The Review of Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 8 (short story collection)
I made it! Praise be! I feel a bit bad starting a review like that but, the thing is, I don't read many short story collections, and this one was a bit of a shock to the system. I basically bought it because it had a Ted Chiang story in it, and I loved Stories of Your Life and Others, and also because although I really wanted to move on from Royal Assassin to Assassin's Quest immediately, I was worried that over 1500 pages of Robin Hobb in one go would be too much Robin Hobb, even for me, even though she is incredible and I love everything she writes with the fire of a thousand suns.
Anyway, I think this is a very good collection of very good stories. They're nicely varied, running the whole gamut of ridiculous space opera, kind of alternate history, fairytale fantasy, magic, philosophical future-tech, and most things in between. I'll do a proper breakdown of the stories below because I do think they deserve it, but I don't remember there being any one of them I didn't enjoy in its own way. Some were better than other, some I gelled with more than most, a few I found unnecessarily florid or a bit silly, but basically this is a collection of good things. I just wish there hadn't been quite so many of them. Twenty-eight stories by different authors required a lot of staying power and I found it hard to keep going because I had to reset my expectations for each one, and that meant I had a tendency to pause between each for a day or so before diving back in for more. I'm just not sure I'm built for short stories. And, let's face it, none of them can actually hold a candle to Assassin's Quest which I have already begun to devour at a frightening pace.
The broad brushstrokes: 28 stories, 12 basically sci fi, 14 basically fantasy, and a couple of weird ones. Fairly good at having things written not by white men. Quite a lot of the fantasy were fairytale/mythology-based stories, which got a bit samey, but I guess it's hard to do convincing stories without much space for world-building without resorting to Tolkien tropes.
Favourites were probably: Rosary and Goldenstar by Geoff Ryman; The Sun and I by K. J. Parker, who is actually Tom Holt, The Queen of Night's Aria by Ian McDonald. Probably also The Herons of Mer de l'Ouest by M Bennardo and Water by Ramez Naam.
Ok, let's do this thing.
Some Desperado, by Joe Abercrombie. I've later found that this is some kind of character spin-off from his First Law series, and it's a fun little Western with guntoting, outlaws, etc. Cool female lead, kept me guessing, would maybe draw me in to reading more of his stuff, but not sure. The one problem I had with it is that, taken entirely on its own, there is nothing to make it science fiction or fantasy. It's a Western. The only tiny clue is maybe that they don't have guns, and they don't use dollars as currency. But there's no tech, no magic, nothing. This struck me as such a weird decision on Jonathan Strahan's part - maybe as part of the series it's clearer, but if you must include it, don't put it first! But anyway, whatever.
Zero for Conduct by Greg Egan. Near future sci fi with interesting sciencey stuff that felt believably researched, an awesome Muslim female lead, nicely down-to-earth setting, fast-paced story. I really liked it.
Effigy Nights by Yoon Ha Lee. This is a great story, well-shaped and structured, with lovely nods to a fairytale style while also being mostly sci-fi. Some of the description is a bit silly for me - I have a bee in my bonnet about using the short story form to just make up ludicrous concepts that never need to be fleshed out because you only have 30 pages. It just smacks of lazy world-building and there's a line between adding colour and taking advantage. This was a bit too close to the line at the beginning, but the plot was exciting enough to cut through that.
Rosary and Goldenstar by Geoff Ryman. Seriously good. Not to give too much away, a sort-of alternate Elizabethan history featuring John Dee and a certain world-famous playwright talking philosophy, science, astronomy, poetry, all heavily lost in translation with some Danes. Loved it, right up my alley. Will definitely be looking up more of Ryman's stuff.
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. Now its own graphic novel. I'm still a bit ambivalent about Neil Gaiman, but this was classic him - a retelling of a fairytale with some twists and turns, gorgeous writing and a darn sight more feminist than the original. No complaints from me.
Cave and Julia by M. John Harrison. Um, I actually have no memory of this story. I had to practically reread it to remember it at all. It's not...bad. It's just not very memorable, sorry. It's sort of about an island with strange possibly prehistoric caves and tunnels under the ground, where a boy died.
The Herons of Mer de l'Ouest by M Bennardo. Man, this is a good one. Verging on horror (not my thing) but mostly staying the right side of too creepy. Does really well at gradually getting more and more tense and sinister. Great stuff.
Water by Ramez Naam. The first of several stories that do a sort of psychological thought experiment on future technology. What if we all had brain implants that allowed us to communicate constantly with the internet of things? And that the rich could pay to turn off sensory advertising, but the poor had to put up with everything trying to seem absolutely essential and the best thing ever all the time? Disturbingly plausible.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang. I basically bought this book because it had a Ted Chiang story in it, and luckily it didn't disappoint. Another thought experiment about how spoken vs written language affects what and how we remember, and how outsourcing memory to computer-saved film of our lives can reveal unwelcome 'truths'. I think this is the longest story in the collection, and it's really good.
The Ink Readers of Doi Saket by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Definitely one of the weirder ones, again with a kind of fairytale/mythological feel. Set in Thailand, about a town that magically 'grants wishes'. Really nicely written and a nice series of twists and turns.
Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls by Richard Parks. Quite similar to the previous one, but set in Japan (I think). A bit like Joanne Harris' Runemarks, if only because it features going underground to something like the Underworld. Not Norse gods though.
Rag and Bone by Priya Sharma. Properly horrible and awesome. A strange alternate London, about 17th-century. Gender non-conforming characters, a hideous upper class who literally use body parts of the poor to stay young and healthy. Really well-written and memorable.
The Book Seller by Lavie Tidhar. An alternate future Israel, with vampire viruses and strange AI implants and lots of really cool world-building. Definitely going to check out more stuff by him.
The Sun and I by K. J. Parker, who it turns out on searching is actually Tom Holt, author of You Don't Have to Be Evil to Work Here, But it Helps (which I enjoyed, and which is hilarious because that's based on the W. S. Gilbert character John Wellington Wells, from The Sorcerer, and this story's title and epigraph is from The Mikado. So clearly a massive G&S fan like me. This was a particularly good story, I thought - about a group of sort of layabout rich kids who decide to invent a god to make money from gullible people, and it all gets a bit out of hand.
The Promise of Space by James Patrick Kelly. One of the shortest stories, and it nearly had me sobbing. Future memory + AI tech meets dementia. Pretty heartbreaking.
The Master Conjurer by Charlie Jane Anders. What if magic were possible, but always had bad consequences for the magic-user? Except for one time...maybe. Nice idea, well-executed, fun twist.
The Pilgrim and the Angel by E. Lily Yu. Another mythology-based story, this time set in Cairo. I enjoyed it more than Cherry Blossoms or the Ink Readers for its simplicity and its humour.
Entangled by Ian R. McLeod. God, this was another one to tug at your heartstrings. Teenage angst meets class privilege meets jackass 'artist'. Very well-written. Definitely one of the most interesting worlds - everyone becoming telepathically intertwined except for a few, including the lead character. Leading to hippy-style communes and people with very little sense of self outside the collective.
Fade to Gold by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. This story plays with horror and mythos without really being either, and it's great. Sort of like The Book Seller, and also not. Really interesting.
Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar. Samatar manages to weave humour and first-person narration and clever mysterious references and a non-linear story together very cleverly. It reminded me of Sophie's World, but less flawed.
In Metal, In Bone by An Owomoyela. I suppose this is some clever allegory about the pointlessness of war. But taken at face value, it's not a bad little story.
Kormak the Lucky by Eleanor Arnason. Another one that's a lot like Runemarks. From Ireland to Iceland to Elfland to the Fey, Kormak is a slave who serves many masters and learns a lot about magic and magical creatures. Nicely-written, captures the mythic feel well, but not much to shout about.
Sing by Karen Tidbeck. I really liked this one. A planet where the different suns cause people not to be able to speak except by singing. Where most creatures live in some kind of parasitic symbiosis. A stranger comes to study algae and gets more than he bargained for. I just thought the writing was really good here.
Social Services by Madeline Ashby. Unexpectedly (and unpleasantly) full horror. Not my thing at all, and I wish I hadn't read it late at night. Probably not very scary at all if you're not a huge wimp like me, though, and clever ideas.
The Road of Needles by Caitlín R. Kiernan. I'm not sure I really got the point of this one - sci fi and a bit horror - kind of cool, but ultimately a bit unsatisfying. Maybe I missed something somewhere along the way.
Mystic Falls by Robert Reed. Sort of a story about the possibility we are all in a simulation. A good example, short but sweet.
The Queen of Night's Aria by Ian McDonald. This one was great! An opera singer and his accompanist try and tour a war zone between humans and aliens on an Mars, which is also inhabited by sentient bats. Actually a really good story with nice characters as well, and doesn't do what you might expect.
The Irish Astronaut by Val Nolan. I would claim that a story about an astronaut going to Ireland is not science fiction. There have been astronauts. Nothing about this story was actually speculative in any way. So it was weird to end with it (like beginning with Some Desperado), and left me with mixed feelings about the whole book to be honest. But it's a reasonably good short story in its own right.