The first question that comes to mind on seeing a title such as this, ‘The Best Of British Fantasy 2013, is what constitutes British Fantasy? Although there is an introduction to this volume, it talks more about the history of the genre rather than how the editor decided what criteria a story or author needs to be included. In an anthology of British Fantasy, should the selection be from the work of authors born in Britain or those living here? Or is publication in a British outlet the criterion, especially as this is a reprint anthology? Which highlights a packaging problem. Though this is published in 2013, all the stories are from 2012. Most ‘Best Of’ anthologies use the year of the story publication on their cover rather than that of the book’s publication as the intention is to showcase the writing of a particular year.
Then there is the thorny question as to what would ordinarily count as fantasy. Looking at the contents, most of these stories veer towards the dark side or are outright horror. Even those stories with an SF basis are downbeat. Perhaps this is what makes a story British – no happy endings!
The quality of these seventeen stories is variable. Some are beautifully written, others unsatisfactory, not all would count as fantasy in other anthologies. It is worth looking at them as representative of what the editor might regard as fantasy in the present era.
On the darker side of fantasy, but not necessarily edging into horror, although some do, is the ghost story. One of the best stories in the whole volume is ‘Imogen’ by Sam Stone. The Imogen of the title is a woman who is trying her best to please and seduce Michael with little effect. It is the kind of situation where you think you know what is going to happen but which unwraps in a totally different way.
In contrast, ‘The Scariest Place In The World’ by Mark Morris is predictable. In it, Holly has recently moved into a new home and has a visit from a young man saying that this used to be his home and can he come in and look around.
Lisa Tuttle’s ghost story ‘The Third Person’ uses the idea that intense emotions leave resonances behind. Her ghosts are not dead but of the lovers that Imogen has allowed to meet clandestinely in her flat. She experiences the whole erotic encounter in a dream state after they have left. Tuttle is very adept at looking at traditional ideas and reshaping them, in this case into an excellent story.
There has long been an argument as to whether SF is merely a branch of fantasy and that all fiction is fantasy. Some want to clearly differentiate. The editor here subscribes to the former position as some of these stories would fit easily into the SF category but might be spotted as British by propensity for downbeat endings. ‘Armageddon Fish Pie’ by Joseph D’Lacey is a prime example. On the last day of the world, the narrator calmly defrosts the last fish pie that his mother made before her death, cooks and eats it with enjoyment. The pie works very well as a metaphor the futility of the situation.
‘The Complex’ by E.J. Swift is a different kind of SF story. Here, the narrator is at the end of an off-world prison sentence and is about to be shipped home to an Earth where all the people she knew will be dead or very old. Both these stories have the same flaw: Who is the first person narrator talking to?
‘God Of The Gaps’ by Carole Johnstone tries a more subtle approach and a twist on the alien abduction scenario. Its problem is that in the opening stages, where the characters are involved in a total immersion experience, it is unclear of their ages and the relationships between them. This could have been a very good story.
Tyler Keevil’s ‘Fearful Symmetry’ is a far better-paced story with a conservation theme but involving mutated animals. The characters are well-portrayed and the situation realistic.
Another issue under discussion is whether steampunk should be regarded as deviant SF or straight fantasy. Here the sub-genre, whichever camp you fall into, is represented by two stories. ‘Corset Wings’ by Cheryl Moore begins well with a hooker in Victorian London reluctantly taking up an offer of a philanthropist to take part in her research. The storyline falls away towards the end, a situation that might have changed if it had been written to a longer length.
‘The Island Of Peter Pandora’ by Kim Lakin-Smith is a steampunk offering of a very different nature. It is also a parody of Peter Pan with elements of ‘The Island Of Dr. Moreau’. Twelve year-old Peter has been marooned on an island and has built the ‘Lost Boys’ from mechanical parts. He and his gang are in a state of warfare with his earlier failed creations which used animals as a basis for his constructions.
Some tropes have migrated between genres or are claimed by several in different guises. While super-powers might be regarded as god-like and therefore fantasy, psychic talents have been appropriated by SF writers. When a story like ‘Lips And Teeth’ by Jon Wallace come along it is best to do what most readers do automatically and suspend disbelief and enjoy the written language. The setting could be any primitive prison camp such as a gulag, the prisoner, around whom the story revolves, just another mistreated soul. As it unfolds, it is clear that there are reasons for the prisoner being kept in isolation. Revelations are gradual and keep the reader turning the page.
The surreal is definitely fantasy. ‘The Last Osama’ by Lavie Tidhar cannot be described in any other way with the narrator acting as a bounty hunter pursuing Osama across the countryside. When one dies, others appear elsewhere so that the hunt never ends. In one respect, it could be regarded as a nightmare resulting from the trauma of a soldier committing murder. But then, all dreams have bizarre or surreal aspects.
Cate Gardner’s ‘Too Delicate For Human Form’ is the only recognisable fantasy story but don’t expect swords and elves, just a bit of gentle urban magic. By giving fish special food, they can be transformed into humans. Although it is an unusual and well-written story it is ultimately unfulfilling and generates more questions than it answers.
Dark, urban fantasy can either draw on myth or veer towards horror. Steph Swainston’s ‘The Wheel Of Fortune’ is the only story not to have a previous publication. It edges toward the latter and is the initiation of the narrator into a local gang. There are good observations here, though it is difficult to decide whether the viewpoint character is male or female. It is frustrating, too condensed and inconclusive. It reads as though it is an incident a far longer work.
In the minds of many, dark fantasy and horror are synonymous. The remaining stories sit easily into that category. The setting for ‘In The Quiet And In The Dark’ by Alison Littlewood is in and round the Rollrights, a stone circle in the Cotswolds. In it, the newcomer to the area is converted into one of them. It is a well told story.
Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ‘Qiqirn’ begins with a man haunted by an Inuit spirit after the death of his wife. The build-up of tension is excellent but ultimately the question that isn’t answered is why this is happening to him.
‘Dermot’ by Simon Bestwick is a nasty little story but very well-written. It plays on the idea that sometimes the few have to be sacrificed to keep the majority safe. Dermot is a monster who helps the police fight even greater monsters. This is the strongest story in anthology and doesn’t pull any punches.
Neither does Adam L. G. Nevill in ‘Pig Thing’. In many ways, this is a traditional horror story with a family in an isolated house being, menaced by a bloodthirsty creature intent on eating them.
The quality of the stories in this volume is variable but most readers will find something to enjoy. At the end, though, it is doubtful that anyone would take away a clear image of what constitutes fantasy and certainly not British Fantasy. That does not mean, though, that this is not a book worth dipping in to but be warned, there is no fluffy fantasy here.
(pub: Salt Publishing. 302 pages enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK) ISBN: 978-1-907773-35-8)
check out website: www.saltpublishing.com/