Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Far Futures, edited by T.K.F. Weisskopf (Baen, 2005)

Offered as a followup to Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Sol System, this collection of stories pushes the limits, taking its various protagonists to distant stars and farflung settings. Like the title suggests, the stories are weighted towards adventure tales and space opera, with plenty of action to go around. There’s only six stories, plus an accompanying nonfiction essay, to fill out the volume, which means most of the stories are novella length or even longer.
By far, my favorite of the six is Debra Doyle and James MacDonald’s return to their Mageworlds setting, in “On Suivi Point.” In it, we’re treated to a glimpse of Beka Rosselin-Metadi’s early adventures as a spacer, before she was recalled home by the events detailed in Price of the Stars. While on leave on Suivi Point, she and a companion are targeted as part of a shadowy conspiracy, but it soon turns out that Beka’s inadvertent enemies are the ones in trouble. It never pays to underestimate some people.
Also of interest is “Genie Out of the Bottle” by Dave Freer and Eric Flint, which looks at the setting introduced in Rats, Bats and Vats. Who ever thought combining the military and genetic engineering would be so unusual? A privileged young man joins the army to get out of a bad jam that’s not his fault, and ends up working with the dregs of an army created from genetically-altered elephant-shrews (commonly called “rats”). His unorthodox way of working with them turns out to have unexpected consequences. Fascinating, fun, and worth checking out, this story’s inspired me to go find the books it ties into.
Other stories in this collection are from James P. Hogan, Mark L. Van Name, Paul Chafe, and Gregory Benford. In general, I was pleased with Cosmic Tales, and I hope we’ll continue to see more releases in this series, as so far, it’s been quite entertaining.

Fair Folk, edited by Marvin Kaye (Science Fiction Book Club, 2005)

Contrary to popular belief as embodied by Yours Truly, the Science Fiction Book Club occasionally commissions collections of original short fiction, a fact which came as something of a surprise when I received this book in the mail. The six stories collected in The Fair Folk are loosely unified, revolving around the general theme of fairies and their interactions with the mortal world. All six are of novella length or longer, thus giving the authors room to spread out and tell the complex stories that call to them.
“UOUS,” by Tanith Lee, is a brilliant twist on the three wishes concept which is so often found in traditional fairy tales. Lois, a Cinderella-like girl whose home life is downright unbearable, makes an unknowing, foolish pact with a lord of the Fae, and is thus pressed into his service, compelled to grant -him- three wishes, as repayment for all those centuries the Fae served humans. The results are horrifying and disturbing, but fitting nonetheless. Lee manages to infuse the unsettling magic of the Fae with a certain cheap, tawdry feeling brought in from the mortal world, making this as close to a reverse fairy tale as ever I’ve seen. There are happy endings, but not as so we’d normally predict. The desperation and shame of the main character as she undergoes her trials is excellently conveyed, so that we really feel her being cast down even as she succeeds in improving her life. Lee’s managed to say something new, here, and it shows.
Megan Lindholm’s “Grace Notes” is the story of an everyday guy who ends up with a brownie in his home. She cooks, she cleans, she redecorates, she watches Martha Stewart, and she does it all invisibly and impeccably. Unfortunately, this brownie’s tastes don’t necessarily coincide with her human roommates’s sense of style, and the more she does, the more it grates on his nerves. And what’ll happen when the source of the brownie’s wealth comes to light? An upset host is nothing compared to an offended brownie. It’ll take some special help to set things right now. This is another one of those “why didn’t I think of that first?” stories.
“Except the Queen,” by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder, is a gripping tale of two fairies exiled to the mortal world and charged with tasks involving several mysterious teenagers. Told entirely as a set of letters passed back and forth between the two sisters as they come to terms with their diminished powers and mortal vulnerabilities, the story’s mystery grows in complexity and excitement. Danger’s afoot on numerous fronts, and the secrets that come to light could change everything for the Fae. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop until I’d found out what was in store for the unlikely grouping of heroes.
Stories by Craig Shaw Gardner, Kim Newman, and Patricia McKillip help to make The Fair Folk a truly excellent anthology, well worth checking out. If this is an example of what the SFBC can offer, I’ve been missing out all these years.

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L. Sprague de Camp was a master in the science fiction and fantasy fields, known both for his adventure-packed, swashbuckling action stories and his humor-laced tales. His unique style inspired any number of today’s greatest writers, and now they’ve come together to honor de Camp with this anthology. In it, fifteen authors pay tribute to the master with stories of humorous adventure and good old-fashioned character-driven fun.
David Drake’s “A Land of Romance” follows the adventures of one minor mid-level marketing executive as he’s accidentally tapped for something far greater, and stranger. When his boss turns out to be something of a magician in need of a volunteer to travel to another dimension, who else but not-so-mild-mannered Howard Jones is ready to step up to the plate? Did we mention that there’s a girl to be won, as well? This story fits the de Camp atmosphere perfectly, serving as a great lead into the rest of the volume.
Michael T. Flynn gives us “The Ensorcelled ATM,” in which a disgruntled man attempts to take his revenge on a corporate headhunter, and ends up sucked into another world, where they have need of someone with his skills. Or rather, the skills of the man he was pretending to be. But there might be a solution which satisfies everyone, after all.
Richard Foss’ “Ripples” is an alternate history about some of history’s greatest philosophers, where one took a vastly different path in life, and the other had to try and stop him. It’s not what you’d expect. Chris Bunch turns in “Gun, Not For Dinosaur,” which is something of a sequel to a classic, well-known story. When one of the richest men in the world embarks upon a time-traveling safari back into the dawn of history, he has a truly insidious plan in mind, one which could tear the human race apart.
Esther M. Friesner’s “One For The Record” is a gently-told, tongue-in-cheek tale about a gentleman’s club and the strange events which befall it one day. It seems there’s something of a rash of people returning from the dead, in the Greek manner of things, and an old myth is about to get a new resolution. The way it all gets solved is acceptable, is somewhat gauche, and well-executed. Harry Turtledove, however, is bound to make a few people twitch with his tale of dentistry gone wrong in “The Haunted Bicuspid.” However barbaric we might find today’s practices to be, they’re nothing compared to what one man goes through in this story.
“Return to Xanadu,” by Lawrence Watt-Evans, focuses upon a simple harem girl whose encounter with the notorious Harold Shea upsets her normal life, even as it paves the way for her true destiny as one of literature’s greatest storytellers. Meanwhile, S.M. Stirling’s “The Apotheosis of Martin Padway” acts as a coda to the long and strange history of Martinus of Padua, a time-tossed man who once upon a time changed the world with his ideas from the future.
“The Deadly Mission of P. Snodgrass,” by Frederick Pohl, may be a reprint, but it’s still one of the greatest time-travel stories ever written, in its own exaggerated way. A man’s attempt to change the past may seem to alter things for the best, but ultimately, it turns out to be a drastic mistake. Laura Frankos’ “The Garden Gnome Freedom Front” is a hilarious look at those ubiquitous inhabitants of our lawns and gardens: the lawn gnome. Three young women have taken it upon themselves to liberate the poor creatures, but when magic intervenes and brings the gnomes to life, it signals a change in the way the game is played.
With other stories by Poul Anderson, Judith Tarr, Susan Schwartz, and Darrell Schweitzer to finish off the collection, this is quite an entertaining, satisfying anthology, combining the classic de Camp feel with modern sensibilities. Some of the stories served as wonderful follow-ups to his own mythos, while others merely invoked his style in a warmly familiar manner. I was very happy with the overall results.

Year’s Best SF 10, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2005)

Is it that time of year again already? No, not prom season. Time for the various “Year’s Best” collections to trickle out. This time, it’s the Year’s Best SF #10, as collected by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. As always, the usual caveats apply: selection is at the whim of the editor, your opinions may vary, all criteria are equally valid and subjective. That out of the way, I will note that Hartwell and Cramer have done very well so far in selecting a quality assortment of stories which successfully represent the potential of the field.
The lead story is Bradley Denton’s “Sergeant Chip,” which has seen a lot of acclaim since its publication. But then again, how often do you find a story told from the viewpoint of a military-trained, rather intelligent dog whose attention and dedication to both master and orders is so overwhelming? It’s a wonderful story, and the title character can make you believe in the term “Man’s best friend.”
Gregory Benford’s “First Commandment” is, on the surface, a tale about the cataloguing of every species on Earth, and the ultimate completion of said task. Below that, though, is the question of man’s duty to nature, as well as his duty to God. Are we fulfilling an ancient commandment, or have we managed to fail in our greatest task ever?
“Burning Day,” by Glenn Grant, is a cyberpunk murder mystery done in a classic noir-meets-Philip K. Dick style, where appearances are as deceiving as what’s underneath them. Full of twists and surprises, it’s an excellent, crisp story. “Scout’s Honor,” by Terry Bisson, is also a mystery, though something of a time-traveling one. Who’s been sending a scientist a running series of seemingly-fictional journal entries involving a modern man trapped back in the dawn of man’s history?
Gene Wolfe’s “Pulp Cover” is an homage to the lurid magazine covers of the ‘50s, and makes you really wonder, what did all the Bug-Eyed Monsters want with nubile Earth women? One businessman is about to find out, though not firsthand. Ken Liu’s story is even less comforting. In “The Algorithms for Love,” a brilliant toy designer creates a doll that acts so lifelike, it’s hard to distinguish it from the real thing. Unfortunately, her sanity erodes along the way, to the point where reality seems just as predictable as any computerized toy.
Ray Vukcevich’s “Glinky” continues to be a mind-spraining story of collapsing universes, private detectives, mysterious women, and busses, as multi-layered and confusing as the last time I read it. But when realities collide, that’s to be expected. Janeen Webb’s “Red City” is another time-traveling tale, but with a different twist. As the editors say, “there’s a prophet, a harem, a chess game, and a time loop.”
Jack McDevitt looks at what happens when we attempt not just to play God, but to try and improve upon His creations, in a story aptly entitled “Act of God.” Robert Reed’s “Wealth” is the story of an AI whose ability to maintain and handle vast amounts of monetary wealth has given him amazing foresight into the future, a future he has long-ranging plans for. Matthew Hughes’ entertaining “Mastermindless” is the first of his stories featuring freelance discriminator, Henghis Hapthorn. Think Sherlock Holmes in the far future, with a dose of comedy and an AI assistant. Now, for the purposes of this story, strip him of his vast intelligence so he’s forced to solve the case based on what his AI thinks he’d usually do. The solution is right there, all along. I greatly enjoyed this story the first time it appeared, and I’ve been following the subsequent adventures of Henghis Hapthorn ever since.
James Stoddard’s “The Battle of York” is a postmodern, far future myth about American history, chock-full of interesting misconceptions, blended history, and anachronisms. In other words, it’s the past as the future might remember it, and rather fun to read. “The Dark Side of Town,” by James Patrick Kelly, is a futuristic story about domestic strife in a dystopian society where expensive drugs offer a rich fantasy life.
Sean McMullen gives us “The Cascade,” in which a young man becomes accidentally embroiled in a conspiracy to jumpstart a weakened space program at any costs. The decisions he’s forced to make will haunt him for the rest of his life, whether they’re right or wrong. Neal Asher’s “Strood” is all about the perils of communicating with aliens. One man, searching for a cure for his incurable cancer, has accepted an invitation to a distant world, only to discover what seems to be an unthinkable plot against the human race.
“The Eckener Alternative” by James Cambias is a time-travel story with a unique focus: the protagonist keeps trying to change history for the sole purpose of bringing back zeppelins as a viable industry, and his efforts keep going awry. Brenda Cooper’s “Savant Songs” is a quantum romance involving a brilliant autistic woman and her normal assistant, and the secrets they quest for across multiple universes.
Overall, the stories collected in this volume are consistently excellent, with nary a misfire to be found. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better representation of what the science fiction field had to offer for 2004, and I highly recommend this to fans of short science fiction, since I doubt anyone’s read every story in here. Even I found a fair number I wasn’t familiar with.

Year’s Best Fantasy 5, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2005)

Coming right on the heels of the SF volume is this lovely collection of, as the title suggests, Hartwell and Cramer’s picks for best fantasy stories of the previous year. Everything I said about the SF collection applies here: it’s an excellent selection of stories from a wide range of sources, and it serves as an excellent buffet-style sampling of what the field had to offer in 2004.
Robert Reed’s “The Dragons of Summer Gulch” is a clever blend of archaeology, mythology, evolution, and high-stakes frontier exploration, as an entire industry built around the finding of fossilized dragon bones comes to a head when one lucky prospector makes a monumental discovery, one people are willing to kill over.
Theodora Goss’ “Miss Emily Gray” is a Mary Poppinsesque story with a twist and some subtle attitude, while John Kessel’s “The Baum Plan for Financial Independence” is a story about two small-time crooks who discover their own metaphorical rainbow, one which really does change their lives forever. Dale Bailey explores the ways the world might end in “The End of the World as We Know it.” Wry and self-referential, it examines the many ways civilization might take a nosedive, with a most unassuming protagonist.
Kage Baker’s “Leaving His Cares Behind Him” is a typical story about a most atypical young man about town. On the surface, he’s a wastrel, spending money he doesn’t have and getting into all sorts of trouble. However, this younger son of a nobleman has a bizarre secret, and a very dangerous family. A truly enjoyable story with a surprisingly likeable main character, I hope we’ll see more of this world in the future.
“The Problem With Susan,” by Neil Gaiman is a subtle piece that picks up on a lingering concern regarding the Narnia books, when a young reporter goes to interview an elderly professor and makes a strange discovery. Kim Westwood’s “Stella’s Transformation” is a beautifully-told story that looks at an unhappy woman who starts to experience some unusual, positive changes in her life. It’s part-dream, part-romance, and wholly intriguing.
In “Quarry,“ Peter S. Beagle returns to the world and the characters last seen in The Innkeeper’s Song, when he explores how two characters – one an aging shape shifter/trickster, the other a youthful runaway – met and began to bond. John Meaney’s “Diva’s Bones” looks at a unique sort of afterlife/underworld, where the dead provide fuel to power the cities of the living. However, some bones have a power all unto themselves, and some people will do anything for that power. It’s not quite a detective story, not quite a mystery.
“Life in Stone,” by Tim Pratt, follows an aging assassin as he undertakes the greatest task in a long career: killing an unkillable man. Richard Parks weaves a new sort of ghost story/mystery in “A Hint of Jasmine,” in which one man uses technology to bridge the gap between the living and the dead in order to help both sides find resolution.
Joel Lane’s “Beyond the River” is a cautionary tale about what happens to our fantasy worlds when corporate interests change them for the worse. Terry Bisson’s “Death’s Door” is a weird, disturbing tale that looks at a world where, for a time, people are unable to die, no matter how much they might need to.
These, and a number of other fine stories by authors such as Tanith Lee, Gene Wolfe, and Nalo Hopkinson, make this collection worth checking out if you want to see what you might have missed last year.

Down These Dark Spaceways, edited by Mike Resnick (SFBC, 2005)

Another collection of original short fiction commissioned by the Science Fiction Book Club, Down These Dark Spaceways brings together half a dozen authors to spin tales of science fiction mystery, murder, and intrigue. They combine the fine art of the classic mystery with the fantastic trappings of science fiction, and the resulting blend is quite well-done.

In Mike Resnick’s “Guardian Angel,” a private detective is hired to track down and retrieve a teenage runaway who has, in the time-honored tradition of things, gone to join the circus. It’s a world-hopping adventure as our hero follows the traveling carnival in search of his target, dodging all manner of hostile people along the way. But the more he pursues this case, the more questions arise: why did the kid run away? What secrets are his estranged parents (one an interstellar criminal kingpin) hiding? And who’s trying to kill the runaway? The answers are there for the taking, if our hero can live long enough.
David Gerrold gives us an intriguing story of time travel and crime prevention in “In The Quake Zone.” An operative who travels the time-torn streets of Los Angeles over a variety of decades, acting to prevent various crimes before they can happen again for the first time, the protagonist finds himself inexplicably affected on an emotional level by his latest case: protecting the future victims of a serial killer. However, there’s something even stranger going on, and the answers lie in the future, or do they? This story is fascinating on a great many levels, not the least of which is its unusual setting, a Los Angeles where time has become fluid and changeable over the course of a century.

Robert Reed’s “Camouflage” takes place aboard the world-sized, galaxy-traveling ship of his Marrow setting. Here, a former Captain, long since resigned, disgraced, and gone into hiding, is pulled out of his centuries-long retirement to help solve a strange murder. In a ship where many different species and faiths coexist, and where immortality is commonplace, it takes a very special sort of desire to see someone dead and make it happen. The man known as Panir has spent a very long time staying hidden; should he refuse this job, the life he’s built for himself for be destroyed. As a result, he’s compelled to dig deep into the sordid secrets of a woman and her various interspecies marriages, until he discovers who’s been killing her past husbands, and why. Full of twists and turns and wild technology, this story takes full advantage of its setting to tell an unpredictable, fascinating tale.

In “The Big Downtown,” by Jack McDevitt, a female P.I. is hired to navigate her way through a tangled series of lies, cover-ups, and murder, to get to the bottom of a boating accident in which an up-and-coming artist died. Strongly reminiscent of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer stories (in my opinion), this one’s a classic tale of greed and betrayal, right down to the thugs who come to beat up our hero and scare her off the trail. However, the inclusion of high-tech elements such as AIs and holograms makes for even more fun.

Robert Sawyer’s “Identity Theft” is set on Mars, where it’s become common to have an entirely new, artificial body created, and one’s mind transferred into it. Just as common are the people who take advantage of the technology to go and hunt for ancient artifacts out on Mars’ surface, as part of a lucrative (if hazardous and unpredictable) industry. And of course, there are those driven to murder by what they find. When our hero is hired to find a missing husband, he quickly finds a dead body, and a bizarre mystery involving stolen identities, hidden artifacts, and plenty of lies to go around. It’s an interesting take on the nature of the human consciousness, and what makes a person truly alive and unique.

Add to this Catherine Asaro’s “The City of Cries,” about a runaway prince, and you have a thoroughly solid collection of science fiction mysteries for your pleasure. I was very happy with this collection, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys this sort of crossover fiction.

Maiden, Matron, Crone, edited by Kerrie Hughes and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, 2005)

As suggested by the title, this anthology is a collection of thirteen stories all revolving around the age-old concept of the Three-in-One, also known as the Triple Goddess, or the Maiden, Matron (Mother) and Crone. Best associated with Wiccan beliefs, the Triple Goddess can nevertheless be found in any number of old religions and belief systems, such as the Greco-Roman family of myths. With that as their starting block, a baker’s dozen of fantasy authors have turned out some thoughtful stories.
In Brenda Cooper’s “A Lingering Scent of Bacon,” a teenage runaway has some unusual encounters along the way, leading her to realize that the journey is just as important as the destination, but regardless, she needs to know when to stop running. But who, or what, is guiding her steps and keeping her from harm?
Tanya Huff’s “Choice of Ending” revisits a popular secondary character from one of her earlier urban fantasy novels. Mrs. Ruth is an eccentric bag lady who just happens to be the current avatar for the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, accustomed to making sure people meet their karmic destinies. But how will she react when her time draws closer to an end? Will she go gently into the night, or will she kick and scream the whole way? The way she tackles the last moments of her life provide a fascinating coda to Huff’s earlier work, Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Strikes of the Heart” follows a young woman whose unusual relationship with a spirit of nature has earned her the title of “plantwife.” As she watches her grandmother, a powerful magical defender for a kingdom, sink further into absent-minded carelessness due to age, Kishi must embrace an unexpected legacy.
Jean Rabe’s “Misery and Woe” is a story with a bitterly ironic twist to it. Though no longer young, the witch known as Elspeth finds her efforts to help a village hampered by her own considerable physical assets. Harassed by men too busy staring at her chest to hold a proper conversation and shunned by the women of the village for what their men are doing, Elspeth may not be able to save her new home from tragedy. Should she even try?
In “In Sight,” Charles de Lint follows a folk singer who’s found herself at a crossroads relatively late in life. When she meets a young musician just starting out on the same road, they may be able to share the wisdom, at least for a while.
Jody Lynn Nye’s “The Gift” is the story of a fickle young woman whose encounter with a goddess of the hunt helps her to realize what she’s been doing wrong in her relations with other people. “Bearing Life,” by Devon Monk looks at the widowed queen of a beleaguered kingdom, one who has to make some drastic, powerful decisions on the eve of her land’s potential downfall. To save her people and her land, what will she give up, and to whom?
Rosemary Edghill tells another story of her urban witch, Bast, in “Advice From A Young Witch To An Old Priestess,” recounting the earlier days of Bast’s time in New York and her introduction to Wiccan politics and ways. Alexander B. Potter’s “Opening Her Door” looks closely at a young man with a calling unusual for his gender. Called by the Goddess to serve her, will he have the strength to go against his family’s wishes, and his culture’s expectations?
Stories by Fiona Patton, Russell Davis, Jane Lindskold, and Michelle West complete this volume. All in all, I found Maiden, Matron, Crone fairly satisfying, even if some of the stories seemed to lose track of the theme (or at least not address it too specifically). Huff’s story is definitely one of the strongest of an eclectic mix. Rosemary Edghill’s story, like all of her Bast stories, barely skirts upon fantasy at all, leaving the supernatural aspects and their implications to the reader. However, I’d have to say that on the whole, there’s enough here to satisfy the theme, and some very good stories by top-notch authors make this worth checking out.

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Fantasy: The Best of 2004, edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan (iBooks, 2005)
Science Fiction: The Best of 2004, edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan (iBooks, 2005)
That’s right, it’s that time of the year already, and the first of the “Best of” collections have started appearing on the shelves. I really must commend Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan for managing to get this pair of anthologies out so quickly. As you can imagine, they’ve sorted through the hundreds of short fiction pieces published in 2004, and present for our enjoyment the stories they consider to be the best representation of last year’s highlights. Unlike some of the collections that will appear later in the year, these particular volumes only offer about a dozen stories for each genre, which leads to some interesting, and entertaining choices.
The Fantasy volume starts off with Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire,” a neo-Gothic tale which definitely wins out for longest title. Michael Swanwick, who appears quite regularly in these sorts of collections, is here as well with “The Word That Sings the Scythe.” It’s likewise no surprise to see Peter Beagle with “Quarry,” Gene Wolfe with “The Little Stranger,” or Robert Silverberg’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The prolific Jay Lake is represented by “The Angel’s Daughter,” while World Fantasy Award winner Jeffrey Ford is in here with “The Annals of the Eelin-Ok.”
To finish things off are Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag,” Elizabeth Lynn’s “The Silver Dragon,” Tim Powers’ “Pat Moore,” and Deborah Roggie’s “The Enchanted Trousseau.”
For those keeping score at home, that lineup includes two stories from F&SF, two from The Faery Reel (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling), and three from Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy (edited by Al Sarrantonio.) Weighing in at one representative each are Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Realms of Fantasy, and Gothic! It’s always interesting to see where the best stories of any given year are drawn from, and I’m certainly not surprised to see Flights or Faery Reel included here.
Over in the Science Fiction volume, Gene Wolfe makes a second appearance wirh “The Lost Pilgrim,” while Joe Haldeman’s “Memento Mori,” James Patrick Kelly’s “The Best Christmas Ever,” Stephen Baxter’s “PeriAndry’s Quest,” and “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe join it. Also to be found are “Three Days in a Border Town” by Jeff VanderMeer, “My Mother Dancing” by Nancy Kress,” “Elector” by Charles Stross, “Tourists” by M. John Harrison, “All Of Us Can Almost…” by Carol Emshwiller, “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid” by Walter Jon Williams, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag.”
Originwise, SciFiction takes the lead with four stories, F&SF has two, as does Asimov’s. Analog, Amazing Stories, Polyphony 4, and The First Heroes (edited by Harry Turtledove) all have but one story each. The most unusual source, however, has to be “Tourists,” which was published on of all places. While the Fantasy volume was roughly half-and-half with regards to magazines versus books, the SF volume is split half-and-half between online sources and print.
Any “Best of…” collection is subjective. Were I to assemble a collection, it would undoubtedly be quite different. My tastes run to a different kind of story than many of those found here; if I’d placed money on which stories I’d see collected, I’d probably have to borrow cabfare for the ride home. But there’s no disputing that Haber and Strahan have assembled an excellent pair of anthologies, and you could easily use these two books to show off some of the most interesting, thoughtful, imaginative, or just plain out-there stories of 2004. Your mileage will vary, but I was quite pleased with what I found here. If you missed these stories when they first came out, now’s a good chance to catch up.

Crossroads, edited by F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan (Tor, 2004)

This is actually something of an interesting mixed bag. Crossroads was an attempt to invoke a certain sense of style and atmosphere by collecting stories and short pieces about the American South, honoring authors such as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Manly Wade Wellman, Edgar Allen Poe and others. In short, stories where the South itself was as much a character as a setting, where the regional attitudes influenced the course of the story, and where fantasy and reality crossed over one another. As a result, what you’ll find here is a fantasy anthology that’s far more “mainstream” or “literary” than many of its colleagues, containing stories quite suitable for teaching in university English classes years from now. These are imaginative, strange, and quite varied. Some stories are all-new for this volume, a number of offerings are reprints , though none older than 1988. Some of the authors are quite well-known in the fantasy field, while others are relative newcomers. What they all have in common is an identification with the South, living in that area and having an empathy for the area’s particular feel. As a result, it’s hard to truly classify this collection. You could just as easily find this book in the fantasy section as you could the fiction section, or, should your store be in the South, perhaps the regional interests section.
But what of the stories? Well, there are those that stand out. Bud Webster turns in a thoughtful piece about an old man who’s lived past his prime, yet isn’t allowed to die, in “Christus Destitutus.” It’s a sharp, moody look at faith, obligation, duty, and the heavy burdens some of us must bear. Don Webb turns in a dreamlike, multilayered quest for truths and mysteries, in “Ool Athag,” a fantasy tale that meanders through various realms as it searches for the origin of something buried in the far past.
Some stories aren’t really even fantasy at all. Michael Bishop’s “The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia,” is the account of a semi-disgraced academic seeking refuge and redemption in a small town. However, when he accidentally introduces a new kind of foreign culture into their midst, he can’t even begin to imagine the consequences that soon follow. Like a catastrophic game of dominos, it all comes tumbling down faster than he can stop it. Michael Swanwick, whose literature has cut an award-winning swath through the field, gives us a short, poignant story, more essay than fiction, entitled “The Last Geek.” In it, one man, the last of his kind, tours the country, giving talks about his old life, and demonstrating his profession one last time for shocked and amazed audiences.
In “Slippered Feet,” by Daniel Wallace, an older couple decide to go on a vacation to somewhere far away and exotic, perhaps an island. They take up language lessons at night, hoping to get a feel for their destination’s language and culture. However, when one of them becomes far more adept at understanding the new language than her husband, it drives an eerie wedge between them. Lynn Pitts’ “Tchoupitoulas Bus Stop” is a New Orleans ghost story, filled with yearning and tragedy, and coming to an uneasy, unsettling resolution.
Other authors present include Andy Duncan, Gene Wolfe, Scott Edelman, Bret Lott, Kelly Link, and Jack McDevit. All in all, a wonderfully diverse collection of Southern tales that will certainly appeal to the literary-inclined, cerebral reader. I enjoyed checking this collection out, but I will confess that a number of stories just didn’t catch me. As stories of the “Southern literary fantastic” go, however, this is an excellent anthology.

Renaissance Faire, edited by Andre Norton and Jean Rabe (DAW, 2005)

There’s nothing quite like a Renaissance Faire. The crowds, the jousting, the meat on a stick, the mangled accents, the lovely costumes and chainmail bikinis, the people playacting at a fantasized, idealized past. In this imaginative anthology, sixteen authors turn their creative attentions towards exploring what bizarre secrets and magical mysteries these Faires might hold. Now, apart from Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, I can’t think of too many fantasy books to take advantage of the potential of Renn Faires, so it’s good to see someone giving the concept some in-depth consideration, if just because it’s perfect for a wide variety of takes, both serious and less-than-serious.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s “Jewels Beyond Price” brings a little bit of Aladdin into the Faire, when a jeweler stumbles across a lamp-shaped lighter, complete with its own personal genie. Unfortunately, the lighter’s previous owner realizes his loss, and comes looking for it. It’s an interesting showdown, with royalty in attendance. Joe Haldeman’s “Diminished Chord” is somewhat morose, something of a ghostly romance with a not-so-happy ending. In “Splinter,” Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta chronicle the tale of a pickpocket who’s about to lift more than he ever expected from one man’s pocket, an encounter which will change his life forcibly. It’s a morality tale, one that quite clearly lays out the consequences for doing the right thing and the wrong thing.
Robert E. Vardeman’s “A Time For Steel” looks at the beginning of a legend which will last for centuries, whose origins lie in modern times, and whose culmination lies in the Dark Ages. In Jayge Carr’s “Wimpin’ Wady,” an overzealous member of the Fae kidnaps the wrong child, earning the desperate ire of the child’s mother. Esther Friesner turns in what might very well be the funniest piece of the book, in “Marriage a la Mordred.” When some idle playacting accidentally binds one of the Fae to a teenage girl, the immortal Lord of Faerie learns to his dismay just how temperamental, stubborn, resourceful, and incomprehensible mortal teenagers can be. The results are hilarious, as always when Friesner turns her hand to comedy.
Roberta Gellis’ “Moses’ Miracles” looks at a billionaire and his faithful curator/librarian. It seems that they’ve acquired an item of great age and tremendous mystical importance, and an otherworldly race needs their help, but will the cost be too high to bear? Of all the stories in this book, this one is the one that most deserves to be followed up upon, as there’s clearly a lot more to be explored with these characters. Stephen Sullivan’s “Renaissance Fear” is one of the darkest pieces to be found here, looking at a young couple who become caught between the present and the past, with deadly consequences. Brian Hopkins’ The Land of the Awful Shadow” is an introspective story, flashing between childhood and adulthood for a couple of friends who share a number of secrets, and a bond which unites them across the decades.
As with any themed anthology, you’ll find a wide range, both in tone and in style. For the most part, Renaissance Faire is a nice collection of satisfying stories, sticking fairly close to the theme without being overly repetitive. I was rather pleased with the overall content.