The Year’s Best Fantasy 1975. The Question Mark is Presumed.
I picked up a collection of what composed the pinnacle of fantasy short stories in 1975, the unapologetically titled The Year’s Best Fantasy. A bold claim. True or not, these pieces are, at any rate, what the editor of the anthology considered the best. The editor? Lin Carter, whose objectivity and disinterested, selfless focus on the fulfillment of his task we’ll come to appreciate in this post.
I’d like to start by sincerely noting a classy act of Carter’s right out of the gate. The book is dedicated to Hans Stefan Santesson, who had recently passed on to whatever mead hall sword-and-sorcery editors ascend to. I covered one of his books, The Mighty Swordsmen, in a previous post.
Lin Carter’s introduction notes the passing of J.R.R. Tolkein. It is an interesting snapshot of the Professor’s import and reputation in the early 1970s. Carter’s paragraph on Conan reads as rather disingenuously self-serving (take note) and his paragraph on Ballantine’s retirement of the Adult Fantasy Series carries the whiff of sour grapes. But who can blame him? I don’t. Watership Down gets Carter’s passive aggressive dismissal, for which I might blame him if I hadn’t come to the realization at some point in my first half-century that tastes differ. The estranged, herky jerky career of Weird Tales gets an update. The introduction is interesting primarily for two aspects:one, the comparative paucity (compared to today, that is) of fantasy offerings in the market; and two, the impressive number of plugs for his own disparately published work Carter manages to worm into his intro for his new editorial gig. (I’m sensing a trend.)
The Jewel of Arwen. Marion Zimmer Bradley. We start off with fanfic. Hardly promising. Carter could not have known — or so I presume — that Bradley’s offering would be a ticklish proposition here in the first quarter of the 21st Century. That is, one cannot, in 2021, write about Marion Zimmer Bradley without addressing the MZB stench in the room. I have read some MZB. Not much though. I recall reading The Mists of Avalon when I was 12. To me it seemed an odd exercise, writing an Arthurian mythos novel while excising all the exciting parts. But I was stubborn, even then, and powered through. Two or three years later I submitted one of my earliest attempts at fiction to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, receiving a nice rejection letter that mentioned something about humor being subjective. (I’ve since lost that letter, probably during one of my many moves.) I’ve read the odd story or novel of hers here and there over the years, none of which left a strong impression. The point is, while her work has never really been to my taste, the connotations her name held for me were not entirely negative. But now…well, while I’m generally of a mind to separate art from artist, MZB makes that a challenge. I’ll give it the old college try, however. The Jewel of Arwen is LOTR fan fiction. MZB is a competent mimic. The prose is…adequate. It evokes, but can’t truly match, JRR’s magisterial tone. And it feels empty. It purports to trace the prior ownership of the white gem Arwen gives to Frodo. That it does, and that’s about it. Any depth in the piece is, to my mind, illusory. So I wouldn’t say it is a poor story, but I don’t see a point to it. If this was one of the best stories of the year, then the crop must have been poor.
The Sword of Drynwyn. Lloyd Alexander. Alexander pens a Pyrdain tale. (I don’t have to explain Prrdain to this readership, do I?) There is something of the Greek tragedy about this. It is the sort of plot Shakespeare might have cribbed for one of his plays. It tells of villainy and cowardice snowballing from a single failure to recall making a promise, leading to the downfall of an otherwise honorable — perhaps — king. Good. Compact. Appropriately stylized. I recommend it. Certainly a step up.
The Temple of Abomination. Robert E. Howard (as completed by Richard L. Tierney.) A Cormac Mac Art story, one adverting to Arthurian myths. (King Arthur is a recurrent the in my reading this year. It’s like the guy is following me, it’s creepy.) Temple is a short dungeon crawl, told with Howard’s characteristic verve and gift for mayhem. Slight, but entertaining. Tierney (chronicler of Simon of Gitta) rather seamlessly brings this vignette, this seeming chapter of a larger work, to a proper semblance of an ending. REH always classes up a party.
The Double Tower. Clark Ashton Smith (with an assist from Lin Carter.) The second of two old partial works considered eligible due to later revision/completion. This is a short short, a fragment or outline fleshed out and completed by Carter. Carter again proves himself an able literary impressionist. As you might expect from CAS, this is a tale of a hubristic mage hoisting himself ironically by his own petard. Carter provides a convincing facsimile of Smith’s gorgeous, baroque style. I liked it. REH followed by CAS. Things are looking up.
Trapped in the Shadowlands. Fritz Leiber. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Enough said, but if you require more, I briefly reviewed this one here.
Black Hawk of Valharth. Lin Carter. Well, I suppose if you’re tasked to select the best stories of the year, there’s no law against tapping one of your own for the honor. Still, there is an attendant odor to the practice. That aside, is it any good? Verdict: It is…competent. Thongor’s original story, somewhat stereotypically premised upon vengeance for his slain clan. There is little originality, and not much of the color and imagination that power the better Thongor tales. And I do have questions about certain aspects of the narrative, but asking them would be overthinking a story I don’t believe Carter gave a great deal of thought to himself. Enough. I don’t care to be harsh. Even Homer nods.
Jewel Quest. Hannes Bok. Bok tries his hand at the libretto for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. This reads as a burlesque of the Oriental Tale. It is slight, the jokes rather weak and dependent on rather childish mockery of eastern languages. It wouldn’t stand a prayer of publication today. But, Philistine that I am, I found it moderately amusting. Another tale of well-deserved comeuppance.
The Emperor’s Fan. L. Sprague de Camp. Another fantasy of the Far East. But, as one might expect from de Camp, this one is a clear step above Bok’s trifle, as if de Camp said, “Hold my beer, Bok. This is how you do it.” De Camp brings his characteristic drollery and borderline misanthropy — or, at least jaded view of humanity and skepticism concerning inherent virtue. Also, as usual, his tendency to dwell on the nuts and bolts of his invented magical machinery is evident. He gave it careful thought and he wants you to see his work. Still, as it plays a role in the plot (multiple comeuppances) it hardly detracts from the fun.
Falcon’s Mate. Pat McIntosh. One of those titles with double meanings, if you care to garner them from the story. I rewrote this commentary, since my first one was unduly harsh. Who, after all, am I to be overly critical? This is a first person account of a member of a selective order of women warriors escorting an unwilling bride to her marriage, and some sort of shapeshifting magician, all of it mediated through an ill-defined, chess-like game and set in a lightly sketched out fantasy world. Maybe this is a story for you. It didn’t work for me. Still, setting aside personal preferences, was it truly one of the best of the year? I suppose Carter thought so. What do you think, reader?
The City of Madness. Charles Saunders. According to the intro to this piece, this was his first published story. Impressive, if true. One of the pleasures of devouring so many fantasy anthologies recently was the opportunity to read Saunders. The Imaro tales are the real deal. It isn’t, in fact, a tremendous surprise if this was his first published Imaro story. There are a few rough spots, and I don’t think Saunders fully stuck the landing. But this is a vibrant, visceral story that hits all the right S&S notes. (REH, CAS, Leiber, de Camp, and now Saunders. Despite my kvetching, there’s some good stuff in here.)
The Seventeen Virgins. Jack Vance. I grinned with anticipation the moment I read the name Jack Vance. And it’s a Cugel the Clever story (so I presumed from the start that the number 17 was unlikely to remain accurate by the end of the story.) Cugel makes it worth the price of admission to the vaudeville show, even if the other acts stank (which they did not, despite the MC hogging much of the spotlight.) Cugel, much like Flashman, is a bad man. And, again as with Flashman) I chuckled nigh constantly at each act of villainy. (If that makes me a bad man, so be it. At least I’m happy.)
Bonus. Note the Appendix, in which Carter lists the best original fiction books of the year, in which he manages to include not merely one, but two of his own. Is there a touch of Cugel about Carter? I will suggest that Carter took full advantage of all the perquisites of his office, unconcerned by any appearance of impropriety. He’s not shy about hawking his own wares.
And so, in honor of Carter, I’ll do the same. I’m anxious to begin marketing my new series, but as the publisher is still wrangling cover art, I’ll have to bide my time. But I do have other books. Perhaps you might fancy a post-apocalyptic/sci-fi/fantasy/action adventure. Got you covered. How about a space going sci-fi tale that serves as an homage to ERB’s John Carter books? Look here. Or, looking for a crime/S&S mashup? Right here. Tired of stand-alone novels; searching for a fantasy series? Look no further than my trio about a mercenary building his own company of sellswords. Book one remains on sale. These are all Amazon links, but, with the exception of the series, all of these should be available wherever you buy books on-line. There, I feel closer to Lin Carter already.