3 August 2013

Review: The Best British Fantasy 2013 (Salt Publishing)

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a copy of this book.

"The Best British Fantasy 2013" is an engaging collection of 17 stories, with "fantasy" being interpreted generously - I've seen endless nitpicking discussions about the differences between fantasy, SF and other genres. If you wanted to you could argue that some of these stories are equally SF, or horror, or ghost stories, or... but really that misses the point. They all feature the fantastical. The stories are all well chosen and - while inevitably in a collection like this, different stories will appeal to different readers - I'd give most of them, individually, four or five stars: five for the collection as a whole to reflect its breadth and the overall curation which manages to produce a slight air of bleakness, menace and claustrophobia.

While it's perhaps not wise to pick out favourites, I have to say that the stories I enjoyed most were "Dermot" by Simon Bestwick in which the police strike a very nasty bargain with an informant, and "The Island of Peter Pandora" by Kim Lakin-Smith which manages to combine JM Barrie's, HG Wells and steampunk in a single carefully observed story. But there's something in each of these stories.

In "Lips and Teeth", Jon Wallace imagines a prison camp in (I think) North Korea, where a prisoner has a strange ability (and a strange, talking tool).

"The Last Osama" by Lavie Tidhar is a strange, myth laden blend of the Old West and Middle East with a quest not unlike that in "Heart of Darkness" / "Apocalypse Now".

"Armageddon Fish Pie" by Joseph D'Lacey is less about the coming destruction - we never learn for sure what is to happen - but about how one might behave and respond if such a thing threatened.

"The Complex" (EJ Swift) is very SF, telling the story of a time served convict on a distant penal colony.

 "God of the Gaps" by Carol Johnstone is rather weird - a student, mentoring a younger pupil, gets into something very dark ('Try the manacles, Miss Daisy!') while accompanying him on a school trip.

Cheryl Moore's "Corset Wings" again has steampunk overtones, imagining the plight of a young woman exploited in an alt-Victorian London, and how she might dream of escape.

"The Wheel of Fortune" by Steph Swainston also has, as its main protagonist, a woman, an apothecary (I think) in a metropolis (but a fantasy one, this time) who has made a bargain with a bunch of scoundrels, and wants out of it.

"Too Delicate for Human Form" (Cate Gardner) concerns a dead aunt and some fish.

"Imogen" by Sam Stone has a twist - it would give too much away to say any more.

Alison Littlewood's "In the Quiet and in the Dark" induces the kind of shudders one would expect from her: very creepy.

"The Scariest Place in the World" by Mark Morris really brings the fear home, as does Simon Kurt Unsworth's "Qiqirn".

In "The Third Person" by Lisa Tuttle, another Imogen unwillingly helps out a friend who wants to conduct an affair, but things get out of hand.

"Fearful Symmetry" (Tyler Keevil) reads like the opening of a series: at some unspecified point in the near future, the earth is mucked up, with "the cough" spreading and mutant animal species emerging.

Finally, Adam G Nevill's "Pig Thing" reminded me somewhat of The House on the Borderland in the way that it bleeds the fantastical into the lives of the unsuspecting.

All great stories, and a good way to sample authors you might not otherwise pick up.