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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1999: Readers' Choice
by Neil Walsh

Last year was the first time we polled you, the SF Site readership, for your opinions on what you thought were the best SF & Fantasy books you read in the previous 12 months. With your votes, we compiled a list of the Top 10 Readers' Choice Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1998. The response we got from our fans and the attention the list garnered from publishers was encouraging enough that we decided to carry on the tradition -- so welcome to the second annual SF Site Reader's Choice Best Books of the Year Awards.

For the past month, we've been soliciting your votes for what you thought were the best books you read in 1999. I'd like to thank everyone who decided to send in their choices. We not only compiled an interesting list, we also had a chance to read your insightful comments. Many people felt there was something of a dearth of good books in 1999, and yet most had no trouble naming 5 to 10 titles they enjoyed enough to recommend to others. (Some people even listed "runners up" after exhausting the 10 votes they could legally cast. Thanks for trying, but I couldn't, in all fairness, count choices beyond the first 10.)

For comparison's sake, I invite you all to look at the list of The Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1999 as selected by the SF Site contributors. (Many thanks to John O'Neill for putting that article together at the last minute while I was out with the flu.) You'll see some interesting differences and similarities with this list. Most notably, I think, is the total absence of the Readers' #1 choice from the Contributors' list. I suppose it's no great surprise that critics and the general reading populace don't always agree on what a good book is. On the other hand, you'll note that there are a couple of top choice appearing on both lists, indicating that some books are good enough that virtually everyone likes 'em.

But enough babble. Here's what you (in the democratic sense of the word) thought were the best books of 1999...

[Editor's Note: Where possible, links lead to SF Site reviews of the books. You can find links to other Best of the Year columns here.]

   No. 10
Rhapsody Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon
I always like to see talented new authors getting some well-deserved recognition for their work. That's why I was pleased to find Elizabeth Haydon's first novel made it onto this list. It's also, perhaps, a little surprising that so many people voted for this book which is obviously the first of a series (the current plan is for a trilogy). No, I take that back. It's not surprising at all. No matter how much we grumble and complain about having to wait for the next installment, we continue to read the series. And the good series and sequels continue to be acknowledged by the various genre awards.

In her review, Victoria Strauss said: "Haydon's world building is solid, drawing on a variety of cultural and mythic traditions to craft convincing societies with plausible timelines and interesting histories. She's especially good at avoiding info-dumping, weaving explanations and information easily into the action -- quite a feat, given the amount of complex background there is in this book."

All in all, Rhapsody is a very promising start to both an epic fantasy tale and a fantasy writing career. Many are now looking forward to the next volume...

   No. 9
A Good Old Fashioned Future A Good Old Fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra
Bruce Sterling has been playing this game for quite a while now, and although his name is perhaps most intimately connected with the cyberpunk sub-genre, this is by no means the limit to his range. Nevertheless, A Good Old Fashioned Future is a collection of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk short stories, all of which have seen previous publication in one venue or another throughout the last decade.

SF Site Reviewer, Ken Newquist, referred to Bruce Sterling's future as "a post-cyberpunk dystopia where the Western powers are in decline or fighting to hold the line and technology has become the world's greatest liberator and curse." Ken goes on to say: "The 'good old-fashioned future' that Sterling has created in these stories takes many of today's trends and logically extrapolates them... There are lessons to be learned here about the excesses of technology, but at the same time, the book shows the liberating aspects of the Information Age. It lets anyone be anything."

Whether we're learning the lessons remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, we continue to enjoy the speculations.

   No. 8
Darwinia Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
First published in hardcover in 1998 (and nominated for the Hugo Award), Darwinia was reprinted in mass market paperback in 1999, thus exposing itself to a wider audience. And part of that audience reacted by voting it the number 8 book of the year.

It's a rich and varied novel of alternate history, although not the kind you may be used to. As I mentioned in my review of this book, Wilson shows us not only an alternate timeline, but also the how and the why of what happens when history jumps its rails. It's a fascinating read, full of surprises and unexpected depth, where characters in one timeline meet ghosts of themselves who were killed in another timeline. Don't even try to be prepared. You won't know what hit you until it's over.

Readers who have enjoyed Darwinia -- and there are indeed many -- will likely also take pleasure in Wilson's latest SF novel, Bios

   No. 7
A Civil Campaign A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
What's an annual Top 10 list without a Miles Vorkosigan adventure? A dry affair all around, that's what. Okay, they're not Shakespeare, and they're not what you'd call true hard SF either. But the continuing exploits -- this is book 17, if I've counted right -- of the physically disabled Miles are about as addictive as space opera comes. Thrown out of the Barrayaran Military Academy for physical weakness (partially caused by an assassination attempt while still in the womb), we've watched young Miles in earlier volumes became a Vor lord, an officer in Barrayar's military, and the leader of a vast force of spaceborne mercenaries -- all while maintaining a secret identity as Admiral Naismith.

The Miles Vorkosigan saga is one of the most honoured in modern SF -- including Hugo Awards for "The Mountains of Mourning" (1989), The Vor Game, (1990) Barrayar (1991), and Mirror Dance (1994). The series has also won two Nebulas and two Locus Awards. Like the others, A Civil Campaign is a costumed piece set an intergalactic society peopled with strong male and female leads, a military adventure for those who love romance and a romance for those who love military novels. Whatever you'd like to call it, A Civil Campaign is a fun read all around, and that rare breed of series novel that doesn't demand knowledge of everything that came before. Pick it up and see for yourself.

   No. 6
A Path of Daggers A Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan
Robert Jordan is one of today's most popular writers of "fat fantasy" -- the sprawling, multi-volumed, heavy-weight fantasy epics that are themselves extremely popular with the reading public. A Path of Daggers is volume 8 in Jordan's epic The Wheel of Time saga. And because Jordan is so enormously popular, he handily captured the number 6 spot on the Readers' Choice list.

Says SF Site Reviewer, Jim Seidman: "It's a piece of excellent writing that is part of an excellent series... Jordan succeeds in carrying forward his stunning world building in this detailed story of a struggle between good and evil. The story continues with its myriad threads and subplots, carrying the reader inexorably toward an unpredictable conclusion."

And that conclusion is still several volumes away, as Jordan projects a total of 12 volumes to The Wheel of Time, making it a very fat fantasy indeed.

   No. 5
Ender's Shadow Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
In 1986, Card won both the Hugo and the Nebula for his now famous SF novel Ender's Game. A year later he stunned us all by winning the Hugo and the Nebula for Speaker for the Dead, it's sequel. More sequels followed. Now, 13 years later, wouldn't you think the story of Ender Wiggin would be over? Well, you'd be wrong. Or partly wrong, anyhow.

Ender's Shadow is the story of Bean, Ender's friend and fellow victim of the Battle School. Steven Silver said: "The differences between Bean and Ender are important because they are the things which make Ender's Shadow a novel in its own right, rather than simply a re-telling of Ender's Game. Card has been able to write a novel which adds to his universe rather than simply publish a book which trades on his earlier successes. Ender's Shadow serves as a welcome return to this world to those already familiar with it and also can serve as an introduction for people who have yet to make the acquaintance of Ender Wiggin."

Whether SF Site readers were revisiting Ender or meeting him for the first time, you certainly liked the book.

   No. 4
The Cassini Division The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod
Who the heck is Ken MacLeod? And how did his first novel vault to the top half of the 10 Best list? Ah, but it's not a first novel at all -- in fact, it's the third book in a timeline that began with The Star Fraction (1995) and The Stone Canal (1996), both published in the UK. And Ken MacLeod is a fast-rising British SF author whose first appearance in the US with The Cassini Division looks set to cement his reputation in North America as well.

It's the 24th century and mankind is holding the line in orbit around Jupiter, the most recent front in humanity's long battle against the mysterious and likely insane posthumans, descendants of men and women who underwent a hi-tech transformation generations ago. So far the posthumans have destroyed Ganymede, slammed a wormhole into Jovian space, and have been bombarding the inner system with deadly data viruses for decades. Enter Ellen May Ngwethu of the Cassini Division, part of an elite force tasked with defending against the posthuman menace, a woman with centuries of experience and a plan that may just free the solar system of humanity's enemies. With the January appearance of The Stone Canal in a North American edition from Tor, there's now twice as much reason to seek out Ken MacLeod.

   No. 3
A Deepness in the Sky A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Here's where the Contributors' list begins to converge with the Readers' list (finally!). This book made #2 on the Contributors' list, so it looks like we're pretty much all agreed that it was a darned good book.

Sequel (or prequel), A Deepness in the Sky takes us back 30,000 years prior to the events of his 1992 Hugo Award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep. Greg Johnson calls Vinge's latest "a deceptively straight-forward story." He goes on to explain: "The prose is unembellished and direct. Instead of using literary tricks or supposedly meaningful incomprehensibilities to convey a sense of the alien, the alien's culture is presented to us in terms we are familiar with... At every major plot twist, something seemingly simple and known is revealed to be either misunderstood, or hiding a more complex situation."

This is one book where readers and reviewers are very much in agreement. It's a great story well told. A definite and hearty recommendation from all quarters.

   No. 2
Cryptonomicon Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
This is another one where SF Site Contributors couldn't have gone too far wrong. It was the #1 choice on the Contributors' Top 10 and it's now #2 on the Readers' Top 10. Conclusion: it's a helluva good book. If you don't believe us, believe yourselves.

First volume in a proposed series, Cryptonomicon caused quite a stir this year. It gained a lot of attention from the mainstream, which is unusual for a SF novel. Is it SF? Some are arguing that it isn't, but I think it has enough SF elements to it. Anyhow, who cares? It's a great book. Read it. Everyone who has read it has loved it. I personally think that the only reason it was #2 on this list instead of #1 is because it's sheer weight scared off too many potential readers. I won't be at all surprised to see Cryptonomicon the mass market paperback edition (bound to be a little more manoeuvrable) on next year's SF Site Best Of lists.

Kim Fawcett, in her SF Site review, said: "Stephenson's prose is fast, intricate, and involving... I haven't had this much fun simply reading a book in as long as I can remember." Pretty much everyone else who read it agrees.

   No. 1
A Clash of Kings A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Bantam Spectra
So we've established that series are indeed popular. And it's not so unusual to see a sequel on a list such as this one. But the middle volume of a series? That's usually the book that falls a little flat. That's the bridging volume that dutifully ties the fantastic opening to the stunning conclusion. It needs to be there, but it's not really that good, is it? Well, in the case of George R.R. Martin, it is that good.

Readers know what they like. Right from the beginning, A Clash of Kings was the hands-down winner of the Readers' Choice Awards. It leapt to the top of the list early on and stayed there. Nothing else even came close. (Not even Cryptonomicon, I must admit.)

The long-awaited sequel to A Game of Thrones apparently didn't suffer for having been delayed. At least, not in the minds of readers, it didn't. Sure, we waited for it, but it was worth the wait. Wayne MacLaurin, in his review, said A Clash of Kings is "at once, both stunningly detailed and amazing in its ability to draw the reader into its grasp. Again Martin juggles several distinct storylines... This type of interwoven story is not uncommon but the trick is keeping the entire tale intriguing enough to keep the reader going. Martin does it so well that it's hard to decide which plotline, or which of the major characters, was the one I liked the most."

But the story of A Song of Ice and Fire is not over yet. And now a great many Martin fans are eagerly awaiting A Storm of Swords, which he is currently working on.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
And of course the Top 10 list is only a minute sampling of all the good books that appeared in 1999. With our system of completely open voting (i.e., no mere list of nominations to pick from) there were some rather surprising titles that made it onto people's personal Top 10 lists -- including one vote for a reprint of a Lord Dunsany title. Kudos to all the winners, listed above, but let's not forget the near misses. To be honest, beyond the top 3, the competition was rather fierce and in the end it was a pretty close race for some. Therefore, I'd like to mention a few of the books that almost made it onto the Readers' Choice Top 10.

First off, I should bring your attention to the several authors who might have made the list, except that votes were split between multiple books from the same writer. In this category, Robin Hobb was the most popular, with votes split between both volumes of her Liveship Traders series: Ship of Magic (Bantam Spectra, mass market reprint), and The Mad Ship (Bantam Spectra, hardcover), which also received an honourable mention on the Contributors' list. J.K. Rowling -- who took the #3 spot on the Contributors' Top 10 with her third Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books/Raincoast, hardcover) -- was squeezed out of the Readers' Choice Top 10 because votes were split between that title and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book of the series which saw North American publication for the first time in 1999. David Brin garnered votes for his tribute to Asimov's universe, Foundation's Triumph (HarperPrism, hardcover), as well as for Heaven's Reach (Bantam Spectra, mass market reprint), latest addition to his own Nebula and Hugo Award-winning series. Kim Stanley Robinson was popular amongst readers for both the Bantam paperback reprint of Antarctica as well as for The Martians (Bantam Spectra, hardcover), and Robert J. Sawyer had reader votes divided between three titles: Flash Forward (Tor, hardcover), Factoring Humanity (Tor, mass market reprint) and Starplex (first published in 1996, and presumably reprinted somewhere in 99, although I wasn't able to discover by whom).

Other honourable mentions, runners up, call them what you will, include: Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio (Del Rey, hardcover); Paul J. McAuley's Ancient of Days: Second Book of Confluence (Millennium, paperback reprint; Avon Eos, hardcover) -- McAuley also received votes for Child of the River: First Book of Confluence, in paperback from Avon Eos, and Shrine of Stars: Third Book of Confluence (Victor Gollancz, hardcover; appearing in September 2000 in North America from Avon); Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium (HarperPrism, hardcover) -- the second and final book of the series is due out in March; Kim Headlee's story of Guinevere Dawnflight (Pocket/Sonnet Books, mass market); James Alan Garner's Vigilant (Avon Eos, mass market); and Neil Gaiman's Stardust (Avon Books, hardcover), which was #7 on the Contributors' Top 10.

I could go on, but I have a deadline to meet. So there we have it. If some of you felt that 1999 was a dry year for reading, you obviously weren't looking hard enough. There were far more good books out last year than could be crammed into a Top 10 list. Just look! We tried, and the list is overflowing.

Copyright © 2000 Neil Walsh

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