For the past five years, editors David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer put together a new Year's Best Fantasy book, and every year it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I may not agree with all of their choices, but I rarely find a story that I really didn't want to read. This year's 5th edition is no different. There aren't as many stories in it that make me stand up and pay attention, but all of them are quite good, even the ones that I have a bit of a problem with (stand up Joel Lane). Even better is the wide range of sources the editors draw from for their choices. A great number of them came from the book Flights, which I haven't read, so there weren't too many stories that I was already familiar with (though since I am now subscribing to three different short story magazines, some of them have been read before).
Thankfully, some of the regular contributors to these anthologies (Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee) don't annoy me like they have in the past. Lee's writing has never been my favourite (though I did like her "Moonblind" in last year's book), but "Elvenbrood is a very strong story about a shattered family who is attempting to move on, and the weird things in the woods outside that want the daughter as part of a pact that the father made. Gaiman finally moves on from the "weird character in the story tells a story" motif, though just barely, with "The Problem of Susan." Like "Beyond the River" (discussed below), this is a story of an interviewer visiting an author, though Gaiman's story goes in a different direction and takes a bit more of a horrific turn at the end.
The one story I had a problem with was "Beyond the River," by Joel Lane. A young journalist goes to visit an old children's book writer for an article on her life, as well as the breach of contract charges that have been brought up against her by the company that has bought her books. It seems they want to re-issue them with a lot of changes to make them more "accessible" to the modern reader, which she refuses to do. It's a pointed story about the publishing business, but it has a major misstep that threw me out of the story. It takes a weird turn when the interviewer, a woman, is asked to spend the night at Susanne's house because it's late, and the interviewer starts talking about whether or not the invitation was sexual or a seduction. While this may be a normal first question in a male-female meeting, it's not in a female-female meeting when there has been no hint of sexual tension before that, and there has been no hint that either of the characters are gay. It felt completely out of left field. Plus, the storyline is tremendously heavy-handed in its vilification of the mass-publishing market and how book lines can become mass-produced. The world that Susanne introduces the interviewer to is kind of interesting in a fairy-tale sort of way, but these two things made the story much less enjoyable to read than it should have been.
For me, one of the strongest stories in the book (I'll refrain from mentioning Kage Baker's story here, though it is well worth reading) was "Life in Stone," by Tim Pratt. It's the story of an immortal that wants to die, and the assassin he hires to do it. The immortal hid his soul away hundreds of years ago, and can't die until its container is destroyed. Unfortunately, he can't remember where he hid it. Mr. Zealand, the assassin, is trying to find it, based on obscure clues that Archibald Grace, the immortal, can remember. Usually, this sends Zealand on a dangerous wild goose chase, like at the beginning of the story where he has to fight something straight out of Lovecraft. When Grace's long-lost daughter, Hannah, gets involved, things get even trickier. I loved the tender relationship between Zealand and Grace, especially contrasted with the harsh way that Zealand treats Hannah. The ending is also quite good, with things not quite turning out the way you think they will.
Another real winner was "A Hint of Jasmine," by the ever-reliable Richard Parks. I'm really starting to like his stories, as his current ones in Realms of Fantasy have been quite inspired. This story is a ghost story about past regrets. Eli is a ghost hunter, and he's asked to an old southern mansion by an old classmate and her daughter. Around the end of the Civil War, there was a slave massacre, and the ghosts of the slaves continue to haunt the mansion. However, there is much more to the story, including the story of the two women, then meets the eye. Why was Eli called here, and what do the women really want? This is not a horror story at all, despite being about ghosts. Instead, it's about family and heritage, and the relationship between a woman and her daughter. All of the characters are done beautifully, and the mystery just continues to build until Eli figures out what is going on. The prose is good and Parks has created yet another interesting plot to put them through. Well-recommended.
Year's Best Fantasy 5 is another winning collection of fantasy short stories, with every story offering something to the reader. There are also a lot of famous names in the fantasy field included in this volume, so there should be something for everyone. Unless you have an aversion to short fiction, this is one you have to pick up.