Monday, February 01, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3 edited by Kevin Brockmeier

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

It took me by surprise when it was originally announced that Kevin Brockmeier would be the editor for Best American Fantasy Volume 3. Not that I didn't respect Brockmeier, but it was a knee-jerk reaction to change. There was no doubt that the anthology would be different. The question was whether Brockmeier would surpass my preference for the previous editors, or whether his tastes would alienate me. Thankfully, it's the former.

What I really loved about Best American Fantasy Volume One is that it achieved two goals: it introduced me to "fantasy" that I enjoyed--which I'll tackle later on--and it showcased speculative fiction from sources that a genre-exclusive reader wouldn't ordinarily plunder (and opens up the question, is there really a divide between the "literary" and the fantastic?). This volume continues that tradition, with the selections genuinely surprising (in a good way), and is easily one of my favorite anthologies for the year.

First, there's the sources which this reprint anthology draws its material from. There are the usual suspects like Fantasy & Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy but they only take up a fourth of the table of contents and even then, the selection in my opinion could have been published in non-genre markets. "Reader's Guide" by Lisa Goldstein for example is a metafictional concept story that is, in many ways, an homage to Borges, but actually delivers something new. "The King of the Djinn" by Benjamin Rosenbaum & David Ackert, on the other hand, is gut-wrenching, politically charged, and possesses weight that we normally associate with a realist story.

The real gems, however, are the stories in publications which I normally wouldn't have given a second glance. Take for example The Oxford American which published "The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children" by Will Clarke, which essentially falls under the superhero genre but the author tells a unique narrative that conjures both one's sense of wonder and terror. There's also The Kenyon Review's "The Torturer's Wife" by Thomas Glave which, while being a difficult read, was definitely ambitious, daring, and ultimately, worked for me. Five Chapters gets praise from me as it printed both "Cardiology" by Ryan Boudinot and "The Two-Headed Girl" by Paul G. Tremblay, two very different and powerful takes on the coming-of-age motif. My favorite piece, however, is American Short Fiction's "Serials" by Katie Williams, and while there's nothing overtly fantastical at first glance, a society where serial killers are as common as the next fad requires one's suspension of disbelief.

While I'm not one to nitpick between what falls under fantasy vs. science fiction, Brockmeier in the introduction does make a distinction and justifies his choices, such as "Daltharee" by Jeffrey Ford. Not that I disagree with the editor, but it's something prospective readers need to consider (so don't expect any hard science fiction pieces here). As for the overall story selection, some story reviewers--myself included--might hand-wave a more elaborate discussion by simply labeling it as "literary" fiction but let's dig deeper into what it is about the texts that make us think so. What sticks out for me is the emotional impact the stories have, how the characters transition from one state to another and how, despite the ludicrous situations they're placed in, has a context in our own lives and the real world. Not that this is a hard and fast rule, and there are exemptions, but this, for the most part, is what I find appealing about the pieces included in the book.

The problem when you read too many "best of" anthologies is that the table of contents can be predictable. Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy Volume 3 is a genuine treat as it's not only a source of quality fiction, but a book that showcases stories that I'd have missed.

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