Sunday, 29 May 2022

Emerging Horizons, edited by Allen Ashley (The British Fantasy Society)

I have a story in this anthology, so it would be unethical for me to rate and review it, but I will talk about it a bit. My history with this book goes back a long way. In September 2015 the British Fantasy Society's publishing schedule was running late, as usual, and so I proposed producing a quick anthology. No need, said the society's chair, because one is already in the works. And this is it, published in December 2021, a mere six years later! Part of the problem was a change of chairs at the society: an incoming chair apparently didn't fancy publishing it, and then the chair who took over in 2021 didn't want to have it printed either, so it crept out at last as an ebook-only publication.

Reading it was an odd experience, then, because I was on the alert for clues as to why successive chairs declined to publish a print anthology that members had been promised so long ago, and to which members had been asked to contribute, especially when the society's publishing programme has been so threadbare. (I'm writing in May 2022, and this is the only BFS publication, ebook or otherwise, to have been released since July 2021, and that one (BFS Journal #22) was the only print publication the society has released in the 17 months since December 2020. Were the stories in this terrible? Was it badly edited? (Obviously not, with the ever-conscientious Allen Ashley in charge, but I knew that certain other BFS publications had been delayed for that reason.) Was there something problematic about the book?

Now obviously I'm biased, as a contributor, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The premise of the anthology is that all the authors are at the beginning of their fiction writing careers, including me (I've written and published quite a lot of fiction, but only in my own magazines, and for the purposes of this anthology self-publishing didn't count), but the stories are, on the whole, as good as anything I've read in other BFS publications. None of the stories offered any clues as to why the anthology hasn't seen print.

The only story I could imagine anyone classing as problematic was "The Hanging Tree" by Kim Gravell. It's about hanged witches and the desire of their descendants for justice, but I suppose that, looked at from another angle, you might say it's about a woman who realises she is in love with the man strangling her to death and afterwards says to him that "love and hope are strong enough to conquer anything". But it's still an interesting story and I can't imagine anyone would think it so problematic as to compromise the anthology.

I suppose there isn't much sword and sorcery for a fantasy anthology, but "The Uninvited" by Nicola Gifford offers some as valkyrie battle the Devil, his wyvern and an army of zombies. The sword in "The Giant's Rib" by Elliott Simpson only ever gets used against a couple of trees, rather than the half-giants the protagonists encounter. Another story that leans more towards the fantastical end of fantasy is "The Mysterious Mister Fox" by Liz Tuckwell, a fairy tale about Betsy Heysham, who can see through the wiles of a handsome soldier, while her smitten sisters cannot.

"Wayland" by Mark A. King is written in an unusual, declamatory style that I found rather appealing. It's about a magical place where children who died young get to live for a lifetime in the course of a single day. "The Return of the Zookeeper" by Robin Lupton is about a chap with psychic powers who uses them to control his troupe of performing animals; it all starts to go wrong after he wears them out and finds himself in a pool with two uncontrollable crocodiles. "Archon Joe's Creation" by Nigel Robert Wilson is another story with mythical and biblical elements, this time about the guy who kept working on what seems to be our planet after the original Creator left.

Darker stories include "Skin" by Suzy A. Kelly, about mother and daughter selkies held captive by a drunken man, and "The Conveyor of Souls" by Dolly Garland, about Maithli, who almost died and can now communicate with troubled souls to uncover the grievances still binding them to our world. In "The Darkness Inside" by Michael J. Nicholson a curtain-twitcher and her husband see something peculiar happening out on the street. A good story, but I wasn't sure about its characteristation of a "typical marriage" as one in which the husband fantasises about killing his wife! "Eyeballs" by Michael Button is about two chaps whose favourite hobby is to pick a person each to stalk for the day and then meet up to compare notes. Although it is very good – perhaps my favourite in the book – and extremely creepy, it's not a fantasy story so far as I could tell, so perhaps an odd inclusion in a fantasy anthology.

My story, "The Reader-Queens of Tranck", is wisely placed at the end. I say wisely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the goofy tone of it is completely different to the rest of the book, which tends to be very serious, whatever the subject matter. I think it's also the only story that doesn't take place on Earth. And secondly, because the premise of the story is that as typos start to creep into the text, the protagonists notice and realise that the integrity of their world is crumbling. If it had been the first story in the book, readers might have assumed from the first few typos that the book was poorly edited, but by the end of the anthology it will have earned their trust.

I submitted the story for the anthology so long ago that (a) I have since written three entire novels about the main characters and (b) I had forgotten about the deliberate typos myself. So as I reached the first one I thought, oh my god, how did I miss this? How did Allen Ashley miss this? But as it went on it I realised what was happening and it really tickled me. There were many bits that made me laugh out loud, a few very nice turns of phrase, and even some excellent advice for proofreaders. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm one of my own favourite writers: what's the point of being a writer if it's not to write exactly the stories you want to read, with the sort of jokes that really make you laugh?

Overall, one of the best BFS publications I've read in a while, even if I am biased. If more anthologies were this length, instead of rambling on for five or six hundred pages, I'd read a lot more of them.

If you like the sound of it, the way to get the anthology is by joining the British Fantasy Society. Their monthly bulletin for members includes a Dropbox link to a selection of past publications, including this one.

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