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The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Another great Year's Best from Strahan!

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten (Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year) - Jonathan Strahan

I started reading Jonathan Strahan's anthologies about six years ago, when I picked up Volume 4 of his Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year. His year's-best anthologies, together with his other ones (especially the Eclipse series), by now add up to an impressive body of editorial work. This latest, Volume 10 of his Best series, is no exception, and might be just a cut above most of the rest (though Eclipse Two is still the crown jewel... check it out!).


I did not like every single story there -- there were three stories that I would not have been able to justify putting into my own Best, were I to edit one -- but the other 24 stories were either quite good or terrific. Here are some highlights:


The horror and horror-like stories here gripped me tightly by the aorta, especially Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, by Alyssa Wong. It's horrifying, for sure, and will make you uncomfortable, but it's also kind of alluring, which for me is the greatest appeal of horror, that strange border territory of the taboo. There's a similar mother-daughter dynamic in The Deepwater Bride, by Tamsyn Muir, a Lovecraftian thriller/bildungsroman -- possibly the most outright fun read in the book. Neil Gaiman's Black Dog and Caitlin R. Kiernan's Dancy vs. the Pterosaur are both effectively atmospheric. Finally, there's Alastair Reynolds's story, A Murmuration, a darkly humorous story about a scientist (whom we realize, gradually, is insane) working on an experiment that becomes genuinely terrifying. The suspense in this one was almost unbearable.


Other unsettling premises form the setting for some of the most powerful sci-fi stories in the collection. City of Ash (Paolo Bacigalupi) and Oral Argument (Kim Stanley Robinson!) are short and savage rebukes of the capitalist/industrialist economy that, without significant change, will sink us -- this is crusade sci-fi at its absolute best. Sam J. Miller landed two slots in this anthology with his dark visions of the near-future effects of capitalism: Calved is a sci-fi entry about a botched father-son bonding in a world of high sea-levels, and Ghosts of Home is a fantasy imagining that houses have spirits and that they are perhaps not entirely satisfied with their lot in the aftermath of the housing crisis (I get the feeling that this story is set after the next housing crisis, which is sure to come in the near future).


Of course, a good Best of anthology will have a great variety of stories, so here are a couple of outstanding ones that don't necessarily fit into the categories I noted above. First, The Winter Wraith, by Jeffrey Ford -- atmospheric and a bit frightening, so it would fit with my first group above, but it's just so weirdly funny -- an average middle-class Joe in Ohio loses track of the Christmas tree, and he and his dog seek it out. The whole thing is entirely implausible and seemingly pointless but entertaining nonetheless; as the protagonist says to his dog, "This is unparalleled bull****." Finally, there's the inimitable Catherynne M. Valente, whose prose is unfailingly the most dense and most beautiful that I can ever find -- her story The Lily and the Horn feminizes the whole concept of war and works marvelously as a kind of classic utopian satire.


These are the outstanding stories -- 11 out of the 27. Many of the rest were good, and only three were ones that I considered bad. My calculator gave me 4.29 when I averaged my ratings for the stories. That would make a batting average of .858 -- so, pretty darn good.