readingtrance

book reviews by Althea

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016 Edition – Paula Guran, ed.

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The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016 Edition
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016 Edition by Paula Guran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**** “Sing Me Your Scars” by Damien Angelica Walters (Sing Me Your Scars, Apex)
Available for free online: http://www.apex-magazine.com/sing-me-…
A disturbing but ultimately empowering tale of a mad doctor and his amalgamate creation. I’ve read a lot of stories inspired by ‘Frankenstein,’ but this one brings a fresh twist to the genre – although it abandons the ethics-of-scientific-research concern for more of a serial killer/victim theme.
Walters is a new author to me, but after reading this, I’ll have my eye out for more by her.

**** “There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” by Seanan McGuire, Tor)
Read previously.
“Hobbyists might have many reasons for crafting their dolls. However, it’s fairly certain that you won’t have guessed at the one this narrator has. I loved the supernatural background here, was slightly less enthused by the domestic violence/office aspects of the plot. (view spoiler)I am so, so glad that years ago, when my beloved vinyl collection was stolen and sold to a local store, that the employees at the store were ever so much nicer to me about it than what the protagonist here experiences!
Overall, a very good story. Loved the Pinocchio tie-in!”

*** “The Scavenger’s Nursery” by Maria Dahvana Headley (Shimmer # 24)
An environmental allegory – and a cautionary tale. In a strange reversal of the extinction’s we’ve been causing worldwide, humanity’s garbage and trash heaps start spawning new monsters – literally.

**** “Black Dog” by Neil Gaiman (Trigger Warning, William Morrow)
Previously read.
“This story features one of the characters from ‘American Gods,’ but it works perfectly well as a stand-alone – and actually, I liked it better than the novel.
Shadow Moon is an American travelling through rural Britain. We know he’s suffering after the death of his wife, but other than that small tidbit of information, he’s laconic and keeps details about himself close to his chest.
He’s planning on just passing through one seemingly unremarkable small town, when a medical emergency keeps him in the home of the couple who run the local pub. Soon, he’s drawn into an ominous tangle of depression, old secrets and ancient magic.”

**** “1Up” by Holly Black (Press Start to Play, Vintage)
Really good YA story, interrogating the debate over whether online friendships are “real” friendships. When a funeral is announced, three teens go on a road trip to pay their respects in person to the online gaming friend whom they’d never met IRL. When they get there, it’s more than a bit uncomfortable to be around his family, who are, of course, total strangers. But something about the situation seems even weirder than expected… and clues to a mystery have been left in a video game.
The concatenation of events is totally far-fetched, but it’s a fun, engaging – and very relatable story.

**** “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” by Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld # 101)
Previously read at http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/robso…
“A young woman is kidnapped by a stranger, and what happens is the worst – but typical – thing that you might imagine would happen when a girl is stolen by a strange man. Jessica comes to, alone in the woods, disoriented, and with a strange voice speaking to her from within, telling her it is trying to repair her body. Jessica realizes that she actually died, but has now been infected or colonized by an alien organism which is in symbiosis with her.
What Jessica eventually decides to do is certainly not what I would decide to do, but considering the duress that the character has been under, it’s hard to say that it’s not a decision the character could believably have made.
A strong and thought-provoking story.”

** “Windows Underwater” by John Shirley (Innsmouth Nightmares, PS Publishing)
There have been a lot of Lovecraft tributes published lately. This is one of the sillier efforts in that direction that I’ve encountered.
We follow two Massachusetts men through their lives, from the present day into the future. When we meet them as teens, one has ambitions to get out of his stifling small town. The other (who has a tell-tale affinity for fish) is quite happy where he is.

*** “Ripper” by Angela Slatter (Horrorology, Quercus)
Slatter is one of my favorite contemporary authors, but this is in a bit of a different vein than the mythic/fairytale-and-folklore-inspired stories I’m more used to from her. As the title suggests, this is a Jack the Ripper story. In this version of the perennial mystery, a woman disguised as a man in order to work as an investigator crosses paths with the bloody serial killer. And a chance-met stranger lets her know that there may be a supernatural/occult thread running through these terrible crimes.
Technically, this is a novella, but the format and pacing make it feel like a novel; a few years back it would’ve been published on its own as a short novel, I’m sure.
This a a well-crafted tale with strong characterization, but the theme isn’t one I have a particular affinity for. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Marshall Ryan Maresca’s ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ series – the main character reminded me a lot of his Satrine Rainey.

**** “Seven Minutes in Heaven” by Nadia Bulkin (Aickman’s Heirs, Undertow)
Our narrator seems like she’s had a fairly normal girlhood… playing games, spending time with family, going to church… and, when she gets a bit older, hanging out with friends, and daring each other to do things that are a little bit scary… like going to the “ghost town” a few miles down the road. But at that ghost town, the scene of a terrible industrial accident, she discovers that her town is hiding secrets. And when she goes off to college, she learns that her girlhood wasn’t as normal as she thought it was.
Really enjoyed this one – Bulkin is a writer who’s going onto my radar.

**** “Those” by Sofia Samatar (Uncanny #3)
I wouldn’t really classify this piece as fantasy or horror, but it was a good piece of writing. Reminiscent of a more-poetic Joseph Conrad or Rudyard Kipling, the story explores the character of a young mixed-race woman against the background of the colonial Belgian Congo. I enjoyed the nuance and complexity of the writing, but wished for more of a traditional plot structure: the ending felt inconclusive to me.

**** “The Body Finder” by Kaaron Warren (Blurring the Line, Cohesion)
After his daughter is brutally murdered, a father is consumed not just by the desire for revenge, but by the need to find her body and give her death a kind of closure. Armed with a mysterious device that enables him to discover bodies, and accompanied by a former serial killer, he pursues his quest…

**** “The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (F&SF Jul-Aug)
Previously read (in a couple of different ‘best-of’ anthologies – this was a well-appreciated one, this year!)
There’s been quite a bit of work coming out lately with Lovecraftian influences updated for a modern setting. For example, Daryl Gregory’s ‘Harrison Squared.’ I think that this story would definitely share an audience with that one.
Hester has never been one of the ‘cool’ girls – she’s always been a bit peculiar, and it shows, even though the kids at school might not know that she’s part of an ancient family of seers and chroniclers, and that he life’s destiny is to document the coming of a leviathan horror which will lay waste to the land (including demolishing WalMart.) But when Hester meets a girl named Rainbow who’s a disturbing but alluring combination of trendy and sociopathic – and who may be doomed in the coming upheaval – her objective standpoint as observer and documentarian may change.

**** “Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma (Tor.com)
No, this is NOT a Harry Potter tie-in!
The exotic Eliza and her stunning partner Georgia are now the toast of the high-society art world. But in Eliza’s past – before she was ‘Eliza’ – are disturbing secrets. We follow her back to when she was just Tallulah, a little girl with a single mom, living in poverty – and discovering some very strange abilities that may slither through her family’s DNA. It’s lucky for her that she has her beloved cousin Lola to support her. But will that support be enough, when their uncle Kenny is finally released from jail, and things start to go from bad to horror-movie-level-worse?

**** “Below the Falls” by Daniel Mills (Nightscript 1, Chthonic Matter)
An intentional homage to old-fashioned ghost stories; bringing to mind (for me, at least) the tales of M.R. James. A framing device informs the reader that this tale is the diary of a young woman, found in her asylum cell after her untimely death. In its anguished pages we find a story of a cruel husband, secret sin, and an illicit child. And of course, the implication of a sad and grisly haunting.

**** “The Cripple and Starfish” by Caítlin R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #108)
I’m a fan of Kiernan’s, and although this scene featuring a vampire gathering at a ruined hotel is more of a vignette than a story, I loved it. I came away from it wanting to know more about all the characters. I’d happily read a novel – or further stories – featuring all or any of them. (Not an impossibility, considering that Kiernan often works with recurring characters.)
I’m not quite sure how the title relates to the story… or possibly to the song of the same name? But I don’t think that matters so much.

** “The Door” by Kelley Armstrong (Led Astray, Tachyon)
If Ray Bradbury had written this story, it would’ve been devastating. But it wasn’t written by Bradbury. I wish it had been – the idea seems like one he would’ve loved. Sadly, I just don’t care for Armstrong’s writing at all.
A little girl has always been told not to open the door. At first, this seems like the very normal sort of stricture that most parents place upon their young children. But gradually, we realize that this family is not in a normal situation, and that there’s a reason for the rule.

*** “Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” by Stephen Graham Jones (The Doll Collection, Tor)
Previously read.
“Weird, weird fiction. The narrator tells us there’s always been something… off… about his younger brother. And then he tells us about how his family handled the miscarriage of a much-anticipated infant, and how that incident scarred them all. And then things just keep getting stranger…”

**** “Kaiju maximus®: “So various, So Beautiful, So New” by Kai Ashante Wilson (Fantasy #59)
Previously read.
“”Kaiju,” of course, refers to the Japanese film genre featuring battles between giant monsters. (I used to work at a club where the band “Kaiju Big Battel” played frequently, so I can’t see the word without thinking of their shows…)
Here we meet a family, one of whom is a Hero, travelling out of humanity’s safe dwelling caves to do battle against a destructive alien monster.
The story is intercut with a couple of different kinds of texts. Some are notes from a geneticist, talking about the project to change some humans into “heroes” in order to fight the alien menace.
The others are like video game strategy notes, talking about how much XP and power a character can get from their companions.
The story seems to have been inspired by the idea of “lending strength” to someone, and how one might “take strength” from their family bonds – here the idea is taken quite literally.
I liked the story, and thought it got quite a lot of complex and fascinating ideas into a short amount of space. However, I wished that the main narrative had been clear enough to dispense with the need for the ‘genetics notes,’ and I also thought that the ‘video game notes’ weakened the story rather than strengthening it. ”

*** “Hairwork” by Gemma Files (She Walks in Shadows, Innsmouth Free Press)
A long-lived witch uses sorcery to curse and destroy anyone even slightly associated by blood with those who enslaved her and her family in the antebellum South. The Lovecraft reference seemed unnecessarily jammed in to the story. OK, but not particularly memorable.

***** “The Glad Hosts” by Rebecca Campbell (Lackington’s #7)
Great science fiction story, showing the perspective of a settler on an alien planet who’s been infected by a little-known parasite endemic to her new home. Those around her are horrified and fearful, but biological imperatives assure that she cannot feel what they do. She can only feel… love.
If I’d read this on time, it would’ve been a contender for my Hugo nominees list.

**** “The Absence of Words” by Swapna Kishore (Mythic Delirium #1.3)
A family relationships story – with a weird twist. It’s time to decide what to do with grandma. She’s getting up there in age, needs assistance – and oh yes, hasn’t spoken for the last fifteen years. But not only that – when her daughter or granddaughter approaches her, they can’t speak either. It’s like the elderly woman is encased in a slowly-increasing sound-dampening field. Of course, the situation is used as a metaphor for interpersonal conflicts and grudges – but it’s written very well. I hope to read more by this author.

** “Mary, Mary” by Kirstyn McDermott (Cranky Ladies of History, Fablecroft)
I did NOT like it. I suppose I’ll add a star because I appreciate the selection of topic, and the writing was fine, but the treatment of the subject annoyed me to no end. The story is basically a summary biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, with a fantastical conceit that Wollstonecraft was followed and ‘advised’ throughout her life by a ghostly Grey Lady. The basic plot points match the facts of Wollstonecraft’s life, but unfortunately the story makes her out to be a petty, jealous, easily led and duped individual, and rather weak into the bargain. I don’t think that the facts indicate that she really was anything of the sort, and I don’t really understand why the author would choose to portray her in that light.

**** “Cassandra” by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld # 102)
I think it’s a first! This a a superhero story – featuring Superman, no less! – that I actually really, really liked! I’m generally just not a fan of the genre – but this is Ken Liu, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
This is from the perspective of a mass (AND serial-) murdering super villain. Superman has been doing his best to thwart her killings, but so far she’s managed to elude ‘justice.’ And here, we get to hear her side of the story – her origin tale, if you will. She has a reason for what she’s been doing, and it’s not malice.
Liu gives a thoughtful exploration of ethical principles a real emotional kick.

***** “A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L. Hannett (The Dark #8)
This is everything a mermaid story ought to be: beautiful, disturbing, heartbreaking.
An isolated fishing community depends on the young women who ‘man’ the ships and bring back the catch. They also, sometimes, bring back babies – and no one talks about where they come from. But when Billy’s girl brings back a baby, ten months after he last saw her, he just can’t bring himself to act like it’s really his child…
Hannett is a new author to me, and one I’ll be keeping an eye out for.

*** “Street of the Dead House” by Robert Lopresti (nEvermore, EDGE)
A retelling of Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” told from the point of view of the ape. The end result (due to the extra explanatory material added by this author) feels rather similar to Daniel Keyes’ ‘Flowers for Algernon.’

*** “The Greyness” by Kathryn Ptacek (Expiration Date, EDGE)
After her husband’s untimely death, a woman is understandably half-mad with grief. But soon she realizes that something odd is happening. When she shakes people’s hands (as one is wont to do at a funeral), she is having strange visions. And people are starting to die. Is she simply viewing – or causing – these tragedies? What would you do if you found yourself in this situation? Whatever your answer, I’m betting it’s probably not quite the same as this character’s reaction.

*** “The Devil Under the Maison Blue” by Michael Wehunt (The Dark #10)
A neighbor’s ghost, and the story he tells, helps a girl make a decision about what to do about the abuse she’s suffering at the hands of her own father.

*****“The Lily and the Horn” by Catherynne M. Valente (Fantasy #59)
Previously read. “In a fairytale-like future, wars were eschewed as pointless, wasteful exercises of violence. Battlefields merely resulted in mass death – why not instead settle conflicts by a contest of poison?
Thus began the tradition of wars fought at a dinner table. Of course, human nature being what it is, it wasn’t long before these toxic dinners no longer involved merely two rival leaders. Soon, the leaders sent proxies in their stead. Then, many proxies. So – mass death of the innocent is still bound to occur, but some things have changed. Since poison has always been the traditional realm of women, he now have schools where some women train to be well versed in the uses of exotic poisons – and others who become experts in ways of combating poison’s effects and knowing the antidotes.
In this world, Valente tells us a tragic love story.
March 2016: Nominated for Hugo.
Lush and lyrical language encases fascinating and well-developed ideas – and a plot which is moving and lovely in itself. Loved it.

**** “Snow” by Dale Bailey (Nightmare, June 2015)
You know the scenario: a small party, snowed in and isolated during what looks to be a global pandemic. But a serious injury sparks a desperate mission to find medical supplies, and things go from bad to worse. Tense and tightly plotted.

***** “Corpsemouth” by John Langan (The Monstrous, Tachyon)
This was one of my Hugo nominees, and although it wasn’t a finalist, I’m glad to see it getting some well-deserved recognition!
“After the death of his father, a young man goes to Scotland to reconnect with his extended family, and to face, inside himself, some of his guilts and resentments. However, that isn’t all he’ll end up facing. This story meshes contemporary concerns with ancient legends and mysteries of Britain in a tale slightly reminiscent of Alan Garner. Loved it. ”

Many thanks to Prime Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this very strong collection. As always, the source of the book has no bearing on my opinions.

View all my reviews

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