As always, I close out the year of book-awards-declaiming with the World Fantasy Awards. It started out a few years ago as a way to open up my reading horizons , and has continued because, well, I enjoy them. There’s considerable overlap with the other awards, but that’s alright, it gives me an opportunity to reconsider them in a slightly different context.
The World Fantasy Awards are also, this year, without much drama. I mean, I’m sure there’s some hurt feelings or long-simmering resentments or whatever, but the controversy over the form of the award itself pretty much stopped causing problems last year, so this year there’s nothing left for it but to be a completely respectable, absolutely normal awards-granting ceremony.
Which means this can be a completely respectable, absolutely normal awards-granting-writing-about, complete with absolutely infallible information about who deserves what award.
It’s worth noting that the Lifetime Achievement awards are going to Charles de Lint, who is one of the guys who helped invent urban fantasy (and whose work I haven’t read as much of as I’d like to), and Elizabeth Wollheim, the head of DAW books, who do consistently excellent work as publishers. Additionally worth noting is that the World Fantasy Awards always includes special awards for various and sundry services to the field of world fantasy, and I always skip those also, because I do not have the knowledge base to evaluate who deserves them.
Artist categories are always tricky ones for me to cover, but at least in terms of the World Fantasy Awards I’m able to more-or-less capably evaluate whether its effective in terms of its milieu , but I still don’t have what you’d call a reasonable critical eye in this regard.
That said, this should be pretty quick, since I don’t know enough to have much to say. Omar Rayyad is good, but draws in what I think of as “Basic Fairy Tale Modern” – even if you aren’t familiar with Rayyad’s work itself, you’re familiar with the idea – soft lines, pastels, familiar forms. It’s well done, but it’s not really jumping out at me as particularly original.
Similarly, Gregory Manchess is an impressive formalist , but it doesn’t really stick out for me for anything beyond his mechanical ability. Fiona Staples is in a similar boat, with art that is well-rendered, but without a lot that makes it jump out . It is with these artist that I am the most willing to cede that my lack of background in analyzing their form leads to what could be the least on-base call: I tend to find myself more impressed by things that are weirder and more visually distinctive, which could lead me to novelty-based decisions more than I would be if I knew what I was talking about.
Victo Ngai was my favorite last year, and continues to do excellent illustration work in some unlikely places (i.e. advertising), which continues to be impressive, but I was more struck by Rima Staines weird-ass fantasy troll people. I found it the most compelling on its own, which means I’m comfortable declaring her the rightful winner here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rima Staines
The single-author collections category (this one) is one of the categories I look forward the most to reading through – it takes a lot to get a single-author collection published, and it usuall points to someone doing a great deal of highly-worthwhile work, and it tends to have the highest hit rate of any of the categories I read for any of the book awards that I cover here.
Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is tremendous, and is certainly the most-nominated collection of, I’m comfortable saying, any author collection all year . I wrote about it more extensively when I wrote about the Shirley Jackson Awards, but in the interest of situating it here I will note that “Especially Heinous” is still one of the absolute best things under consideration here by anyone under any circumstances. “Eight Bites” and “The Resident” remain incredible pieces of well-wrought prose that get the reader deep into a very specific frame of mind, and “Inventory” is a wonderfully innovative piece of post-apocalypse fiction. It’s a fantastic contender, and worth reading by just about anyone
Tim Powers’s Down and Out in Purgatory is a bit more of a mixed-bag. Powers is a veteran fantasist, and any collection of his best work is going to be a sure bet, as this book definitely is. He’s reliant on a handful of plot-drivers – weird time travel features prominently, and several of the stories are about rare book collectors, for example – and makes his interests plain throughout, which can make the stories blur together a bit. The title story is rightfully the start of the show – a fantastic look at revenge, the afterlife and what it means to determine one’s course, as well as what it means to be responsible for things and the consequences of our actions, all told in an amusing, unfancy tone that suits the story. The book-opening “Salvage and Demolition” manages to be sort of the archetypal Tim Powers story, as it contains all of the repertory elements mentioned earlier – a rare book dealer travels through time to smoke cigarettes in Los Angeles, and everyone’s car figures prominently – and does so in a gripping, twisty story that ends up going to some really surprising places. “Fifty Cents” is the other great time travel story, and is even more surprising and open-ended. The trickiness of having a family and not really wanting the same things out of yourself as they do comes up in the immortal (and immoral) family of “The Way Down the Hill,” the negligent parents and attendant imaginary friend of “Night Moves” and, in the outright-funniest story in the collection, in the perhaps-doomed Thanksgiving of “Sufficient Unto the Day,” where some relatives literally just won’t leave. We could probably throw the loopy rollercoaster of “Pat Moore” into either of those two categories also, although it’s not really a time travel story or a family story . His Catholicism also comes to bear on “The Bible Repairman” (in which damnation is averted by those with the resources to hire someone to make it so by “repairing” the bible to make sure that they aren’t in conflict with it) and “Through and Through” (in which damnation is unaviodable, because if the rules exist they must exist) . All told it’s a very good, if fairly uneven collection, and probably the best thing published by Baen all year.
Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus is a collection of previously-released material specifically taking a look at characters from other works. The two best stories are both about real people – “Andersen’s Witch” recasts Hans Christian Andersen’s career as a version of his own story about the Snow Queen, and “Sister Emily’s Lightship” puts Emily Dickinson in space – but she has a way with finding a new way to tell the story of a well-known character. “Blown Away” finds the farmhand who does or does not turn into the Tin Woodsman telling an earthbound story of Dorothy, in which the circus of the book’s title makes its appearance. “Lost Girls” gives Wendy her agency back, and also gives us the very best portrayal of Captain Hook ever committed to the page. “Rabbit Hole” shows us an aged Alice, and is surprisingly moving. “The Gift of the Magicians, With Apologies to You Know Who” gives us Yolen’s excellent and under-seen sense of humor . It’s all well-done, and it was surprising in that the stories I ended up enjoying the most (“Sister Emily’s Lightship”, “Lost Girls”, “Rabbit Hole”) were about things that I had no real prior close relationship to – I like Lewis Carroll, for example, but he never really left the impression on me that he did on other people . That said, it’s not one of her more impressive collections, even if it is a lot of fun to read.
Sofia Samatar’s Tender is probably the most ambitious, or at the least the collection that covers the most ground, of the ones nominated here. Her stories have a wide range of voices and tones, and include a great many subjects. The leadoff story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers” contains probably the best paragraph in contention, which I won’t include here because it also spoils the ending (it’s at the end of the story, and is the thesis statement of the story, and kind of of the collection in general). Youth and memory figure into “How to Get Back to the Forest,” about the kinds of things that happen at camp, in “Honey,” where the idea of parents sacrifice for the future of their children is literalized, and in which the fair folk are as effectively made terrifying as they were in anything I’ve read in a long time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Walkdog” are both highly experimental stories about friendship and being a young person, and while they are not very much like each other, they are similar in their treatment of the intersection of the real world and the world of stories. Actually, “Fallow,” the longest and most emotionally-engaged piece here is similarly about that same sort of loss, and takes place on a spaceship populated by a very particular-minded set of people . “A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals” is a pretty effective look at people that dream of being robots, and robots that dream of being people. “Request for Extension on the Clarity,” similarly, is also about the desire to forget about being a human being, and the desire to move forward into the future by severing the past entirely. “Tender,” by contrast looks at a woman who believes that her loss is the result of her dishonesty, and who ends up also in a debatable state of human-ness. The whole collection is well-rendered, and often emotionally effective, and it misses out on being the rightful winner because of the last collection here.
Ellen Klages’s Wicked Wonders is, if nothing else, pretty well completely unlike anything else. It’s far ranging and effective in a bunch of different ways, from the not-at-all-supernatural “Woodsmoke” – a long story about young love and finding oneself – to the realist science fiction of “Goodnight Moons,” which turns out to be about the first person raised on Mars, to the creeping horror of “Singing on a Star,” where there’s a song that literally transports the listener, and it may not be entirely good, to the outright mythological fantasy of “Friday Night at St Cecilia’s,” in which an ancient folk evil must be defeated through the playing of games. There’s also some more deeply-moving stories of young girls’ friendship both on a generation ship (in “Amicae Aeternum”) and in the world where you try to do all the magic you can to prevent tragedy (“Gone to the Library”). Early attempts at doing magic also grace “The Education of a Witch,” which the story notes reveal was as autobiographical as Klages could make it. She really wins the day here, however, by not sacrificing her world or her storytelling ability to be tremendously, uproariously funny. “Sponda the Suet Girl” is a long-ish story about alchemy and getting one up on con men. “Household Management” is a wicked screamer with an equally-wicked punchline. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” is about not actually sharing a brownie. And then, of course, there’s the formerly-viral, all-time-classic “The Scary Ham”, which is not a work of genre fiction by dint of it not being at all fictional, and at the same time being so wonderfully, life-affirmingly hilarious that it absolutely couldn’t be anything but the last story in such a collection.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders
Unlike the collection category, the anthology category can be a lot more slipshod. This year, interestingly, it also featured a couple of different sort of “Best-Of” scenarios and, perhaps predictably, they were better than the theme-arranged collections. Nevertheless, it all had something to recommend it, for the most part.
The Djinn Falls in Love was covered back in the Shirley Jackson awards, and is still probably the one of these that I like the least. Saad Z. Hossain’s “Bring Your Own Spoon” is still inspiring and amusing, Catherina Farris King’s “The Queen of Sheba” is still a well-constructed, satisfying story, and if KJ Parker’s “Message in a Bottle” is the least of the KJ Parker stories that were under consideration here, well, it’s still a pretty good one. The price of admission is more than paid by Maria Dahvana Headley’s peerless “Black Powder,” which is truly first-rate.
Black Feathers: Avian Tales was also covered at Shirley Jackson time, and while I understand why it’s here, I wasn’t as into that one as I was into other collections either. Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” would make a nice opening act for Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (see below). Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is also about crows, and manages to make a deeply affecting, deeply sympathetic portrait of its lead character. It may be the story from this collection that has stuck with me the most emotionally. As a piece of craftsmanship, though, I can’t let this pass without praising Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace”, which is just a masterful work of construction and execution. All told, this one had more worthwhile bits than The Djinn Falls in Love, but it still isn’t quite on the same level as the better collections here.
The Book of Swords is one of the last books edited (well, co-edited) by Gardner Dozois, and that’s kind of sad, since it isn’t actually very satisfying. The essay at the beginning situating Sword and Sorcery as a genre is fantastic , but most of the stories kind of fall short of being the same level of quality. KJ Parker’s “The Best Man Wins” is a good, if standard-issue Parker-style story about a craftsman and the things that compel one to ambition, with a pretty satisfying ending. Robin Hobb’s “Her Father’s Sword” distinguishes itself by its ambiguity – there are a lot of mysteries about the vagaries of the world that are raised and never really answered . Rich Larson’s “The Colgrid Conundrum” is a con-man story, and I’m a genuine actual sucker for those. Almost as big a sucker as I am for Beowulf fan fiction, which is what CJ Cherryh’s “Hrunting” is. Both are effective, but that about wraps it up for the highlights in this collection. It’s probably something you’d enjoy more if you have any real affection for sword & sorcery as a genre. Obviously I do not.
The Best of Subterranean definitely benefits from both it status as a best-of , as well as from its prodigious length. It loses some steam by being not particularly well-selected – it seems, specifically, like some things were included to include the names of the authors rather than any particular actual merit . That’s not to say that all of the big names were a bust – Joe Hill’s “Last Breath” is a particularly terrifying work about a very specific collector and George R.R. Martin’s script for an unproduced Twilight Zone episode titled “The Toys of Caliban” would have been a fantastic episode, had it been made. A much better showing is made by the standard-issue (if indeed there is such thing) anthology-titans that may not be as well-known outside of sff circles. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is about posthumanism, and the purpose of language, and a missionary, but mostly is about how memory and the way that we keep memories informs the way that we related to each other. Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” is similarly about the way that the encroachment of technology shapes our interactions with each other, and also about our relationship with the past and how it shifts as the way that we related to each other changes. It’s also about sarcophagi. James P. Blaylock playful literalizes the sort of solipsistic sense of being cursed that affects anyone who takes the weather personally in “The Dry Spell.” KJ Parker’s huge, affecting “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” again concerns the price of mastering a skill, and the relationship between economic realities and our emotional centers. It’s probably the best of the stories that were considered in anthologies here (there are three of them). Catherynne Valente recasts folkloric coyote stories as a high school melodrama in “White Lines on a Green Field,” and in so doing makes them somewhat scarier. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Younger Women” takes a rather biting look at the penchant for immortals to take up with younger women, and comes to some conclusions about neurocranial development in the process. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” finds Rachel Swirksy cataloging the end of the world, one person at a time. 2018-sff-mvp Maria Dahvana Headley contributes “Game,” about a hunter who was not honest, even with himself. Michael Marshall Smith’s funny “The Seventeenth Kind” tells the story of a television snake-oil salesman whose career goes quite alarmingly sideways. Kat Howard’s “The Least of the Deathly Arts” deals with an actual encounter with death and, perhaps most impressively, contains an actual sestina. Hal Duncan’s “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” reimagines both werewolves and vampires, taking a marked distaste to the latter, and is perhaps the most outright entertaining story in the collection. Tim Pratt’s “Troublesolving” is the best book about time travel, interior designers and a really twisty espionage plot that I’ve read all year. Possibly ever, given the relative lack of interior designers in time travel stories. Kelly Armstrong’s “The Screams of Dragons” is a dark attempt to look at what would happen to children who actually exhibited reality-altering magical powers. If this seems less like a sort of thematic look at the book and more just a list of what the best stories in the book were , that’s also sort of the trick: the book doesn’t flow well, and there are many more stories. It is likely that more of them would appeal to any given writer, but with little unity beyond “these all were published in the same magazine”, it’s not an easy book to get through. Perhaps it would be good to skip around in. In any event, its lack of unity is the main thing that keeps it out of the top spot here
I feel like the clear winner here is the Peter S. Beagle edited New Voices in Fantasy. There’s a part of me that wants to declare it – a sort of greatest-hits survey of the best work being done in out-there fantasy – unsportsmanlike, but it really is a remarkably effective collection of stories. Several of the stories have been nominated for awards that are here considered, including Alyssa Wong’s terrifying “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” about a terrible secret society, Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives,” which, as the story of a skin-changing woman, makes an excellent companion to the also-here Sofia Samatar story “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (see above), Carmen Maria Machado’s beautiful retelling of “The Green Ribbon,” “The Husband Stitch” and Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Djinn,” a genie story that actually works . It also contains awards standbys. Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren” is, as the title would suggest, about the love story between a woman and a tornado. Sarah Pinsker’s “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” is about people who jump into a pond and mostly crawl back out again. Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is about the courtship of city buildings. It also includes some things that were utterly new to me. Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss With Teeth” is a surprisingly sweet story about a vampire who has something of a minor midlife crisis. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” is another of the stories in the book that can, surprisingly, be taken more-or-less at its title, and is about the memory of things, and the nature of ghosts. Chris Tarry’s “Here Be Dragons” is another excellent con-man story , it’s also about dragons, the allure of the unknown, and how far responsibility goes in the face of temptation. The whole thing passes by very quickly and is expertly arranged, and every story is at least worthwhile, even if I didn’t single them out here. If you’re only going to jump into one of these, this would be the one.
RIGHTFUL WINNER: The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman
Best Short Fiction
The set of short stories that came up this year is better than I can remember it being for some years – each of these is very good, and even if they didn’t all stick with me, they all have their merits.
Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly-Steady Hand” was also nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo this year, and what I said about it in both of those write-ups still stands: it’s a good piece of tone work. Stitched together out of wisps of description and with a really powerful narrative voice, it really does slip past like someone giving you a tour of a very strange place. It didn’t make a huge impact when I read it, but I find that months later there are parts of it that still very much stick with me, so perhaps I’ll get more out of it upon re-reading it.
Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” was not only nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo this year, but it won both of them. I can’t argue too strenuously against this – it’s a fantastic, haunting piece of writing that manages to be absurd and upsetting in equal measure. But I still don’t think it’s the best one here.
Natalia Theoridou’s “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” is the story of a plague, and is indeed arranged as a fairy tale, an explanation of something that is beyond human comprehension. It’s affecting, and it’s somewhat more “literary” than most of the other stories in this category. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing if it won, but it’s also kind of forgettable, and while the broad strokes of the story itself stick around, it doesn’t have a lot of staying power.
But there is a better story. Caroline Yoachim’s is an allegorical parable for individual difference, as told via a world of clockwork denizens who have to go through life with wound springs. It’s beautiful and said and unfair, and I’ve read it over and over again since it came out, just for the sheer joy of the words. Even without being a sturdy, useful parable it would still be an impeccable piece of craftsmanship, and by being successful in every vector in which a short story can be successful, it is a singular achievement and deserves the award.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Caroline Yoachim, “Carnival Nine”
Best Long Fiction
The World Fantasy Awards saw an unusually strong set of nominees in almost every field this year, and the novella category was a surprise because I had less misgivings about it than I usually do . Only one of these stories is really the wrong length , and they’re all pretty good.
Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior was also nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, and is still suitably scary, and still deserves full marks for its fantastic ending. Without that to recommend it, it’s merely a pretty-good ghost story that really deserves more space. As it is, it squeaks into “excellent” territory at the end.
JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven is enough to convince me to give more silkpunk a try , and is even better when taken into consideration alongside The Red Threads of Fortune. It’s got a fantastic lead character, and not only justifies its length, but is actually made all the better for it. It’s very good, although there are aspects of it that didn’t stick with me very well, and it really does need the other bit to feel like a complete story.
Simon Avery’s The Teardrop Method is about a psychic musician, and might actually be the weakest of the stories here – there’s rather too much middle, and it takes forever to actually get going. The last third or so of it is pretty strong, but even then it just sort of dissipates into the memory, and it’s hard to recall what I liked or didn’t like about it specifically .
Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria wins the award for being the most fun to read. It is definitely one of the most fun-to-read things I read all year, in fact, for this or any other reason. I would happily have spent many hundreds more pages in the head of Claudio Bianchi, with this farm, his sheep, and (especially) his cats. It’s got a unicorn in it, as perhaps we should come to expect from Peter S. Beagle, and it’s funny, light and moves very quickly without skimping on time spent with our protagonist in his idyllic setting. Its only real downfall here is that the interpersonal stuff isn’t as rewarding as the rest of it, and the end just…happens, very quickly and seemingly without the care for plot as the rest of the book.
Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange was very nearly my pick to win the Nebula , and it’s my pick here. It’s an extremely rewarding story about magic and San Francisco, and love and revenge, and also witches and dancing. It was so good, in fact, that I made audible noises of delight when a couple of the characters popped back up in Wicked Wonders (see above). There’s little else to say about it beyond: it’s great, it’s wildly inventive, and it’s tremendously satisfying.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ellen Klages, Passing Strange
If many of the other categories could not escape mention for having been marked by their relatively-high quality, then let me say here that this one was kind of disappointing. I find that fantasy, in general, lives better lives in its shorter work – there’s more space to suggest rather than explicate, and more room to focus narrowly rather than spread out into something that lends itself to being more sprawling than necessary.
The usually-steadfast Fonda Lee’s Jade City is rather indicative of the trouble here: it’s too long, and there’s too much of it. There are a lot of characters, and about half of them are worth following around the book. Furthermore, it’s the first book in a series, so an enormous amount of the time is spent setting things up. While there are stories in there that are as good as Lee usually is , a lot of it is soggy, and it could use about two fewer pov characters.
S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass has a similar set of problems , but fares a little better. It doesn’t have as many point of view characters, for starters. It also squeezes its mythology in a bit better. Nevertheless, it is still sprawling and takes a long time for the story to settle into itself. While I would recommend it generally, it would come with some heavy qualifications. Nahri’s attempts to learn to practice medicine in Daevabad, on the other hand, is something I would read a whole lot of books about, and the book really shines during the parts that aren’t related to the (ugh) love triangle or the court machinations. Maybe later books in the series can course-correct.
I also evaluated Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and the deluge of praise that it has received has turned me around a bit on it – things have been pointed out that are admirable. I still think it seems unnecessarily like The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen, and I still don’t like the narrative conceit of the characters interrupting the narrative in the weird meta-way that they do , but, again, these are things that can be worked out as the series goes, or maybe I’ll just get used to them. As it is, I’m not converted to actually liking it, but I have been shown what there is to like about it, and I don’t begrudge it its fans or its likability.
Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders should be eligible for the same special “extreme likeability” award as Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria – it’s great, and wonderful to read, and I’ll probably read it a couple more times before I’m done with it just for the sheer joy of it. It’s being turned into a tv show, which seems excessive, but if that gets more people to read it, then I’m in favor of the idea. It’s not as weighty as the other selections here, and it’s not as innovative, but it’s a tremendously fun story about a family of psychics , and very well executed.
John Crowley is an author whose work I had not, before this very moment, read very much of. He’s one of the architects of urban fantasy . Perhaps it is the case, then, that Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is atypical of his work (it’s in no way urban). Even so, the book is incredible, with the story of an immortal crow through the ages turning out to be touching and thought-provoking, and rocketing from adventure to action to melancholy to all sorts of other, secondary modes. The crow remains a crow the whole time, and if nothing else it would be an interesting thought experiment in how sapience would work for a corvid – that is to say, he always seems to think like a crow, and have a crow’s set of values . There’s also a lot of really great stuff about how language shapes the crow’s thought, and how exposure to the crow’s thoughts shapes the thoughts and language of the people around him. It’s kept out of the top spot by being slightly draggy, and also by being a bit weighed down by a not-super-necessary framing plot that never quite arrives in the same sense as the rest of the story.
Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling received scads of praise and heaps of awards, and back at the Shirley Jackson awards I declared it the rightful winner , and I’ll do so again here. It’s lean, it’s deep and it’s a fantastic piece of craftsmanship. It may also be built around a pun , which I approve of wholeheartedly.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victor Lavalle, The Changeling
And that wraps it up for the World Fantasy Awards! See everybody next May, when the literary awards start back up with the Nebulas.