I’m a regular purchaser of Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror series: though they lack the uniformity of quality you’d get from a really top-drawer anthology, they always have enough good stories in them to reward the investment. I also have exceedingly good memories of those old Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies helmed by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, so I was quite excited when I found out that Guran was putting out her own Great Big Book of short fantasy fiction with the theme of myths and legends from around the world: “Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends”.
The first thing that struck me when it arrived was how beautiful the book is on the physical level: the cover illustration and design (by BreeAnn Veenstra and Claudia Noble respectively) are visually stunning and the slightly rough paperback cover feels wonderful to the touch, adding to the delight of the attractive typography etc. on the inside. This is definitely a book you will want to store face forward on your bookshelf to show it off! But are its innards as desirable as its, er, outards?
Fortunately, yes. The Contents list reads like an attendance sheet of fantasy and horror award winners from the past ten years, and there are also a fine few older contributions from long-running stars of the genre. My favourite stories from the former category are Catherynne M. Valente’s “White Lines on a Green Field” (I thought I was fed up of Coyote re-treads but the multi-sensory hedonism, effortless flow and general charm makes this one a joy to read) and “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” by Maria Dhavana Headley, a tale of adultery among magicians loosely based on the Minotaur, which feels colourful and novel but most impresses by its sheer stylistic prowess. But there are also some fine stories from less prolific and well-established writers: Anya Johanna de Niro’s “Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate” based on Norse gods, is an imaginative, romantic and dynamic depiction of a wintry city encounter between a human and a deity. It’s also entirely free of the wearisome Loki fixation that has gripped the world in the past decade, not to mention the machismo that often besets this sort of thing. Not a breastplate in sight!
Not all the stories are great, however. “Zhuyin” by John Shirley features a serpentine monster from Chinese mythology but fails to really ignite due to its pedestrian style and unoriginal Stranger Things-style military paranoia. The Neil Gaiman story “Chivalry” is definitely not here on merit, and I was disappointed by “Trickster” (by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due), a piece of Afrofuturism set in a Tanzanian village that plays host to an American in search of an alien machine that has landed locally. This promising premise is let down by the voice of the narrator, who comes across as a Venerable Tribal Elder right out of central casting, full of quaint folk wisdom doled out in studiously simple cod-poetic speech. I know nothing at all about Tanzanian culture and for all I know its villagers might really talk like that all the livelong day, but it still rang phony and stale to me. With the recent interest in Afrofuturism I am surprised Guran couldn’t get hold of a better story than this.
Having said that, the Introduction makes it clear that the editor is aware of the book’s main shortcoming, namely, the excessive focus on Western mythology. Nearly all of the older stories are Greek or Latin-based, and the anthology is heavy with the usual parade of Persephones, Jasons, muses etc.. Though I certainly can’t begrudge Guran the inclusion of Elizabeth Hand’s impressive ‘Calypso in Berlin’, a stylistically exquisite, melancholy feminist take-down of the whole muse concept. And Tanith Lee’s ‘The Gorgon’ is characteristically gorgeous and unmissable if you enjoyed the John Fowles novel The Magus.
By and large, American and European strains of legend definitely dominate the proceedings, and when other continents are allowed a look-in the quality tends to dip. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” is a piece of Asian sci-fi that wears its progressive gender politics on its sleeve but nonetheless feels worn-out and in fact positively 90s in its plodding preoccupation with mechas and the kind of wry, slightly snarky narrator voice that will be dreadfully familiar to anyone who’s even dipped a toe in the waters of fanfiction. Ken Liu’s “The Ten Suns” is an amiable but equally predictable chunk of ecological science-fiction that might have broken new ground in the 70s but doesn’t do a lot for the modern reader. Nisi Shawl’s “Wonder-Worker-of-the-World” is apparently intended to channel West African folklore, but it had too many similarities with the overdone Persephone myth to really appeal to me (though obviously it’s not Shawl’s fault that myth is overdone!)
There is one really good African-based story: Sofia Samatar’s ‘Ogres of East Africa’. It’s very sombre, but also funny and packed with interesting facts about an area of mythology most Westerners (including myself) know little about. Overall, though, if we’re talking diversity, this anthology succeeds far better at gender parity than any other type of inclusivity. And in that respect it’s admirable: not only are there huge amount of stories by women, but many of them are very good; there is also the usual post-Angela Carter commitment to subverting some of the more phallocentric passages in ancient folklore. And the variety of style, setting and tone prevents the anthology from being a monotonous reading experience. So overall it’s a thumbs-up from me.