Reviewed in the United States on September 12, 2017
There’s a lot of innovative work being done in fantasy today, works that break the mold and think far outside the box, injecting wondrous new worlds and insightful ideas into the genre. The New Voices of Fantasy collects stories by nineteen up-and-coming authors, the writers on the cutting-edge of fantasy today and verging on shaping its future. Peter S. Beagle’s previous anthology, The Secret History of Fantasy (also Tachyon, 2010), sought out stories that transcended or rejected all those cliched old tropes and contrivances; New Voices looks to continue the theme, only from the perspective of up-and-comers.
Many of these stories do not have the kind of plot that comes to mind when you think of “fantasy,” but they are quintessential fantasy nonetheless. “Tornado’s Siren” is a beautiful and surreal tale of a woman stalked by the weather, as she realizes that a certain cloud formation has a crush on her. “The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” follows a hive of imperialist wasps that enslaves a local bee hive, creating a power struggle when some of the bees mutate, their monarchical hive-mind replaced with anarcho-communistic beliefs. “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is a love story between skyscrapers that shamble off their foundations and stroll across 1930s New York.
Other tales subvert established tropes, offering new looks at concepts we’ve already seen before. Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth” flips the standard vampire story in that its vampire fell in love with his hunter; a decade later, they’ve settled into a normal married life and are trying to raise their seven-year-old son. The vampire’s resolve is tested when he’s tempted by his son’s pretty teacher, and with the lure of her blood he starts slipping back into his monstrous ways. “Here Be Dragons” takes a look at the dragon-slayer theme, where two men who once scammed villages by slaying imaginary dragons find themselves out of a job and forced to adapt to domestic life. The excellent “Jackalope Wives” is a haunting but beautiful take on the selkie story, where a lustful young man tries to steal a jackalope woman’s skin but screws up, leaving her trapped halfway between mortal and magic.
Even though they were not my favorites in the collection, I’m drawn to Wise’s “Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” and Sachs’ “The Philosophers” because those stories have such non-conventional formats. Wise’s is indeed a guide for newcomer witches, an overview of the trials and tribulations that must be overcome to find and bond a magical house. Sachs’ entry is actually a trio of stories, each one super short but not quite in flash fiction territory. All three have similar themes, dealing with father-son dynamics and the philosophy of becoming something—becoming your destiny, becoming your expectations, becoming your father. I did think it was trying too hard to be profound, but the mini-story style and sense of humor made it stand out.
Some of the best stories are saved for near the end of the collection. Amal El-Mohtar’s “Wing” is an ephemeral story of soul-mates and finding the person who truly understands you, when a girl with a book around her neck meets the boy who may be the only one to ever read it. Mohtar just won a Hugo this year, and I can see why: her writing here is beautiful, rich in imagery and atmosphere and (most importantly) feeling. “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado deals with another type of love, where a woman with a strange ribbon around her neck gives everything to her husband and then her child, but her husband’s fascination with her ribbon may push too far and unravel dark secrets. It’s a brilliant take on an old urban-legend, a savvy and beautiful horror story, one with a heavy feminist slant ripe for interpretation along with a heavy dose of metafictional elements and explicit sexually-charged imagery. Both of these are powerful stories, two of my favorites by a long shot.
The quality of the stories in New Voices of Fantasy is undeniably high; if these are fantasy’s future influences, then the genre is in more than capable hands. These stories present fantasy that fulfills the genre’s promise and ambition, combining wondrous ideas, ingenious high concepts, and quality prose. Most of all, I’m glad that the stories are presented as “fantasy” instead of taking these wide-ranging, diverse, and creative stories and slapping the “new weird” label on them. Overall it’s a collection I ended up greatly enjoying and would give it a hearty recommendation, not surprising given the pedigree of its authors and editors. I’ve added several promising authors to my to-read list based on their stories here, and I look forward to reading them.