Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2

Book Review: 'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2' edited by Lin Carter 

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 2’ (192 pp) was published by DAW Books (No. 205) in August, 1986, and features cover art by George Barr.

I got my copy way back in August, 1976, when I saw it on the shelves among the other sf paperbacks at Gordon’s Cigar Store. At the time, I found it to be one of the better DAW anthologies. Upon rereading it nearly 40 years later, how does ‘Year’s Best Fantasy 2’ hold up ?

One thing that has become quite clear over the intervening years is that in 1976, as far as publishers were concerned, the category of fantasy was very much a sub-genre of sf. Most mass market paperbacks that dealt with fantasy were either the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or ancillary titles associated with that work. Aside from the LOTR, there might be some barbarian adventure titles on the shelving, but that was pretty much it. The idea that one day, much of the shelf space at major book retailers would be devoted to fantasy, would have seemed …..well……. fantastical.

The stories in ‘Year’s Best Fantasy 2’ all were first published in 1975, and at that time, print outlets for such stories were few. Most of the stories appeared in digest magazines like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, small press magazines like Anduril, or anthologies from specialized publishers like Arkham House.

Most of the stories in this anthology are as much horror stories as they are fantasy, a reflection of the fact that in 1975, the genre was still centered on the tropes inherited from the pulp era.

In his Introduction, editor Lin Carter commiserates over the failure of T
he Silmarillion, the fabled Tolkein epic perpetually In Preparation, to be released in 1975 (the book came out in 1977 and turned out to be remarkably dull). 

Carter is encouraged by the bestseller status of Richard Adam’s 1975 fantasy novel Shardik (which also was a colossal bore).

The stories:

The Demoness, by Tanith Lee: self-consciously overwritten, but entertaining, tale of a female vampire.

The Night of the Unicorn, by Thomas Burnett Swann: an allegory set in Mexico’s Acapulco region.

Cry Wolf, by Pat McIntosh: Thula the warrior maiden meets a shadowy pair of adventurers. A fast- moving, and effective, sword-and-sorcery tale.

Under the Thumbs of the Gods, by Fritz Leiber: unremarkable Fafhrd and Mouser story; our heroes mourn lost loves.

The Guardian of the Vault, by Paul Spencer: a warrior is assigned a very special guard duty. One of the better entries in the anthology.

The Lamp from Atlantis, by L. Sprague de Camp: mild horror story about a fabled talisman. Surprisingly well-written, for a piece of de Camp short fiction.

Xiurhn, by Gary Myers: Lovecraft / Clark Ashton Smith homage involving an outcast mage who seeks vengeance on his tribe. Ponderous prose.

The City in the Jewel, by Lin Carter: as the editor of the ‘Year’s Best Fantasy’ series, Carter had no real scruples about promoting his own work. Sometimes his work was awful. But this ‘Thongor’ story, although employing a self-consciously ‘pulp’ –style prose, is reasonably entertaining.

In ‘Ygiroth, by Walter C. DeBill, Jr: Another Lovecraft-inspired tale about dark doings in ancient lands. Competent, if not all that memorable.

The Scroll of Morloc, by Clark Ashton Smith: this story was actually written by Lin Carter, one of a number of putative Smith tales Carter fabricated from plot scraps and titles from Smith’s posthumous belongings. The value of churning out a Smith pastiche is questionable; readers should prepare to encounter a remarkably constipated vocabulary, including words such as ‘jungle-girt’, ‘zenithal’ (pertaining to the zenith of astronomical bodies), ‘antehuman’, ‘thaumaturgies’, ‘shamanry’, ‘desuetude’ (to fall into disuse), and ‘protoanthropophagi’, among others.

Payment in Kind, by C. A. Cador: the corrupt citizens of a desert city receive their comeuppance. Another of the better entries in the anthology.

Milord Sir Smiht, the English Wizard: a ‘Dr. Eszterhazy’ story about an eccentric mage operating in Davidson’s proto-Steampunk version of late 18th century Central Europe. It relies on humor; unremarkable.

Summing up, ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 2’ is one of the more rewarding volumes in the series. Well worth picking up.

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