene Wolfe is a legendary author who I largely find hit and miss. I’ve read several of his short stories and am often left scratching my head, their meaning soaring clear past my mortal, addled mind. But “A Cabin on the Coast” was a well-written hit, with a twist ending I did not see coming. It's about a well-heeled son of a politician faced with sacrificing everything to save his would-be fiancee. It serves as a very satisfying end to the anthology.

The rest of the anthology was mixed, but with more hits than misses. Clark Ashton Smith makes an appearance here with “Strange Shadows.” While long dead prior to 1984 (the year in which all the stories in Vol. 11 first saw publication), “Strange Shadows” saw print in Crypt of Cthulhu 25, published in ’84. Unsurprisingly it contains a heavy strain of the Weird and is very, very Smith, featuring an offbeat, alcoholic narrator who suddenly begins to see shadows that reveal dark, twisted facets of their owners’ personalities. It’s a good story but Smith has written much better.

“Stoneskin” by John Morressy is a fun little swords and sorcery romp about a warrior who sleeps with a hideous witch in magical guise. After getting over the initial shock he's repaid when the witch renders him immune to weapons, though not indefinitely. “Taking Heart” by Stephen L. Burns is the other swords and sorcery story in the volume and is plainly influenced by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but while entertaining it falls a few notches short of Leiber’s high standard.

David Morrell (author of First Blood) also makes an appearance here. I like Morrell quite a bit as an author, as he reminds me a little of Joe Lansdale with a style that’s engaging, easy to read, and straight to the point. But “The Storm” (about a father who is cursed by an Indian weather dancer to be followed by a driving rainstorm wherever he goes) was merely average, with a cheap gag ending tacked on. 

Everything else in here is a mixed bag.


David J. West said...

I don't have 11 (I like those pulpy covers) but I do have a couple others-I can't remember which ones right now because they are packed away. I know I have whichever one was released in 77' because Carter praises the release of The Silmarillion and Conan of the Isles as the two great fantasy releases of that year, and Sword of Shannara as the biggest rip-off of the year. Made me laugh.

Keith said...

I came across this series late in its run, while I was in high school. On the whole, I found them worth reading. I've since gone back and tried to fill in the ones I'm missing. I'm not sure I have all of them, but I've got most, although I've not read some of the Carter edited ones. I found them a nice companion series to Wagner's Year's Best Horror collections.

Pericles said...

Damn. My hopes for a ripping tale of owl-riding have once again been dashed.

Still, it is a cool cover.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've got all of the Carter & Saha volumes.. I'm unsure if they continue past that.. I primarily bought them to get the various Thongor tales which were included in the Carter ones.. and got the Saha ones simply for completion sake.

Mary said...

Obviously, what is called for is a contest: write a story to match this cover! Someone could probably get an anthology out of it

Brian Murphy said...

Question for David/Keith/Lagomorph; In general how is the quality of the rest of the series? I am considering buying more. Keith, it sounds like you'd recommend them...

Pericles/Mary: I agree, there is an untold story of giant owls fighting giant snakes waiting to be told by an enterprising writer. Someone needs to get on this, pronto.

Keith said...

It's been years (late 80s/early 90s) since I read any of them in their entirety, so my recommendation should be taken with a grain of salt as I don't remember much about specific stories and don't recall titles of the ones I do remember. My overall impression was positive, though, and I recall being impressed with the variety. I began reading the series after Saha took over the editing chores, and I liked the first one I read well enough to buy the rest of them as they came out. As I saw previous volumes in second hand stores, I would pick them up. As far as the Carter volumes, I don't think I've read any of them straight through but rather read selected stories by authors I was interested in. So, yes, with those caveats, I would recommend them.

And I'll get right on that giant owl vs. snake story.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Brian, I don't normally read Anthologies straight through.. but the Carter ones are, in my opinion, the best of the series.. with the Saha ones being much more uneven. He didn't seem to have as rigid of definition of Fantasy as Carter did.

I may be mistaken.. but I think one of the volumes of this series.. or one of the volumes of Karl Edward Wagner's Years best horror... has a very early GRRM story in it..

Keith said...

I'll defer to Lagomorph Rex's opinion regarding the quality of the Carter volumes vs. the Saha volumes as he seems to have read more of them. My copies are in storage and getting them out would be a major undertaking at this point, but I do want to go back and read the Carter volumes. Carter's selections tended to include more of the old guard, so to speak, than Saha's did.

One thing that did occur to me was that I think the last volume or two of Saha's tenure overlapped the first one or two volumes of Datlow and Windling Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I have a vague memory of comparing a volume from each for the same year and being surprised at how little overlap there was. Again, that was a long time ago, so my memory could be playing tricks on me.