"Best of" anthologies are always interesting because they usually feature such a wide array of styles, even within a genre anthology. Science fiction anthologies are prime examples; you'll very rarely get two stories that are even remotely similar. Add fantasy to the list, and you've got Jonathan Strahan's annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year edition. This is Strahan's fifth volume, and either this was just a very good year, or there was simply a lot of great stuff to choose from.
Tastes differ wildly from reader to reader. In any short story anthology, editors will make choices that just don't agree with any given reader at all. When they're longer pieces, it can make for some dreary reading, unless you decide to just skip that story. Some people are more determined than others.
This year's anthology delivers some wonderful work from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Theodora Goss, and Robert Reed (who I think could populate an annual anthology all by himself). While those are the standouts, almost every other story in the book is worth reading.
Diana Peterfreund's "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn" takes place in a world where unicorns are (as the title should make obvious) not exactly as benevolent as they are in most fantasy fiction. The story unwinds in the same universe as two of Peterfreund’s novels. A young girl named Wen happens upon a circus where a real unicorn is supposedly housed. Wen survived an encounter with another unicorn in the woods a year before, and she is understandably distressed. However, circumstances force her to end up caring for a baby unicorn all by herself.
Peterfreund's character work is amazing, and her prose really brings the young characters in this story to life. They sound just like teenagers, though Wen and her friend Yves (the only one who knows about the previous encounter) show a certain world-weariness that such a confrontation can bring. The only bad aspect about the story is that it seems like part of a novel. While the story does have a beginning, there's a lot of back story alluded to, and the ending is almost a cliffhanger. Nonetheless, I was entranced.
Another standout is Peter Watts' "The Things," a compelling retelling of that classic John Carpenter movie, only from the alien's point. I've never actually seen the movie, and I found this story very intense; fans of the movie should enjoy it even more. It throws a few curve balls, with little pieces of the alien actually controlling some of the other humans even as they all search for the monster. Truly fascinating.
Some stories didn't agree with me, but that's not to say they won't agree with other readers. "The Zeppelin Conductors' Society Annual Gentleman's Ball" by Genevieve Valentine is just too weird for my taste. "The Night Train" by Lavie Tidhar isn't as exotic, but it still didn't do much for me. Ditto Sandra McDonald's "Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots," though I did find the pathos of the two humans as well as the cowboy robots quite moving at times, especially at the end.
But that's okay. While I would not have chosen a few of these stories as "best" of the year, I can certainly attest to the quality of the writing. Any anthology is going to have that hit-or-miss quality, and one reader's hit will be another one's miss. That's the cool thing about anthologies.
I guarantee that any science fiction or fantasy fan will find enough in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year to whet the appetite and force an expedition to find more.