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: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

kohl

Back in the day, science fiction and fantasy novels tended to be much shorter than they are now.  In some cases, so short that they didn’t make a decent-sized paperback.  So Ace Books came up with the Ace Double, two novels (or short story collections) in one, with the contents and covers upside down from each other.  This gave good value for money.  The book we’re looking at today is one of these.

A Planet of Your Own by John Brunner, first–Kynance Foy is a young woman from Earth who decided to go out and make her fortune among the stars…and failed. At the end of her rope, she’s offered a job by the Zygra Corporation. A job that sounds too good to be true, despite the obvious hardships. But she’s desperate, so sign she does. It isn’t until she gets to the planet of Zygra that she discovers the true nature of the trap, but is it too late?

Good stuff: This is a rare mid-Sixties SF book with a competent female lead. Amusingly, towards the beginning she lists off traits that in bad fanfic would make her kind of Sueish (smart, multi-skilled and exotically beautiful) but it turns out that the further she gets from Earth, the more common these traits are, to the point that normal fifteen year olds are earning the equivalent of a doctorate.

The moment Kynance figures out what the trap is, she sets about systematically disarming it, using the skills she established earlier. And when male characters show up, they don’t take over the story or assume control just because they’re men. Kynance simply works them into her plan. And there isn’t a shoehorned-in romance, either. Just a hint at the end that now that she’s made her pile, Kynance might consider a relationship, possibly with one of the male characters.

Not so good stuff: Kynance’s boss sexually harasses her as an added topping to his other slimy activities, just to reinforce that he’s the bad guy here. There’s the people calling a grown woman a “girl”, and being surprised she’s in the Zygra job (though the same character admits that a woman would be equally able to do it.) And the ending relies heavily on the legalistic version of technobabble.
The Beasts of Kohl is by John Rackham. Kohl is an aquatic lifeform that travels to other star systems, explores them, and sometimes brings back smart animals to serve it. (Thus the title.) But one day, Kohl’s bipedal servant Rann asks a question that makes Kohl realize he isn’t just a very intelligent animal, but a fully sapient being like Kohl itself. Since Kohl’s ethics prevent it from enslaving true setitents, it decides to take Rann back to his home planet for a visit, so that Rann can make an informed choice about his life.

Joined by his female counterpart Rana (who has had a less wise master and is thus more emotional and unskilled), the great canine Gromahl and thehunting bird Virgal, Rann accompanies Kohl to a certain small blue planet. What none of the visitors realize is that quite some time has passed on that world, which has changed considerably. And in a single jam-packed day, Rann and Rana learn both good and ill about their home world and its inhabitants.

It’s a fast-paced story, with some nice “outsiders looking at Earth culture” satire, but the latter half depends entirely too much on coincidence to speed things along. This easily could have been twice the length without spoiling the plot. There’s some gender essentialism, and some readers may groan at the “nerdy guy gets the incredibly hot girlfriend” subplot.

Also, the story is implied to take place on Earth in “the near future” from 1966, so it’s interesting to see what the author thinks would have changed, and what looks exactly like the Sixties.

 

 

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