Anthologies are tricky. They could contain almost anything. Even the ones with a uniform theme can be curate’s eggs of things that you love and things you would never touch all stuck together. Reviewing them, you read them in ways they were never intended to be read, working through something systematically that’s probably better pulled apart as the mood takes you over several months. At something over six hundred pages, the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8 certainly has enough in it to suggest that approach is the one to take.
Anthologies promising the “Best” of something are trickier still, if only because there’s a contrary part that instantly wants to disbelieve it. Why these stories and not others, I immediately want to ask, almost regardless of what’s there. Show me all the rest of the stories in the universe and prove it.
And yet, thanks to some wonderful selections on Johnathan Strahan’s part, I think there is every reason to think that this volume could live up to the claim it that word “best” makes. There is some truly immersive fiction here, impressively written, covering a wide variety of ground while somehow still feeling like it all belongs together. That has to be the hardest part of the anthology editor’s job.
There are some familiar faces in the collection. If I were skimming through the contents page looking for an excuse to buy, I suspect it would be the Joe Abercrombie and Neil Gaiman stories that would tip me over the edge of doing so, just because I’m a fan. “Some Desperado” is a prequel to Abercrombie’s novel Red Country, and has his usual mix of violence and bleak humour, but you probably need to have read the novel for the full effect. Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle” does a wonderful fairy tales mash up with a unique twist, while managing that Gaiman trick of being at least as much about the way we tell stories as about everything else.
Yet part of the fun with something like this is the lure of the unfamiliar. It’s like that moment when you go to a festival and hear a band for the first time. Maybe it’s someone a little more unknown, or maybe it’s someone everyone else knows about but you’ve somehow managed to avoid by accident for years.
The Best SFF definitely gave me a chance to do that, and there are writers here, like Karin Tidbeck, whose work I’ll be reading more of in the wake of this. There’s a good cross section of writers from all kinds of backgrounds, trying a wide variety of different things. There’s near and far future science fiction, fairy tales, modern world things and alternate history things.
Yes, there are some themes that show up again and again, from the loss of identity and memory to exactly what it is that makes people want to go out into space, but these themes are handled in so many different ways that it never feels like a conscious link, just like enough of a connection to hold everything together. Johnathan Strahan has done a good job in balancing the flow of one story to another, avoiding clumps of similar stories while still maintaining a sense of the order being a natural one.
When you get this, I’d advise you to just dip into it at random. There’s very little risk in doing so. Normally, when I read an anthology, it’s about fifty-fifty between stories I like and stories I don’t. Here, there are far more likes than dislikes. Even with the ones I didn’t get on with, I had the feeling that it was more about my personal preferences when it comes to stories, and that the next reader might find that those are their favourite ones.
There are too many stories to mention them all, but some of my favourites included Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” with its light take on wishes, Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers”, all about the different ways people leave you, and Priya Sharma’s “Rag and Bone”. It’s nice to see some fantasy set in Liverpool, and a very good one at that.
Reviewed by Stuart Sharp
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris Books
Length: 624 pages