Visions of Paradise

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fantasy: Best of 2004

When Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan took over the Best of... series in 2003, there was only Science Fiction, no Fantasy, so I was pleased when this year saw the appearance of Fantasy: Best of 2004. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me while reading the book:

• The average story quality in Fantasy is slightly higher than Science Fiction, but there are more high points overall in Science Fiction than in Fantasy. The former might possibly be due to SF containing several stories in sub-genres which I do not particularly enjoy (the high-tech stories I discussed) but not so in Fantasy (which contains no stories which are primarily sword and sorcery or imitation Tolkien fantasy, two of my blind spots in fantasy). However, I doubt there is any intrinsic reason for the latter, except coincidence in this year’s volumes.

• There is better writing overall in Fantasy too, and I wondered why that is. Many of the same writers flit back and forth between the two sibling genres. For example, Fantasy contains stories by Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg and Jay Lake, all better known as sf writers. So that eliminates the possibility that fantasy tends to attract writers while sf attracts thinkers. However, it might partially be due to the nature of the two siblings, in that sf is primarily about ideas and concepts, while fantasy is about mood and emotions, which lends itself more to better writing.

In spite of all the name authors, the best story in the book was by a relatively new author. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Annals of the Eelin-Ok” is the story of a pixielike being called a twilmish whose existence only lasts during the brief interval that a sand castle on a beach survives between its building and its erosion due to tidal waves. The story is the journal of one such twilmish, and it succeeds in being warm and touching in spite of its outrageous premise. As I discovered with “The Empire of Ice Cream,” 2003’s best story overall, Ford is the finest short fiction writer working in the genre right now.

Two stories about unfortunate marriages to wizard husbands were very similar in concept but totally different in execution, and together were two of the best stories in the book.

Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag” was a strong story of a woman armed with simple witching spells trying to protect her daughter who falls hopelessly in love with a powerful wizard who, apparent only to the mother, is not as wonderful as her daughter and husband and seemingly everybody else who knows him believes.

Deborah Roggie’s “The Enchanted Trousseau” was a fairy tale about a poor girl who attracts a powerful wizard as a husband, although her mom has suspicions about the man’s suitability for her daughter. What follows is a mother-in-law versus bad husband domestic tale combined with a powerful wizard versus humble domestic witch confrontation. Very enjoyable.

Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves...” reads like typical Gaiman: a slick, well-plotted story written as an homage to one of his literary forebears, in this case gothic horror stories. Cute, but I find his stories on the slight side.

Four old veterans provided strong stories which, if not the finest they have ever done, were still ample evidence as to why they have achieved their lofty status in f&sf.

Robert Silverberg’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” displays the author’s ability to tell a strongly-plotted story based on human relationships. In it both the sorcerer and the apprentice are 30ish, but she is very successful at her career while he has failed at several before deciding to apprentice himself. He is also hopelessly in love with the sorcerer who wants nothing to do with him romantically, and lets him know so in no uncertain terms.

Peter Beagle’s “Quarry” begins right in the middle of a chase, as a man is fleeing two deadly pursuers, aided only by another fugitive who is fleeing a different and equally-deadly hunter. Both the adventure and the interrelationship of the two fugitives are successfully done.

Michael Swanwick’s “The Word That Sings the Scythe” is his latest attempt to make dragon stories less fantastic and more sfnal, and he succeeds in this quirky tale of a man who rescues a strange, ageless child who is more burden than delight.

Gene Wolfe’s “The Little Stranger” is the tale of a witch–although her true nature is not apparent until the very end of the story–protecting her house from a strange group of squatters, all told in the form of a series of letters.

Overall, this is a highly-recommended collection for all fantasy fans.


  • Hey,

    Found your blog today and spent some time reading through it. Good stuff, thanks! I'm thinking of doing one for my Love Spells site, but not sure I have the time to do it right. Yours looks so good though, I might!

    Take care!

    By Blogger Devon, At 6:53 AM  

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