Saturday, June 23, 2012
The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 11, a review
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.