Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection

241733E5-F3C7-408A-B13B-72DE9F9DBF86No, this didn’t come just now as a review copy. This is a retro review of the first volume of a series that is without doubt the best of its kind ever done. The Kinrowan Estate Library has a full set in hardcover of this series, but you’d better have deep pockets if you want to collect ’em for yourself — a copy online Exchange will cost you at least seventy five dollars at least in the true first edition.

(Our Editor-in-Chief says it took him ten years and lots of dickering to assemble his personal set. Me, I’ll just read the ones here.)

Now, I could just tell you who was in this debut volume (Natalie Babbitt, John Robert Bensink, John Brunner, Steven Brust, Edward Bryant, Ramsey Campbell, Jonathan Carroll, Harlan Ellison, Carol Emshwiller, Craig Shaw Gardner, Joe Haldeman, M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Helfman, Gwyneth Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Charles de Lint, Michael McDowell, George R. R. Martin, Alan Moore, William F. Nolan, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Palwick, Kathryn Ptacek, David J. Schow, Michael Shea, Lucius Shepard, Delia Sherman, John Skipp, Craig Spector, Lisa Tuttle, Douglas Winter, Patricia Wrede, T. M. Wright and Jane Yolen), which should be enough to make you drool all over the table, but there’s much more than just the stories that goes into making this work one of the key texts of the fantasy field. This volume won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology the year after it was published. Bloody impressive.

Why so, you ask? It’s not really because of the fiction — which is beyond merely excellent — but rather because this volume, and every volume of the series thereafter, has the neatest summation of What’s Really Cool in Fantasy (and Horror after this volume) that one could hope to find. As Michael Jones said in his review of the 13th volume, “Not only does Year’s Best offer the best by way of fiction, it devotes extensive space to offering yearly roundups of the field in other media. Summations. Top Twenty. First Novels. Urban Fantasy. Imaginary World Fantasy. Historical and Alternate Worlds. Mythic Fiction. Humorous Fantasy. Mainstream. Oddities. Animal Tales. Children’s Fantasy. Single-Author Collections. Anthologies. Poetry. Comic Books. Magazines. Art Books. Non-fiction. Mythology and Folklore. Music. Conventions and Awards.” Later summations would run well over a hundred pages, whereas this one is a mere fifty pages or so, but oh, the wonders therein! Not quite as good as me (not quite) remembering my first use of hash, or re-listening to The White Album, but it is a literary tripping of sorts.

Ah, that was the year that Tim Powers did his Caribbean pirate fantasy, which would have made Disney blanch, On Stranger Tides — cost me a bloody fortune to find in hardcover a few years back. Michael Moorcook released The City in The Autumn Stars, and then there was Aegypt, one of John Crowley’s weirder novels. In the summation Windling notes that her Borderland series was in the middle of its run. (Years later, a script would be written for this series. No theatrical production resulted, but our beloved Editor-in-Chief has a nifty t-shirt that was done as a promo for it!) Likewise she makes note of George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards, a shared universe series (Wild Cards is back in print from iBooks, but the Borderland anthologies are, I believe, most long out of print. There are rumours of them being reprinted, but nothing that can be confirmed at this time). Sweet Mab, Tales of Witch World by Andre Norton came out in ’87! What a year!

But, as Michael noted, Datlow and Windling cover more than just novels in their Summations (though I should mention that Windling briefly mentions both Emma Bull’s The War for The Oaks and Charles de Lint’s Jack of Kinrowan, too). Windling certainly knows her music, as albums that have since become rightfully known as classics are here picked by her — Frankie Armstrong’s Tam Lin (recorded with Blowzabella), Silly Wizard’s A Glint Silver and the Oyster Band’s Wild Blue Yonder make the list. As does a group that is not, despite her claim that they are, a Canadian Celtic punk band, Rare Air (which is a fusion of Celtic and Jazz). Nor is Boiled in Lead in The War for The Oaks, despite her note that it is!

An area that also gets expanded in later YBFHs (Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) is a wrap-up of what Windling found interesting in folklore. More names that you’ll recognize are here — Jack Zipes is a favourite of hers. Art books get mentioned too … mostly cover art, but a few actual art collections too. (What gets covered in pages and pages of text in later YBFHs is barely a paragraph long here. The book is also a lot smaller in size that the rest of the series. As much of the spam I get says, “bigger is better.”) Ellen Datlow, a superb writer of both dark horror and erotic dark horror, does the summation of the year in horror. I am not a horror fan, so I’m less qualified to judge how well she does, but I note that Clive Barker’s first novel (!), which was The Damnation Game, gets a qualified nod from Datlow. She also loves the Stephen King novel du jour, Misery, and Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, which I believe is one of those ever-so-tasty Hannibal Lecter novels.

Edward Bryant sums up the year in horror and fantasy on the boob tube and at the movies. (Me memory is hazy for this decade — did we have VCRs back then?) Ed found little to like except Bruce Campbell’s star vehicle, The Evil Dead, and Robocop. Clive Barker’s first Hellraiser movie was, according to Bryant, a mixed bag, but when isn’t Clive a mixed affair at best? Only William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, a classic by any standards, was a hit fantasy in his estimation.

As would hold true from here on out for the YBFH series, death notes finish off the summation. We lost, among others, Terry Carr, mythologist Joseph Campbell, James Tiptree Jr., C. L. Moore and Randall Garrett. Sigh….

One last note before I go. There are hours of fine fiction reading here. My favorites include Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” Gwyneth Jones’ “The Snow Apples,” Steven Brust’s “Csucskari” — which is an excerpt from his The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars novel, a Jane Yolen poem called “Once Upon a Time, She Said,” and Charles de Lint’s “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair.” I do believe that Charles, along with Yolen and a few others, has a story in every volume of this series.

One could do far worse for winter’s reading pleasure than any volume of the YBFH. I certainly have spent many a night when the snow was falling, the wind howling, and the temperature colder than I care to know, reading from one of these fine volumes. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection was a good start to a series that has indeed proved to be the best of its kind, period. My kudos to Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for an excellent start to what would be a long running series.

(St.Martin’s Press, 1988)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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