fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 edited by Rich HortonThe Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 edited by Rich Horton

I’ve been reading a lot of anthologies lately, including another of the several “Year’s Best” collections (the Jonathan Strahan one). I was pleased to find that, unlike some of the others, this one matched my tastes fairly well for the most part.

I enjoy stories in which capable, likeable or sympathetic characters, confronted by challenges, confront them right back and bring the situation to some sort of meaningful conclusion. I was worried when I read the editor’s introduction and saw him praising Lightspeed and Clarkesworld magazines, because they can often be the home of another kind of story, in which alienated, passive characters are battered by tragedy until the story stops at a thematically significant moment. However, most of these stories are the first kind, not the second.

Several of the stories I had read before, in other collections, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given how many I’ve read recently. Oddly, these were in general not my favourite stories either in those collections or in this one.

To the individual stories.

James Patrick Kelly, “Soulcatcher” — Kelly’s stories are always well-structured, as you’d expect from an experienced teacher of writing craft, and this is no exception. The protagonist has been assigned by her family to play a role which will entrap the alien who has taken her sister as a pet and wreak vengeance on him. Although it unwinds into tragedy, I didn’t feel it was “tragedy for the sake of tragedy”; it had depth.

Angelica Gorodischer (translated by Amalia Gladhart), “Trafalgar and Josefina” — It’s difficult to pull off a story in which two people, in conversation, are working through the telling of a story involving other people who aren’t present. Gorodischer makes it work, by making the interchange and the relationship between the conversational partners so strong and also by presenting a good second-hand story. Unreliable narrator is unreliable.

Tom Purdom, “A Stranger from a Foreign Ship” — a man who can swap his consciousness with people nearby gets caught up in a criminal gang’s internal problems. It has all the hard-boiled hallmarks, including the violence and the fact that the woman he rescues is selfish and dangerous.

Theodora Goss, “Blanchefleur” — my favourite story in the whole collection, this is a retelling of the fairy tale of the White Cat (with which I’m not familiar). It has a classical fairy-tale feel, Ivan the Idiot proving that he has more to him than people see by his progress through three apprenticeships, but at the same time the lessons he learns and the abilities he displays have a modern feel. His second apprenticeship involves looking after a family of young (talking) lizards, teaching him care for others and compassion, for example.

Yoon Ha Lee, “Effigy Nights” — I’ve read this story twice, once, I think, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies when it was first published, and once in another collection. I skipped it the third time, because it’s dark and tragic and depressing and hence not to my taste, though beautifully done.

Maria Dahvana Headley, “Such & Such Said to So & So” — a surreal tale which seems like it’s, to some degree, an allegory of alcohol abuse, in which drinks become characters. Even though it was so odd, I felt it was well done and it worked.

Robert Reed, “Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much” — the premise of this one is fascinating. It becomes possible to “transcend”, to undergo a process in which the brain’s activity is greatly speeded up and one can be incredibly productive for subjective years in a virtual environment, though objectively you live for only a short time before the process kills you. This reduces the human population, starting with the rich, who at first are the only ones who can afford it. The protagonist, grandson of a wealthy man, experiences various implications of the new technology. I couldn’t quite work out the significance of the ending, but I felt the story was solid.

Geoff Ryman, “Rosary and Goldenstar” — another story I’d read elsewhere, and skipped here. The author assembles Shakespeare, Doctor Dee, and the originals of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and then doesn’t really do a lot with them.

Benhanun Sriduangkaew, “The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly” — a strange story of post-cyberpunk and post-humanity, in which the protagonist becomes involved in a scheme to hide a planet from the rest of the universe, using a virus which removes all memory and all record of it. Odd, but I liked it.

K.J. Parker, “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” — this one could easily have tipped over into being too dark for me, with its world-weary, disillusioned protagonist and the losses he sustains, but somehow it didn’t. I think it was his depth of humanity and the way in which he cared despite himself. An unsentimental view of heroism that nevertheless ends up heroic.

Lavie Tidhar, “The Oracle” — in the same setting as “The Bookseller”, which I’ve read collected elsewhere, this is another strange post-cyberpunk future, this time in what is currently Israel (the author’s home country). The richness of the setting carries it, even though the actual plot is rudimentary.

E. Lily Yu, “Loss, With Chalk Diagrams” — in this post-cyberpunk future, “rewirers” can remove your grief through neurological means. The protagonist’s best friend refuses to have her grief and loss removed, and the protagonist has never felt the need, despite several ordinary losses — until the best friend commits suicide, and she must decide between honouring her friend’s wish to be grieved and removing the enormous loss she feels. Emotionally powerful, and raises important questions about the role of grief and pain.

C.S.E. Cooney, “Martyr’s Gem” — the island setting (after a cataclysm in which most of the islands have been lost) recalls Ursula Le Guin, as does the protagonist, a man little thought of by his people but who has a rare depth of caring and a pragmatic courage that wins him the respect of those who look more carefully. I enjoyed the story very much, though I wish that the author hadn’t chosen such similar names for the protagonist and his sister (I was confused at least once).

Alaya Dawn Johnson, “They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass” — the agenda of this story should be fairly obvious when I say that it involves a future America struggling under the rule of technologically advanced invaders who use drones and enforce their (to the population, sometimes arbitrary) rules with lethal force. It’s pretty clearly intended to make Americans think of what it must be like to be in, say, Afghanistan with Americans doing exactly that. I think that point may be lost for the people who need it most, though, because they’ll be distracted by the fact that the protagonist’s goal is to procure an illegal abortion for her sister.

Jedediah Berry, “A Window or a Small Box” — another surreal one, with a young couple in an Alice-like struggle to escape from, or even in, a strange alternate reality. There are hints of it being partly about the experience of illegal immigrants.

Carrie Vaughn, “Game of Chance” — I’m a fan of Carrie Vaughn’s KITTY NORVILLE series, and hadn’t realised that she is also writing a lot of short fiction these days. The KITTY books are urban fantasy of medium depth, but this story goes beyond that. The female protagonist is able to influence probability, but only in small, unobtrusive ways, and struggles with a man with similar powers who believes that they must use their power to bring about large-scale political ends through action that’s as direct as they’re capable of. Her preference is to make what difference she can to people who don’t seem powerful, and she’s ultimately vindicated.

Erik Amundsen, “Live Arcade” — this story about a video game that interacts with real life is beautifully told and well imagined. I did have a moment of disorientation when I realised that, despite the title, the young protagonist isn’t playing in an arcade but on his home system, but that’s probably just because I’m middle-aged.

Madeline Ashby, “Social Services” — another that I’ve read in another collection, and which I didn’t think worked all that well (largely because it broke my suspension of disbelief) as well as not being to my taste (it’s essentially a horror story in the Twilight Zone mould).

Alex Dally MacFarlane, “Found” — This a lovely, hopeful story about someone who is unusual in their culture discovering that what they are is honoured and accepted elsewhere. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the story to turn dark and tragic, but happily it didn’t. The sensory element of the spices is also well done.

Ken Liu, “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” — Liu does beautiful, human stories involving cultural expectations, their human cost, and their revision, and also quite a bit of infodumping. This is no exception.

E. Lily Yu, “Ilse, Who Saw Clearly” — This is the second story in the collection from Yu. It’s a fairy tale, of sorts, and a coming of age story, and a story about being different and being brave and helping your community and finding a larger world. I liked it.

Harry Turtledove, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine” — this one deals with an idea I’ve thought about myself, the idea of changing human nature so that we’re able to have more positive social relationships. Even though it’s done in a travelogue kind of style which could be very infodumpy, and has almost no plot, the engaging voice in which it’s told makes up for that.

Krista Hoeppner Leahy, “Killing Curses: A Caught-Heart Quest” — this is definitely an author I will be watching out for, based on this story. It reminded me of Roger Zelazny‘s stranger worlds, and if you saw my bookshelf full of battered second-hand Zelazny for which I’ve scoured used bookshops over a period of years, you’d know what a compliment that is coming from me. Although it’s full of offhand strangeness, I was seldom lost or confused, though I never did quite manage to picture how the curse-killer’s metal teeth looked when being used against curses.

Peter Watts, “Firebrand” — the gummint covers up spontaneous human combustion resulting from big business’s screw-ups. A cynical story, but I managed not to hate it.

Maureen McHugh, “The Memory Book” — my least favourite story in the collection, with a nasty, petty, spoiled protagonist who abuses her voodoo-like powers in an uptight Victorian England.

Howard Waldrop, “The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls” — a piece of planetary romance, another without much plot but with an evocation of setting that makes up for it.

Karin Tidbeck, “A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” — another surreal story (there are a few in this collection), about a troupe of actors who play to audiences they mostly can’t see in strange settings. It managed to take me along for the ride.

Linda Nagata, “Out in the Dark” — post-cyberpunk again, and this time it’s the ethics of multiple incarnation for people who can download their personas into “husks” and use this to travel around the solar system in reasonable timeframes. I liked what the author did with it, and with her protagonist, the honest policeman.

Naim Kabir, “On the Origin of Song” — a kind of parable of the advance of civil rights, I think, in which stone people strive to be recognised as people. The similarity of the hero’s name to “Charles Darwin” looked like it was going to be more significant than it was.

Tang Fei (translated by Ken Liu), “Call Girl” — beautifully written, though somehow to me it seemed a little thin. Perhaps it was the unemotionality of the protagonist.

Christopher Barzak, “Paranormal Romance” — I read this in Paula Guran’s collection Magic City: Recent Spells, and didn’t like it much. The main character shows no protagonism, and there’s really not a plot to speak of, certainly no conclusion. There were far better stories in that volume, for my money.

Yukimi Ogawa, “Town’s End” — a lovely urban fantasy with a Japanese setting.

Ian R. MacLeod, “The Discovered Country” — like the Robert Reed story, this one starts with the idea that the ultra-rich can, by a destructive process, transition into a virtual existence, but it’s more cynical; they’re doing so in a way that hastens the decline of the world in general, that hogs resources desperately needed by ordinary people, in order to indulge their shallow whims. It’s a scenario that arises from the current zeitgeist as naturally as stories of alien invasion rose from the 1950s, and will probably date as badly. Well done, though.

Alan DeNiro, “The Wildfires of Antarctica” — another story of the ultra-rich being selfish in a failing world. “Art” pieces which are, to some extent at least, living stage a kind of robot uprising. Again, cynical, too much so for my taste, and didn’t quite hold together for me.

Eleanor Arnason, “Kormak the Lucky” — another story which I’d read previously elsewhere, and the only one of those in this collection that I actually enjoyed. Has the feel of a genuine ancient story (it draws on the Icelandic sagas), but also some modern touches.

Overall, then, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 is an enjoyable collection, full of engagingly strange settings and memorable characters. If you mainly read short stories for the plots, probably not one for you, though at least most of the stories do have plots which conclude — not inevitable these days.


  • Mike Reeves-McMillan

    MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

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