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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2002: Editors' Choice
by Neil Walsh

For the past month or so, many of you have been busy sending me your personal choices for the best books of 2002 (thanks for voting; the polls are now closed -- the Readers' Choice Top 10 list will appear next issue). At the same time, the SF Site editors, reviewers and contributors have been sending me their choices. Some of those personal Top 10 lists you've seen already, as some of the SF Site contributors have opted to present their own personal lists on the SF Site. Others have preferred to vote more anonymously. I've finally compiled all the results to present you with the Official SF Site Top 10 Books of 2002, as chosen by the SF Site contributors.

It was a close race, closer even than it has been in past years. But the results are in, and the numbers fell out as follows:

[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
A Winter Haunting A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons
William Morrow
Dan Simmons is an author able to write with flair in many different genres, but I personally think he's at his best when he's writing horror. And this is one of his best, a chilling sequel to his 1991 Summer of Night (also a great horror novel), narrated by the ghost of a child killed in that earlier book. I was hooked from the opening lines:
   Forty-one years after I died, my friend Dale returned to the farm where I was murdered. It was a very bad winter.
   I know what you're thinking.
And then the deceased narrator goes on to tell you precisely what you're thinking. This is one of those eerily clever novels, wherein, when everything finally clicks into place, you feel the chill of it all. Everything you've already read suddenly makes sense in a different light. Makes you want to read it all over again, right away, just to fully appreciate what the author has done.

   No. 9
Ombria in Shadow Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip
A top notch novel from this World Fantasy Award-winning author, possibly her best yet. Not only is this a great read, but it (like the past several novels by McKillip from Ace Books) also features stunning cover art by Kinuko Y. Craft -- a beautiful package all around.

In the words of SF Site's Margo MacDonald:
"The world of Ombria, as presented by McKillip, is an intriguing place. The palace is a world unto itself, seemingly untouched by the filth, poverty and brutality of the city. The city is populated with pirates, tavern-keepers, cut-purses, orphans, and lower-class workers. Underneath the city dwells the powerful sorceress, Faey, who has been around longer than anyone can remember, who never comes above ground, and who, for a price, will use her magic to meddle in the lives of those who dwell above -- if they can find their way to one of her many hidden doors. The world she inhabits is part of the shadow-world of Ombria; a glimpse of things and times that were. Filled with ghosts and forgotten pieces of history, the shadow-world is barely thought of by those above -- but for some it holds an irresistible fascination."

And if you missed it last year, there's an equally handsome trade edition just arrived in bookstores that will no doubt prove an irresistible fascination if you give it a try.

Broken Angels The Separation by Christopher Priest
Simon & Schuster
Christopher Priest is a long-established writer who was originally associated with the British New Wave. His first novel was published in 1970, although he is now probably best known for his World Fantasy Award-winning novel, The Prestige (1995).

The Separation is a novel that offers something of an alternate history, centred on variations in the development of certain events in the second world war, as studied by a current-day historian. As the novel progresses, the story takes on a rather surreal quality and raises some interesting questions for the reader. Clever, subtle, well-researched and well worth a read.

   No. 8
The Ship of Fools The Ship of Fools by Gregory Norminton
This is an exceptionally clever first novel, which is really a collection of loosely linked stories based on the characters in a painting. It's an imaginative literary interpretation of the eponymous Hieronymus Bosch painting (click on the cover image to see a larger picture), using the same story-telling technique of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- except that these pilgrims are on their way to absolutely nowhere. Individual tales may be bawdy, moralistic, absurd or all of the above, but they're all extremely entertaining, ingenious, and often laugh-out-loud funny.

I'm very much looking forward to Norminton's next novel, Arts and Wonders, which should appear later this year, also from Sceptre.

   No. 7
The Years of Rice and Salt The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam (USA & Canada) / HarperCollins (UK)
Robinson is at his best in a massive tale, spanning great lengths of time and great swaths of physical space, such as in his Mars trilogy. This novel, although very different from that series, is similarly massive. It's an alternate history in which the Black Plague of 14th century Europe pretty much did in the Europeans once and for all, effectively clearing a path for the unhindered development of the East -- and the Near East, and the New World, and Africa. From this premise, Robinson presents a series of novellas, set over a period of several centuries, in widely different locations of the globe, but with a recurring set of characters who are reincarnations of their former selves, hammering out different and similar issues each time.

In his review, SF Site's Rich Horton describes this as one of the most ambitious books in recent years. It is ambitious, and it is much more massive than its page count, but it's also a great book.

   No. 6
House of Chains House of Chains by Steven Erikson
Bantam Press
Speaking of massive, this is the fourth book in Erikson's epic Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. As the series continues to grow in complexity, it also grows in popularity: last year Memories of Ice (Book 3) was #9, and the previous year Deadhouse Gates (Book 2) was #10 on this list. Unlike the previous novels in this cycle, House of Chains begins as a clear, relatively straightforward narrative following one central character. However, by the second quarter of the book, we return to the multiple inter-linked story lines we have come to expect from Erikson, following many different characters. And, as usual, he doesn't allow much slack in his storytelling -- keep up or get lost; those are your choices. I strongly recommend the former.

I personally think this is Erikson's best yet. I also believe this is easily the best fantasy series to appear in the past decade.

   No. 5
Coraline Coraline by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins (USA & Canada) / Bloomsbury (UK)
Neil Gaiman is a perennial favourite with the SF Site, having previously appeared on this list with Neverwhere (#1 in 1997), Smoke and Mirrors (#2 in 1998), Stardust (#7 in 1999), and American Gods (#2 in 2001). With Coraline, Gaiman has given us something different -- a sort of Alice in Wonderland adventure with a young reading audience in mind. Coraline is a charming, quirky character, recently moved into a big old house with a mysterious locked door that eventually leads her into a different realm. And, because it's Neil Gaiman, there's a nice balance of dark creepiness and magical wonderment.

As SF Site reviewer Cindy Lynn Speer notes, Coraline makes a great read-aloud story and is sure to be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

   No. 4
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant The Fantasy Writer's Assistant by Jeffrey Ford
Golden Gryphon
This is a new collection of some new and some previously published short stories from another World Fantasy Award-winner. Many of the stories here are self-referential, drawing attention to the art and the artist so that the reader is never quite permitted to forget the mystical interaction between reader, story and writer. Following each story is a commentary from the author, which, in the context of the overall meta-fictional style, further enforces this relationship. All in all, an intelligent and thoughtful collection of some very entertaining stories.

   No. 3
The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford
William Morrow
An unprecedented result for the SF Site, one author has attained the same Top 10 list twice. In addition to the number 4 slot with his short fiction collection, Jeffrey Ford has also reached number 3 with this captivating novel. Set in Manhattan in the final decade of the 19th century, this is the story of a portraitist who accepts an unusual commission: he is requested to paint the wealthy and mysterious Mrs. Charbuque, although he is not permitted to ever see her.

In his SF Site review, William Thompson notes that Ford "has turned in another superlative story, rich in setting and imagery, designed to both confound and tantalize his audience, with a tale wondrously plotted and written with an intelligence at once playful yet serious. Possessing elements of mystery and horror... this is a work that bridges literature and genre, reaffirming again that the fantastic can offer much more than simple tales of trolls and dragons."

   No. 2
The Scar The Scar by China Miéville
Macmillan (UK) / Del Rey (USA & Canada)
China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award, was voted number 1 book by the SF Site editors last year. This year, Miéville narrowly missed that number 1 status once again.

Although complete unto itself, The Scar is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station. However, this new novel is rather different. For one thing, it moves with the ponderous weight of the massive floating pirate city of Armada itself. Certainly there are moments when, like a sudden squall at sea, the action moves along at full speed -- but generally, the pace is rather slower. Stick it out; it's very much worth it.

As William Thompson says in his SF Site review:
"The book's greatest strength remains Miéville's vivid description and fecund ability to create and imaginatively bring to life his highly exotic, often perverse yet wonderfully revealed and realized cities, as well as the cultures and mythography of Bas-Lag.... Anyone who has read Perdido Street Station will instantly suspect there is much more going on here in The Scar than simple or mere tale-spinning, however wonderfully or inventively imagined. From title until the end, the nature and perception of scars is a recurrent theme throughout, echoed in the author's cast of grotesques."

All in all, this is a brilliant novel -- full of inventive ideas, complex and fascinating characters, and an underlying sense of mystery and dread that never diminishes.

   No. 1
City of Saints and Madmen City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
The number 1 best book of the year, as recommended to you by the combined minds of the SF Site staff of editors and reviewers, is City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer. Interestingly, this book was number 4 on this same list last year in its earlier Cosmos edition. The Prime hardcover edition, released in 2002, was expanded to include 60,000 words of additional material. Both editions contain the World Fantasy Award-winning novella, "The Transformation of Martin Lake."

As SF Site reviewer, Ian Nichols, notes, City of Saints and Madmen "is more an invitation than a book. It is an invitation to wake up in Ambergris, after dreaming of Earth." Ambergris is a city of baroque beauty and creeping nightmare, as real as any place you've ever read about, dreamed of, or visited.

VanderMeer likes to push at the boundaries of conventional fiction, offering and testing other forms and other media -- the 2002 Prime edition includes a story entirely in code (with a sealed envelope containing the decoded story, for those less ambitious readers) as well as another tale embedded in the artwork of the cover itself.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
How can we stop at 10, when there are so many great books? How could we resist? We can't. We never do. So, in the tradition of the SF Site Top 10 lists, here are some honourable mentions that very narrowly missed Top 10 status.
  • #11 The Golden Age by John C. Wright(Tor, USA & Canada, hc, April 2002);
  • #12 Light by M. John Harrison (Victor Gollancz, UK, hc & trade, October 2002);
  • #13 The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin (HarperCollins, USA & Canada, hc, March 2002 / Perennial, HarperCollins, USA & Canada, trade, March 2003);
  • #14 Leviathan 3 edited by Jeff VanderMeer & Forrest Aguirre (Ministry of Whimsy/Prime, USA, trade, March 2002);
  • #15 (tie) Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (Tor, USA & Canada, hc, July 2002);
  • #15 (tie) A Year in the Linear City by Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing, UK, hc & trade, April 2002);
Other Honourable Mentions

Here, in no particular order, are a few other titles, only slightly further down the list, but also deserving of honourable mention:

  • Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan (Victor Gollancz, UK, trade, February 2002);
  • Everyone in Silico by Jim Munroe (Four Walls Eight Windows, USA & Canada, trade, November 2002);
  • Dangerous Visions, 35th Anniversary Edition edited by Harlan Ellison (ibooks, USA, Canada & UK, hc & trade, October 2002);
  • Any Time at All, The Lives and Times of Roxanne Bonaventure by Chris Roberson (USA, trade, September 2002);
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Harper, USA & Canada, mm, April 2002 / Headline, UK, mm, March 2002/ William Morrow, USA & Canada, hc, June 2001 / Feature, UK, hc, July 2001) -- as mentioned above, this one was number 2 on our list last year, but the mass market edition garnered some further notice this year.
I also want to highlight a couple of the better comic books/graphic novels that appeared in 2002 that didn't quite make it to the Top 10:
  • Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio (Airship Entertainment, USA, hc & trade graphic novel, July 2002 / ongoing comic book series) -- mad science, romance and madcap adventure in a bizarre steampunk setting;
  • Midnight Nation written by J. Michael Straczynski, illustrated by Gary Frank (Image Comics, USA & Canada, graphic novel trade, December 2002 / Image, Top Cow, 12-issue comic book series ended July 2002) -- the tale of a man who is ripped out of conventional existence and who must therefore follow a quest to save his own soul. One of the best self-contained comic book series in some time; for my money, better even than Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and Alan Moore is one of my all-time favourite comic book writers).
That's it for the Best Books of 2002, chosen by us. Next issue, we'll show you the best books as chosen by you, the SF Site readers.
Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2001           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2000           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1999           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1998           
           Best Read of the Year: 2001
           Best Read of the Year: 2000
           Best Read of the Year: 1999
           Best Read of the Year: 1998
           Best Read of the Year: 1997

Copyright © 2003 Neil Walsh

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