Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: Birthright: Book 1 of the Temujin Saga

Book Review: Birthright: Book 1 of the Temujin Saga by Adam J. Whitlatch

Temujin has always known he is special.  He is, after all, the clone restoration of Genghis Khan, endowed with strange alien powers and destined to conquer the Earth.  It is his birthright.

Birthright

Alexander Walker has never even suspected he is special.  He’s just a normal Iowa farm boy, getting up the nerve to ask the girl he has a crush on to watch fireworks with him.  But he too has a birthright, and this Fourth of July will be unlike any other.

Quintin MacLaren doesn’t really have a yardstick for “special”.  Brought up by an alien scientist, he only met other humans a short while ago, and they’re all immortal bounty hunters.  When the team gets a mission to the forbidden planet Earth, Quintin stows away on the ship.  Perhaps it is there that he will find his birthright.

These three young men are about to have a meeting that will change all their lives.

This young adult science fiction action book mashes together several different concepts: aliens, immortals, psychic powers, all in the service of a coming of age story.  Alex is our primary hero, the farm boy who is far more than he appears or ever imagined, soon joined by faithful (mostly) sidekicks and then extremely cool allies.  Quintin is his twin brother, created when aliens tried to cram too much awesome into one human body.

It takes a while to set up all the pieces, but the second half of the book is slam-bang action as Temujin tries to eliminate the one person (Alex) who can foil his plans for world conquest.  Boys and boys at heart should enjoy this immensely.

On the other hand, Temujin is literally a mustache-twirling villain, and the story pits our American(ized) band of heroes against the fanatical hordes of the East, a trope that raises some hackles.  This is also very much a boys’ adventure book–female characters are girlfriends, mothers and rescuees, whatever their nominal job description is.  Conservative parents might look askance at how intimate some of the rewards for rescuing are.

One of the characters also uses “sister” as an insult for his male teammate.  Repeatedly.  There may be a story behind that, but as is, it came off unnecessarily sexist.

The book’s plotline reaches a satisfactory conclusion, but Temujin is still around to try again (he’s in the series name, it’s not a spoiler.)

Recommended for teenage boys who like this sort of thing, but parents may want to discuss the “Eastern Hordes” trope with them.

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