Compiling a “best of” volume presents challenges of space limitations. Compiler David G. Hartwell’s thirty-eight selections vary widely in length, subject matter, style, and setting; he obviously chose diversity rather than adherence to a narrow definition of fantasy literature. Most of the authors whose works are included are well known.
Hartwell’s presentation is by (loosely defined) topic rather than chronological, but notes preceding each selection place the stories in context. Many of the notes refer readers to other selections. Hartwell divides the stories into five sections devoted to enchantments, wonders, creatures, worlds, and adventures. Several of the stories are translations, and a few are parts of longer works.
Hartwell makes clear in his introduction that one defining characteristic of fantasy fiction is the necessity that the reader willingly suspend disbelief. Fantasy is unlike science fiction in that events do not need to be explained—magic is allowed to exist. The least satisfactory selections in this volume are those in which magic or unexplained phenomena alone drive the story. In such selections, an unusual character appears or an event takes place with no reason given; at the story’s end, the character simply leaves or the event runs it course, with things mostly returning to normal. These stories tend to be short, leaving out character development and background. They are the most similar to children’s bedtime stories; in many cases, that is exactly what they are.
Longer selections, such as Rudy Rucker’s “Inside Out” and Jack Finney’s “The Third Level,” take familiar settings and add fantastic elements. Others create plausible new worlds, such as that of the maker of magical toys in John M. Ford’s “Green Is the Color.” Some of the stories are familiar, such as J. M. Barrie’s three linked stories about the early life of Peter Pan and Osbert Sitwell’s retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Hartwell chose some stories for novelty value, including Charles Dickens’ “Prince Bull,” about a prince with an evil godmother named Tape, who naturally was red all over and interfered with the running of government. This variety of selections does well in showing the roots of modern fantasy fiction and the many avenues of the fantastic ready for exploration by readers willing to believe.