I'm doing my write-up quickly so I won't be hitting all the stories I enjoyed and won't be writing as much in depth as I have in other years.
Methodology was to gather recommendations from editors and other curators of the field (including authors whose taste I respect) where I could and start my reading with those, followed by reading things based on the author. Some other methods including year's best lists (such as Tor's) crept in as a proxy for contacting editors personally. I didn't reach everything I outlined as something I wanted to read.
“The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headley - A fierce, surreal story as two lovers give each other anniversary gifts that riff on the old traditionals even as they try to survive the apocalypse. Visceral, weird language and imagery in a way that felt very muscular to me, a little acid and angry. Sometimes these types of heavily surreal stories don't work for me, especially if I feel that the imagery is being included for being neat or pretty rather than having an underlying strength of being connected to the narrative emotionally in some way. In this case, the emotion strongly came through to me, although the story is one that it's very difficult to create a capsule comment on because of its oddness. I valued it for the way that it focused my sight and my emotion in a strong punch of words and images. It's a story that rides the reader.
“this is a ghost story” by Keffy Kehrli - This story riffs off of Kurt Cobain's suicide of which I admit I know little; luckily, friends of mine who do know about it say that the story works well when you do. I can say that it worked well for me even though I knew I was missing large swaths of references. Like Headley's story, this one has a savageness of emotion and prose that cuts through the story itself; it's a very direct, emotional shout at and with the reader. I found it raw and real. It has some of the best prose I've read this year.
Both of these stories are very strange and almost like poetry in the way that they use language and imagery to demand the reader take them on their own terms. I think that's what I was craving this year; I see a strong thread of it in the stories that I picked.
ALSO SUPER GOOD:
“The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch over the Bride of the World” by Cathrynne M. Valente - Another strange, demanding story that I can't intellectually quantify my interest in, although I do note that it's similar to M. K. Hobson's "The Hotel Astarte" which was an influence on me early in my career and which uses many of the same tropes as this one does. The title does a good job of summarizing it, though I'll add that it takes place in a magical, post-apocalyptic America, ruled over by mythologically ordained royalty and wizards. But not in a very literal way. It's odd and slippery and heavily voiced; it demanded of me, and I followed.
“Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew -- I'm rapidly learning how to spell Benjanun's last name without looking at a reference which I will have to learn to do because her work is just so interesting. All her work that I've read is very interesting, although I thought this story was her winner from the year. It's a far future about a colonial empire, in which an incarnation of an uploaded general must confront her ex-wife on behalf of her empire in order to prevent her colonized home from succeeding. Like much far future work, this story loops away from the comfortable details of the present into very strange imagery, wrapping around toward the oddness of surrealism or high fantasy. I love the many-mouthed orchid sword that the main character carries.
“Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” by Ken Schneyer -- As someone who took many years of art lessons and a very little bit of art history, I am a total sucker for stories that are told through the lens of art criticism. I thought this story did a really striking and intelligent job of it. I won't lie; the strength of the story lies in the format; it will strike people for whom it doesn't work as a gimmick story, I expect, and that's not unreasonable. But the gimmick has the strength of being one that is wholly integrated with the narrative in an intelligent way. Plus, I like it.
“Bess, the Landlord's Daughter, Goes for Drinks with the Green Girl” by Sofia Samatar -- My favorite story from GLITTER & MAYHEM, although no one else seems to have recognized that it was quite as brilliant as I recognized it to be. Well, everyone else who didn't recognize that, recognize it now! This surreal story is about two ghost girls who are known by their ghost stories and how they navigate their unlives in the wake of that endless, unavoidable trauma. I thought it discussed living with violence really intelligently as well as being beautifully written.
“The Master Conjurer” by Charlie Jane Anders - I'm just totally disarmed by Charlie Jane's whimsical, sarcastic, funny love stories, of which this is one. (The other is below.) In this one, a man casts a spell without any kickback, and everyone goes bananas over his "clean casting" even though he doesn't want or think he deserves the attention. He's strange, and the people he interacts with are strange, but they all feel like warmly observed people, rendered from a sharp perspective that regards the world with a bit of a sigh and calls us all silly and pats us on the head. "Oh, you," says the perspective, half-smiling. "Oh, us. Oh, life."
"Complicated and Stupid" by Charlie Jane Anders -- See above. This one is about a therapy that can revivify love.
OTHERS TO ENTHUSE ABOUT:
"Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster" by Chris Barzak - Retellling of twelve dancing princesses--I was particularly hung up on some of the images in the night club which were rendered in beautiful language.
"With Her Hundred Miles" by Kat Howard - Another gorgeously imagistic story, in Howard's trademark style, this one about dreams and Hades. Somewhat disturbing, very vivid and emotionally demanding, didn't quite all tie together for me.
"Abyssus Abyssum Invocat" by Genevieve Valentine - Works primarily for me as a mood piece with, again, striking imagery, particularly several embedded mermaid stories, and the image of a woman's wrist appearing and disappearing (into a jacket, into the waves).
"Ghost Days" by Ken Liu - The story of an artifact told in several timelines, from its creation in 1905 to its possession by a half-alien girl in the far future. I loved all the little character vignettes and the definitions of different times, places, and crises. I was prepared to love this even more than I did, but unfortunately, I felt that the end didn't stand up to the beginning, and that it became a bit sentimental. Still strong and interesting.
"Hear the Enemy, My Daughter" by Ken Schneyer - The mother of a young daughter comes to know the aliens that she's been warring against, and realizes their soldiers are mother/daughter teams. One thing I particularly liked about this was the unsentimental rendering of children and motherhood, which didn't deny strong ties between them, but also looked at moments of pain and weakness and tediousness.
"Call Girl" by Tang Fei - A young girl sells stories which she finds by looking at the code of the universe. On finishing the story, it felt a bit slight to me, perhaps because I didn't have any characters to hold onto and the idea itself wasn't interesting enough to me to hold the whole story. But it was interesting and unusual and I was absorbed while reading.
"Invisible Planets" by Hao Jingfang - A frame story underpins the descriptions of a number of planets and their cultures. I was, on the one hand, quite charmed by this, but on the other, felt that the structure was something I'd seen several times before, and wasn't quite sure it transcended it... but it was definitely a worthwhile and interesting read with some lingering details.
"Old, Dead Futures" by Tina Connolly - Strong mood piece about a young man kept in a perpetual state of anger so that he can manipulate the future. Very dark.
"In Metal, In Bone" by An Owomoyela - Rich, precise detail, and a certain emotional layering that I'm unused to associating with Owomoyela's work (although sie is usually brilliant, I was struck by the ways in which this built on but was different from earlier work). A man who can divine history from objects is set to identifying bones in a war zone.
"(R + D) / I = M" by E. Catherine Tobler - Martians and misunderstandings, spun out in a delicate kind of prose that made the story persuasive and absorbing.
"Cry of the Kharchal" by Vandana Singh - Unusual mix of science fiction and fantasy with some gorgeous language, imagery and moments, although I wasn't sure that I felt it hung together as a whole (largely because the pieces didn't match up for me when I tried to hold them against each other; why would X cause Y specifically? etc)
"The Insect and the Astronomer" by Kelly Barnhill - Two strange creatures search for love with each other. Heavy imagery, very weird and somewhat humorous, no real strong plot driver, very Kelly Barnhill.
"A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain" by Karin Tidbeck - I'm a bit mixed on this one as the morbid ending felt a little predictable to me, I guess? Or rather, I suppose, the striking strangeness of the beginning led me to expect that the whole piece would be as cut free from prior narrative assumptions, which it wasn't. But I liked the way it unfolded, the imagery and the mood, and how I felt when I was reading it.