"Good evening, Ms. Datlow, Ms. Windling. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to compile a volume dealing with the best of the fantasy and horror genres for the year 1999. Not only must you pick out the best short fiction of the year, you must also provide rundowns and wrap-ups of the genres as applied to movies, television, magazines, the Internet, comic books, music, and more.
"You may pick additional members of your team as necessary. Assistant editors Richard and Mardelle Kunz. Library scout Bill Murphy. The noted artist Thomas Canty. Editor/packager James Frenkel. St. Martin's editor Gordon Van Gelder. The folks at Endicott Studio.
"We predict you'll need a large team to properly carry out your mission.
"As always, if you or any of your team are captured or killed, SFWA will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This contract will self-destruct in five seconds."
Every year, editors Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow scour the globe to bring us the best examples of fantasy and horror fiction. This volume of their annual quest is lucky number thirteen, and most assuredly doesn't disappoint.
Certainly, it's not an easy job. There's just so much produced... scattered amongst magazines, anthologies, collections, and media... that it's hard to believe anyone could keep track of it all. Yet somehow, they succeeded. The fiction offered in the Year's Best has been collected from a wide variety of sources, from Realms of Fantasy to the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, from Prairie Schooner to The Hudson Review, from convention programs to chapbooks, from single-author collections to anthologies. While many stories come from genre magazines, just as many stem from out-of-the-way sources that most fantasy readers would never even dream of looking at.
Not only does Year's Best offer the best by way of fiction, it devotes extensive space to offering yearly roundups of the field in other media. Summations. Top Twenty. First Novels. Urban Fantasy. Imaginary World Fantasy. Historical and Alternate Worlds. Mythic Fiction. Humorous Fantasy. Mainstream. Oddities. Animal Tales. Children's Fantasy. Single-Author Collections. Anthologies. Poetry. Comic Books. Magazines. Art Books. Nonfiction. Mythology and Folklore. Music. Conventions and Awards.
And that was just the write-up for fantasy. Terri Windling is one of the most knowledgeable editors in the field regarding fantasy, and she proves once again that she knows her stuff. If it happened, she's got it covered here, pointing out hundreds of books and stories and the like that are worthy of notice. It's worth picking up Year's Best for the summaries alone, as Windling adeptly turns the spotlight on all manner of hidden or overlooked treasures.
Ellen Datlow does the same for the horror field, speaking knowledgeably about such categories as Books and Magazines, Novels, Anthologies, Collections, Artists, Small Presses, and the like. Though she has fewer categories overall than Windling, she goes into the same sort of skillfully written details regarding her chosen field. If it's worth mentioning, and related to horror or really dark fantasy, chances are you'll find a brief write-up in her section.
Not to be outdone, Edward Bryant turns in a study of fantasy and horror as relating to the media. Movies, in all their many forms, from the bad B-Movies to the greatest blockbusters to the quirks of animation, are his focus, although he also looks at television and even music. (The Dixie Chicks? Go figure.)
Seth Johnson contributes a relatively shorter piece on comics, which are by their very nature a welcome haven for fantasy and horror. This being one of my favorite fields, it's nice to see comics getting noticed for more than superheroes and spandex.
James Frenkel, the creator of the Year's Best concept, turns in one of the sadder essays of each volume, the Obituaries. Each year, we have to cope with losing people involved in the field, and it's fitting that they should be paid one last bit of tribute here. The major names that passed on in 1999 included Shel Silverstein and Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as Stanley Kubrick, Joseph Heller, and John Broome. But Frenkel also lists dozens of others who have had an impact on the field, no matter how small. Authors, editors, artists, actors, producers, cinematographers, even stuntmen, critics, booksellers and long-time fans. Anyone who made their mark has been honored here.
After all of that (and believe it if you will, but everything up to this point is numbered in Roman numerals, up to cxxvi!), we finally get to the stories. The lead fiction piece is a haunting, evocative new Earthsea tale, "Darkrose and Diamond," from Ursula K. Le Guin, a prime example of the quality that's the hallmark of the Year's Best series.
After that, there's Ian MacLeod's "The Chop Girl," which is about ghosts and jinxes in the superstitious setting of a British airfield during World War II. Part love story, part ghost story, it's beautiful and sorrowful at the same time.
Kelly Link turns in "The Girl Detective," a surreal story which takes the very best of Nancy Drew, fairy tales, myth, and pop culture, throws it in a blender with some ice, mixes, and serves chilled with a lemon slice. There is no possible way to properly explain this one, save to say that it starts in all the obvious places, and ends in a tree.
There's a story from Patricia McKillip, plucked from the Datlow/Windling collection, Silver Birch, Blood Moon, a bizarre and sensual retelling of the Princess and the Frog fairy tale. Kim Newman, known for his series of alternate-world Dracula novels, is represented with "You Don't Have to Be Mad..." Gene Wolfe's "The Tree Is My Hat" shows that this particular author's still in fine style. Neil Gaiman gives us "Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story," which is typically bizarre and thought-provoking. Love him or hate him, Gaiman is incapable of mediocrity. Jane Yolen contributes a poem entitled "Old Merlin Dancing on the Sands of Time." Charles de Lint produces
"Pixel Pixies," a chapbook which unites several of his popular characters, including Holly Rue and her used bookstore, the Wordwood, and the Kelledys. Would that every bookstore had a hob to keep it clean and tidy!
Those are just a very few of the many splendid, excellent stories and poems which fill this volume of the Year's Best. With literally dozens to choose from, both big name authors and the most obscure of talents, there's something to suit everyone's taste and then some.
It's impossible to read this book and remain stuck within your old boundaries. Datlow and Windling draw from such varied and esoteric sources that you're bound to be exposed to something new and different. After thirteen such books, they're unquestionably experts in the field, the authorities of note on what's not just good, but exceptional, noteworthy, and unique. If it's included in this book, it's head and shoulders above almost anything else published in the fantasy and horror fields. They don't just select good stories, they select ones that represent the endless room for variation and exploration and experimentation found in the genre. It's not enough to be well-written, it has to have some sort of merit.
I can't find anything bad to say about Year's Best. It's one of those books I've come to depend upon year after year to serve as a tour guide through the realms of fantastic and horrific literature of the year past. I might not like every story contained within, but I can't fault their inclusion. Individual tastes make every anthology something of a crapshoot, and as always, your mileage may vary. But I will recommend The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #13 wholeheartedly and without reservation. For the price, it gives you more than your money's worth every time, both in fiction and in the aforementioned yearly summaries.
So what're you waiting for? I'll let you discover for yourself just what Datlow and Windling have to say about 1999. (As Windling notes, it was a disappointing year for novel-length fiction, but only because 1998 was a banner year, and many of the best authors who released books that year were thus absent from the new release shelves in 1999.) But you can discover all that and more in Year's Best #13, available just about everywhere by now. Enjoy.
[Michael M. Jones]