Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 3/Conclusion)

For previous installments, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

To the best of my figuring, Clarke, Dozois, Horton, and Strahan selected thirty-eight stories from the web for their year’s bests and those total 289,888 words by my software’s count. I’d previously read two and I’ve decided to pass on one but read the rest since late last month. Assuming the whole is equal to the web part, Dozois is still the king. But this post concludes the project with Horton and Strahan.

Horton’s eight solo selections are overwhelmingly fantasy and, even when they’re SF, they’re fantasy. Chaz Brenchley’s “In Skander, for a Boy” starts well with a salty seaman narrating his tale of his rough, virtuous home and the decadent big city to which he sails and paints a picture of what could almost be a neighbor of Lankhmar but then basically undoes it all in an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. Kameron Hurley’s “The Plague Givers” seems more interested in its four genders and invented pronouns than the story seems to require but narrates some action pretty well, if only I could care about the characters enacting it. “Plague” hunters fight plague givers while magical talismans and alligators abound in this swampy tale. There’s a dose of humor in Helena Bell’s “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” and A.T. Greenblatt’s “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters.” The Bell is a surreal bit about an abandoned boy, eternally at camp, and the play he and his girlfriend practice, and his dragon’s egg. A free-association of whimsy that has its quirky, funny moments. Greenblatt’s is about a modern, tweeting, unheroic adventurer showing us how to face a dragon in postmodern fashion. Again, not a very strong story in most ways but not without its humor. Perhaps the strongest of these fantasies is “Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son” by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan which may draw much of its strength from being a retelling of a fairy tale (precisely which one I can’t recall) involving the princess spinning incessantly to deal with her grief and causing her kingdom to be overgrown by impenetrable vegetation. The hero (who reminds me somehow of the elf who wanted to be a dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in terms of his “leading nebbish” character) is interested in saving her in this utterly sexless tale.

Moving into things which might not strictly be fantasies, Jason Sanford’s “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” (from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue) is a posthuman “might as well be magic” coercive environmental sermon though it is uncomfortable with its coercion. Again, it ends in an unsatisfying way even if arguments can be made for its in-story logic. I’d previously reviewed “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley which is another “indistinguishable from magic” tale. Finally, while seemingly the most grounded, Paul McAuley’s “Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” is basically a space western in which the big bad railroad company sets up a telegraph station the townspeople take a disliking to and about the mayor’s and sheriff’s efforts to keep order. Of course, it’s a radio telescope to be used for SETI and does have an interesting argument for why this could be useful even after first contact has been made but it ultimately feels like an interstitial chapter in a fixup rather than a story in its own right.

Moving to Strahan’s eight solo choices, his are all fantasy (except one mainstream piece) and a pretty strong bunch they are, overall. The only two I really didn’t care for were his two selections from Uncanny. E. Lily Yu’s “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” makes me wonder why it’s hard SF that routinely gets criticized for poor characterization as these seem like fantasy cutouts placed before a sketchily rendered background in this tale of a good witch, a knight, a femme fatale, and a dragon or three. Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is a Weird Western that, by contrast, seems over-elaborate and somewhat confusing but seems to have some good aspects (creative phantasmagorical imagery and an interesting mood) which are completely buried in the mistake of second-person present tense narration. “You turn your head and spit a brown, dusty gob into the dirt. You hope she doesn’t notice the fur and tiny bone fragments caught in it. ‘Who do you take me for?'” Apparently she takes you for me, dude, but I’m not spitting any gobs anywhere.

Two more were okay. Charles Yu’s “Fable” is not fantasy but has a man talking to his psychiatrist with fantasy imagery. It’s emotionally effective at times and there’s nothing really wrong with it beyond it not being speculative and not really seeming like a “year’s best.” Swirsky’s famous/infamous “Dinosaur” was the same “emotional, mainstream, but with imagery” story, but better. Delia Sherman’s “The Great Detective” is a steampunk fantasy with AI robots and ghosts (in and out of dolls) as well as a bizarre origin story and isn’t my cup of tea but, as a stylistic exercise, it was pretty good.

In “honorable mention” territory, Joe Abercrombie’s “Two’s Company” is a funny and entertaining tale of a female Fafhrd and Grey Mouser making love and war against and with an apparently famous character from Abercrombie’s other works and the two groups of people who don’t want any of the three wandering freely. It just doesn’t feel especially significant, though. Theodora Goss’ “Red as Blood and White as Bone” is nine-tenths superb with slight flaws and one-tenth flawed. The initial tale of the orphaned servant girl and the “princess” she lets in from a storm is very effective and then the WWII-era stuff bolted on at the end is thematically apt but the wrong length (either too long for a coda or too short for a second part) and destroys the mood. The first part was really good, though. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” has a really excellent style which is fairly elaborate but never trips over its own feet in an action tale about a shapeshifting fox and a mecha pilot. (This is another from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue but true science fantasy is more fused while this is an SF and F mashup.) It would be an easy recommendation except it is also shaky on the dismount. The blatantly spelled-out non-ending basically makes the entire story feel like an excerpt or serial installment where, without really changing a thing, the ending could have been more implied and would have made a much better story to me. But this, too, for the bulk, was really not my kind of thing but was really good.

The Strahan story I was thoroughly delighted with, though, was Alice Sola Kim’s “Successor, Usurper, Replacement.” (Extra credit to Strahan for pulling this from outside the usual haunts as I’d never have seen it otherwise and I’m really glad I did.)

Four friends in a writing group get together immediately prior to a storm. When a fifth person shows up, things get strange. While this is a story that works in basically every way, the style/tone/perspective is superb. I’m very likely to love any story that can describe the aftermath of the power going out and a moment of sitting in the dark like this:

Then everyone remembered that they had their phones and one by one they appeared in the dark as busts glowing delicately blue in a far-future museum, the unspecified museum they were trying to make it into with their writing, as stupid as that sounded and whether they admitted it to themselves or not, because it wasn’t as if their jobs or families or stations in life or beauty or kindness or cruelty would get them there.

Then a drinking game is initiated in which they all tell stories about themselves, all of which are quirky and interesting, even – perhaps especially – the story that doesn’t get told. This also serves as an excellent signaling of what lies ahead in terms of pacing before the final section where it gets weirder still. I love that it’s in third-person, past tense and that the narrator sounds like a sixth character who would fit right in. I love the fact that this is utterly mainstream except that (a) it’s not at all stuffy and (b) it’s completely a fantasy, with a couple of wonderfully casually handled elements, the second of which is the snuffleupagus in the room. I love the understated darkness to the whole thing. The “ha ha, only serious” aspects. Go! Read! Enjoy!

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