Sunday, March 01, 2009
When the first volume of Best American Fantasy came out in the summer of 2007, I wrote a review praising it for exploring facets of "fantasy" that remained true to the various interpretations of that ancient word while each story managed to avoid feeling repetitive with their motifs, styles, and story progressions. That anthology was one of my favorite anthologies for 2007, but if it contained an Achilles Heel, it would be that in covering so much ground that other best of year anthologies failed to do, there weren't as many readily-identifiable "hook" stories (and writers) that would draw in a casual fan.
In the second iteration of this new anthology series, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer return for a second tour of duty as guest editors, with Matthew Cheney serving as the overall series editor. Unlike the 2007 anthology, Best American Fantasy 2 is a slimmer volume, clocking in at just over 330 pages, compared to BAF1's 450 pages. But in many aspects, this anthology serves as an example of why often less can mean more.
As the VanderMeers note in their introduction, BAF2 contains fewer stories from non-genre sources, due in large part to a seeming lack of interesting fantastical fiction being published in 2007 compared to the 2006 stories that were included in BAF1. Furthermore, the stories follow a more "rigorous" definition of fantasy that excludes for the most part tales that employ fantastical elements as mere metaphor for concrete, mimetic settings. But although this does constrain the possibilities for each story included, this more narrow focus also served to create a greater sense of thematic unity among the included short fictions, as there was not quite as much disparity in styles.
The 19 stories included in BAF2 contain entries from several award-winning authors, such as M. Rickert, Kelly Link, Peter Beagle, and Jeffrey Ford. Their stories were uniformly outstanding. A personal favorite was Beagle's "The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French," where the title characters sudden mutation into a Frenchman reminded me not only of the old Monty Python skit where an alien race turns ordinary Englishmen and Englishwomen into Scotsmen/women, but also of my own personal struggles to master the nuances of a different culture and language. In many ways, it is both comic and serious at the same time, forcing the reader to confront his/her own sense of dislocation as Moscowitz's story proceeds to its conclusion.
One inevitably sad aspect of the editors' decision to narrow the focus in BAF2 is that there were fewer "pleasant surprises" or discoveries in this volume. While newer writers such as Rachel Swirsky ("How the World Became Quiet") and Matt Bell ("Mario's Three Lives") wrote outstanding stories (I chuckled quite a bit at first at Bell's description of Mario the Plumber using his ass to eat and to destroy, before the story progressed to a very serious, contemplative conclusion), there were comparatively fewer "bookless" writers in this collection compared to BAF1. In that sense, a bit of the wonder that I felt while reading BAF1 back in August 2007 was lost.
However, that was balanced by the fact that there were no stories that I would call "weak." Some were not as appealing to me as others (Kage Baker's "The Ruby Incomparable" did not capture my attention as much as many of her other stories have in the past), but the worst I could say would be that those tales were solid, but not spectacular. Considering that most original or reprint anthologies generally contain a few clunkers for me, BAF2 perhaps is one of the more uniformly good anthologies that I have read in the past couple of years.
On the whole, BAF2 builds upon the elements that I thought made BAF1 a successful new entrant into a rather crowded best of year anthology market. Despite the retooling that narrowed the selections from around 30 to 19, this second volume managed to avoid feeling stagnant. I am curious to see what new directions this series will take in the upcoming third volume, now that Kevin Brockmeier will be the guest editor and that Underland Press will be assuming publishing duties from Prime. If BAF2 is any indication, it will be a different, fresh take on selecting exemplary short fiction of the fantastic.
Publication Date: February 2009 (US), Tradeback.
Publisher: Prime Books