Short story collections are tricky beasts to review, as you want to capture the whole book as well as the highs and lows of the individual stories. The speculative genre, too, is a tough one for the short format: great that you can explore ideas, briefly, but at the same time it can be hard to contain a huge chunk of imagination in short form, leaving the reader either a tantalising glimpse or just not enough immersion.
Fortunately, this lives up to its name of being a ‘best of’, and thus there are no turkeys here. Which isn’t to say I loved every story, but in terms of experiencing some fantastic writers and a wide variety of topics and styles, this hit lots of buttons.
We open with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Black Dog, which I’d read previously in his Trigger Warnings collection but is so bloomin’ brilliant that I happily read it again. Of course, not every story is going to come with the background of a full novel (American Gods – which I am now itching to reread!) giving it roundness and weight, which made it all the more difficult to get into the next few stories. There were several in a row which I found rather too bleak (e.g. Alastair Reynold’s A Murmuration) and depressing (City of Ash by Paolo Bacigalupi) for me – but these are relatively minor disgruntlements, of course! 🙂 One of the ‘problems’ – and joys – of collections like this is that it can offer things to suit many tastes.
As for my own taste, perhaps it should be called into question given that this year’s Nebula Award winner, Alyssa Wong’s Hungary Daughters of Starving Mothers, is a notable inclusion here – and not one of my favourites! That title goes to the penultimate tale, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T Malik, which – possibly because it’s longer than many of the others – really does conjure up setting and emotion.
Other tales that grabbed me include Catherynne Valente’s The Lily and the Horn, briefly sketching a dark fantasy world where dinner parties stand in for war, Greg Bear’s mindbending take on quantum theory in The Machine Starts, and The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir, which put me in mind of Charles Stross meets Neil Gaiman – excellent mix! Ian McDonald’s Bontanic Veneris surely needs a stand-alone volume displaying some of the fantastical – well, ok, impossible! – papercut botanical drawings used so effectively to intertwine with his story, told with remarkable non-straightforwardness for the short format.
It’s getting difficult not to mention more – all – of the tales here, containing such fantastical elements as talking rhinos, possessed Christmas trees, as well as more ‘commonplace’ themes such as first contact, AIs, and colonising other planets.
Whatever your taste in the ‘out there’, there’s something here to appeal. The short story format doesn’t always get much love, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing what a range of talented authors could offer in such contrained packages.
NetGalley eARC: 624 pages / 27 stories
First published: 2016
Series: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, volume 10
Read from 14th May – 15th June 2016
My rating: 8/10