Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: 'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 5' edited by Lin Carter

2 / 5 Stars

'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 5' is DAW Book No. 370 (204 pp.) and was published in January 1980. The cover artwork is by Jordi Penalva.

This edition of the ‘Year’s Best’ features tales that saw print in 1978 and 1979; many were appearing for the first time in this volume, while others appeared in other anthologies, or small- and large- circulation magazines.

Reflecting the rather lean pickings in the genre for that year (and, too, editor Carter’s preferences), a number of entries were previously published, and qualified for inclusion due to being reprinted in one form or another in ’78.

The anthology leads off with ‘The Troll’, written by T. H. White in the 1930s; more a horror story than fantasy, it deals with a tourist’s unlucky excursion to Sweden.

There are several shorter pieces. ‘In the Balance’, by Tanith Lee, is a fable about students and their pursuit of magical training. David Mallory’s ‘St George’ takes the legend of the virtuous knight, and tries too hard to do something hip and smarmy with it. 

Grail Undwin’s ‘Rhian and Garanhir’ is a slight tale of unspoken yearnings between a knight and a princess. Evangeline Walton’s ‘Above Ker-is’, originally written in 1927, deals with a  self-righteous cleric and a mocking village maid. Marvin Kaye’s ‘Ms Lipshutz and the Goblin’ is an effort at fusing fantasy with New York City-style Yiddish humor.

As was typical for Carter, this volume contains at least one entry relating to R. E. Howard or his creations. ‘The Gem in the Tower’, written by de Camp and Carter, is a modestly successful Conan tale in which our barbarian hero, doing a turn at pirate, investigates a sinister structure on a remote tropical island.

Yet another ‘unpublished’ REH manuscript ‘discovered’ by literary agent Glenn Lord finds its way to ‘Year’s Best: 5’ (even Carter expresses some incredulity at the frequency with which these unpublished manuscripts appear). 

This time it’s a story titled ‘Lord of the Dead’, starring belligerent detective Steve Harrison, blundering around Chinatown, and its Inscrutable Orientals, on the trail of an assassin. Devoid of fantasy elements, and apparently composed by Howard for publication in a detective / Oriental themed pulp, the inclusion of ‘Lord’ indicates editorial fatigue on Carter’s part.

There are two stories featuring female protagonists. Pat McIntosh’s ‘Child of Air’ is a rather oblique tale in which Thula the warrior maiden sees herself contested over by rival mages. In Janet Fox’s ‘Demon and Demoiselle’, Arcana the lady wizard seeks to retrieve her familiar from a powerful warlock; there is an emphasis on satiric humor.

Humor is also the main ingredient in Craig Shaw Gardner’s ‘A Malady of Magicks’, in which the down-at-heels wizard Ebenezum delves into strange phenomena at an otherwise prosperous farm.

Adrian Cole contributes ‘Astral Stray’, in which a familiar, seeking the protection of a new master, plays dangerous games with the patrons of an otherworldly inn.

In summary, this is one of the weaker editions of the ‘Year’s Best’ compilations. To be fair, this was a reflection of the rather limited availability of print outlets in the late 1970s, wherein one could find worthy short fiction pieces devoted to the genre. 

But it’s also clear that Carter was becoming increasingly uninspired in executing his editorial duties for this particular anthology. With 'Year's Best' No. 5, he was getting by on his status as a well-known fantasy enthusiast, rather than putting real effort into ferreting out above-average entries suitable for consideration.

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