edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt

MirrorDanse Books (2007)

ISBN: 9780975773628

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in May 2008)

“Best” anthologies are always tricky, because there’s so much room to argue about the choices; about the authors, about the stories, about the publication dates… Here Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt have put together a high quality anthology with less room for argument than usual. The collection covers the year 2006, and includes stories by some of the best – and best known – Australian speculative fiction writers who are currently publishing.

The anthology opens with a short introduction by the editors which provides a very brief overview of Australian speculative fiction in 2006. It may remind you of some things you meant to read and didn’t get around to; it may tantalise you with mention of something you didn’t know about before. It’s a good quick overview of what was published in 2006.

This is an exceptional anthology, and although I didn’t love every story in it, that’s a reflection of the diversity of stories in it – one or two didn’t suit my personal tastes. There are no dud stories, in the sense of poorly-written or boring stories. I felt that almost all of the authors here have published better stories, but again that’s partly a matter of taste – the stories contained here are universally well-written and crafted, and are generally original, lively and entertaining.

One of my favourite stories was “Terning Tha Weel” by Kim Westwood. It’s set in a Canberra that’s been devastated by the release of a biological weapon. Part of the pleasure for me, as a Canberra resident, came from recognising various city landmarks and areas. However, readers unfamiliar with the area are still likely to enjoy this story of love and survival. Westwood writes well and enjoyably, and makes her points indirectly but clearly.

Another favourite was Alistair Ong’s “The Legend of Greatmother June”. This was a more traditionally styled story than Westwood’s; its language and approach is easy to slip into. One of the things that appealed to me about it was that Ong didn’t feel the need to explain absolutely everything; like life, some things are left to our interpretation.

If there is a theme to this anthology, other than “best”, it would seem to be stories about people faced with a fantastic situation and finding something they hadn’t known was in themselves in response. Not all of these stories are happy, or uplifting, but all of them cast some light on how people deal with unexpected situations – not always admirably.

Most stories too, have adopted a fairly straightforward approach. Generally, I found these stories to be pleasant and easy reads, in the sense that the prose flowed well, and the stories were well-structured and internally consistent. The subject matter wasn’t always so pleasant, and ranged from enjoyable to challenging to rather unpleasant – some of these stories bordered on horror. Not horror in the sense of blood and gore (although there is some of that), but in the purer approach of characters or plots which send a genuine chill down the reader’s back. Kaaron Warren’s “Dead Sea Fruit” was positively revolting in places – intentionally so, as she explores an unexpected cause of anorexia. “La Profonde” by Terry Dowling introduces us briefly to a character you really wouldn’t want to cross.

The story I enjoyed least in the anthology was “The Cup of Nestor” by Simon Brown. This didn’t say anything new, and to me it seemed unnecessarily long. I simply found it far too reminiscent of many other stories I’ve read in the past.

The anthology also includes a list of other anthologies and collections published during the year, and of publications which include short fiction. These lists are useful for fans of short fiction who want to read more, or make sure that they see as much as possible of what is published in Australia on an ongoing basis. The editors have also included a Recommended Reading list, which presumably reflects to some extent the short-list of stories considered for this anthology. It includes authors less well-known than those in Year’s Best…, as well as some equally well-known, and stories from a wide range of sources. Those I’m familiar with from this list suggest that the list would form an exceptional reference for those wanting to track down a wider range of excellent stories published in 2006. Helpfully, a number of them appeared in the same publications, allowing you to read several of them in one place. Not all the publications areAustralian, though, so some may be a challenge to track down now.

This anthology is well worth the price for speculative fiction fans. It’s a high quality volume which collects a lot of good stories in one place and makes it very clear how strong Australian authors are – this anthology would stand up against the majority of anthologies published anywhere. Highly recommended for fans of short fiction.