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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2003: Editors' Choice
by Neil Walsh

For the past several years, this has been my favourite time of year. Sure, there may be a blizzard outside my window, but what do I care, cozy and warm in my office with a cup of hot tea and the SF Site annual top 10 lists to keep me company. I enjoy compiling the SF Site Editors' Choice list (what you're reading now) and Readers' Choice list (which will appear next issue) because there are always a few surprises for me, which inevitably lead me to some great books I wouldn't otherwise have discovered. I sincerely hope this is true for you, too. If everyone reading this walks away with one or two recommendations, tracks down the books, reads them and enjoys them, then I feel this is all worthwhile.

This year, what surprised me most was that the number one top recommended book of the year is one that I haven't read yet, or even heard all that much about. But you can be sure I'm going to read it now. Also, as has happened before, there are a few ties, so that this year there are actually 13 books on our top 10 list. I suppose I could have made a few executive decisions, but that seems somehow dishonest to me. And besides, if part of the goal here is to recommend good books to read, isn't more better?

So here are the 13 books that made it onto the Official SF Site Top 10 Books of 2003, as chosen by the SF Site contributors. Plus, as always, we'll present several more recommendations and honourable mentions at the end.

[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
The Knight The Knight by Gene Wolfe
TOR
Gene Wolfe is no stranger to this top 10 list, having appeared here three years running with each successive volume of The Book of the Short Sun trilogy. Wolfe is no stranger to awards in general, having received many of the most prestigious genre awards (some more than once), including a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Knight is the first part of a two-volume series called The Wizard Knight. It's about a boy transported to a magical realm, where he is magically transformed into a man who must pursue a quest that takes him into encounters with giants, elves, wizards and dragons. In a nutshell, it sounds like a hackneyed old idea, but of course Gene Wolfe is no hackneyed old writer, and he's able to bring a freshness to the heroic fantasy tradition with this new novel.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases edited by Dr. Jeff VanderMeer & Dr. Mark Roberts
Night Shade Books
This book is an utterly brilliant concept. It's a fictional burlesque of a type of medical journal from an earlier era, which of course would have purported to be non-fiction, in spite of (perhaps unintentional) imaginative exaggerations. The Pocket Guide contains entries on fictional diseases -- some grotesque, some horrifying, some just outrageously funny -- and the contributors include such luminaries as China Miéville, Paul Di Filippo, Neil Gaiman, Steve Aylett, Kage Baker, Michael Bishop, Cory Doctorow, Jeffrey Ford, Rhys Hughes, David Langford, Tim Lebbon, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Brian Stableford, Liz Williams, Gahan Wilson, and many more. There are countless seeds of larger fictions within these pages, just begging for further development and exploration. This is a collection of ideas, rather than a collection of stories. Even so, it's quite a treat -- even some of the contributor bios had me laughing out loud.

The Facts Of Life The Facts Of Life by Graham Joyce
Graham Joyce
Having been first published in 2002, this book was the winner of last year's World Fantasy Award for best novel (co-winner, actually, along with Patricia A. McKillip's Ombria in Shadow). But a new edition in 2003 rendered it eligible for our SF Site top 10, and here it is. The story in this novel follows the Vine family, Martha Vine and her 7 daughters, in post-war Coventry. As Joyce has done in previous novels, he has here offered what can best be described as magic realism. Much of the novel is concerned with domestic life, but in the lives of people for whom premonitions and ghostly visitations are not uncommon. As SF Site reviewer Martin Lewis says, "One of the most interesting achievements of the book is the rendering of the mundane extraordinary and the fantastic commonplace."

   No. 9
The Golden Transcendence The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright
St. Martin's Press
The first books in this series, The Golden Age (St. Martin's/Tor, USA, hc, April 2002), narrowly missed last year's top 10 list, hitting the #11 spot. The third book, The Golden Transcendence was certainly no disappointment, nor, for that matter, was the second volume, The Phoenix Exultant (St. Martin's Press, USA, hc, May 2003), which also appeared in 2003 and likewise garnered some votes on this year's list. All in all, this series is modern space opera at its best, with all the sense-of-wonder enthusiasm of the golden age of SF, myriad really cool ideas and concepts, and good writing. In the final volume of this series, the Transcendence is immanent, the result of a millennium of planning, wherein all minds throughout the solar system will be temporarily merged... and will pass judgement on absolutely everyone.

   No. 8
The Risen Empire The Killing of Worlds Succession: The Risen Empire / The Killing of Worlds by Scott Westerfeld
St. Martin's Press
For whatever reason that publishers make these kinds of decisions, this big book was published separately as two volumes. Everyone who voted for Succession, voted for both volumes together, all in agreement that it must be read as a whole.

The "Risen", of the title of the first volume, are those immortals created by the undead (or at least undying) ruler of a vast interstellar empire. The Emperor has reigned for many centuries with absolute power, worshiped by his human subjects as a living god. Then along come the Rix, machine-augmented humans who are intent on replacing the Emperor with their own cybernetic dynasty...

Diary: A Novel Diary: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday (USA) / Jonathan Cape (UK)
If you're a fan of anything written by Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, then you must read this. My personal opinion on this book is that you should read it knowing nothing at all about it. Don't even read the dust jacket blurb. You may feel lost at first, but you're clever; you'll pick up the story as you go along -- and it'll be worth your while. The first 50 pages or so are almost physically painful to read. It's brilliantly written, well-paced, and it goes by quickly enough. But it's the kind of genius that reaches right into your soul and makes you really feel the despair and depression of the narrator. But very soon the story starts to get really interesting. Then it gets even more interesting. Then it gets kind of freaky. If you can't read a book without knowing something about it first, read my review, linked from the cover image above. I'll tell you enough to pique your interest without giving too much away. Definitely one of Palahniuk's best stories to date.

   No. 7
Monstrous Regiment Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins (USA) / Doubleday (UK)
This one surprised me a little. I mean, sure, everyone knows Terry Pratchett's stuff is outrageously fun to read, but is this really one of the 10 best books of 2003? Apparently there were enough SF Site contributors who thought so that Monstrous Regiment is number 7.

Borogravia is in dire straits. They've been fighting a war that they are now desperately losing. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel to find whatever recruits they can, and the result is a rather monstrous seeming regiment, which includes members who may be trolls, vampires or igors (i.e., physically twisted frankenstein's-monster-like creatures best known for assisting mad scientists). SF Site reviewer Hank Luttrell explains that "Discworld's appeal is that it is exotic and fantastic and terribly amusing, but at the same time familiar and recognizable, and always thoughtful. Even the monstrous stuff."

   No. 6
Lost In A Good Book Lost In A Good Book by Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton (UK) / Viking (USA)
Following the success of his internationally acclaimed The Eyre Affair, Fforde returns to the world of Thursday Next, literary detective. This time, during her investigation into an alleged newly-discovered long-lost play by Shakespeare, Thursday discovers that she can read herself into books without using a literary portal. In the words of SF Site reviewer Hank Luttrell: "This story boils with sinister characters, monstrous monopolistic corporations, actual monsters, kidnaping and killings, even vampires. The jokes are pretty much non-stop.... Literary and historical references abound, social comment and satire run amok. Fforde's style has a free-for-all, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach." Even Terry Pratchett thinks that Fforde is a very funny and clever writer.

   No. 5
Quicksilver Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow (USA) / Heinemann (UK)
One of the SF Site contributors argued vehemently against this book being eligible, as it's more "mainstream, historical fiction." Still a good read, mind you, but is it really speculative fiction? Well, enough other SF Site contributors felt that it was sufficiently speculative to warrant voting for it on this top 10 list, where it fell comfortable into the #5 slot. It's also been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, so clearly we aren't the only ones who feel it has some genre-related elements. Alex Lightman, in his SF Site review, offers the opinion that "Quicksilver's primary value is to show the authentic roots of science fiction." He also warns that, at 1,000 pages, it's only the first in a planned trilogy. A serious heavyweight read, with more than just it's page count in common with Cryptonomicon.

   No. 4
Kalpa Imperial Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
Small Beer Press
This little gem was first published in 1983 in Argentina. It was translated from the original Spanish by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin and published in its first ever English translation in 2003 by Small Beer Press. This story of "The Greatest Empire that Never Was" takes place in an undefined setting that seems vaguely medieval European, and follows various different Emperors as well as the little people of the Empire. David Soyka, in his SF Site review, explains that "the unnamed narrator... constantly reminds us that we are reading not only a story, but a story recounted according to the way the narrator wants to tell it. Which has a lot to do with the art of storytelling and nothing at all to do with history. Or the pretense of a history." The unknown elements, then, are irrelevant. The story is everything. And this one is definitely worth reading.

   No. 3
Ilium Ilium by Dan Simmons
Eos, HarperCollins (USA) / Gollancz (UK)
For pure entertainment value, Dan Simmons remains one of my all-time favourite authors. He's so visual in his writing that you can't help but wonder when his work will be translated to the silver screen. This ambitious novel is no exception. The siege of Troy is being re-enacted by mortals, heroes and gods, but this time it's taking place on Mars. And in attendance as witnesses are revivified Homeric scholars. Watching in fascinated uncomprehension are the pampered remains of the human race on Earth. And interfering in ways they didn't anticipate are a couple of artificial life forms from the further reaches of our solar system, one a fan of Proust, the other an avid student of Shakespeare's sonnets. My only quibble is that, much in the same way that the Hyperion and Endymion books were really two novels in four books, Ilium is clearly only half a novel -- but, so far, one that is easily as good as anything Simmons has given us before.

   No. 2
Veniss Underground Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
Night Shade Books (USA) / Tor UK (UK)
Number one last year with his stunning collection, City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer once again makes a superb showing on our top 10 list with his new novel Veniss Underground. In his SF Site review, William Thompson likens VanderMeer's Veniss to China Miéville's New Crobuzon. It's a very different milieu from the territory of VanderMeer's Ambergris, but one that is nevertheless dark and mysterious -- only in different ways. VanderMeer has an incredible talent for conjuring a palpable atmosphere out of almost nothing. With very few words, he'll have you fully committed to his nightmarish creations. And in this very short novel, he'll drag you, mesmerized, through the hellish darkness into the cold sweat of a bleak dawn. There are so many layers to this seemingly spare novel, that I'm still marvelling at the elegance of the writing. For a glimpse of true literary genius, read Veniss Underground.

   No. 1
The Light Ages The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod
Ace (USA) / Earthlight (UK)
This is it. This is the book that the SF Site contributors voted as the number one best book of 2003. It was head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, everyone who voted for this book ranked it as either their number one or number two choice -- it's that good.

The setting is an alternate England in the midst of an Industrial Revolution powered by a dangerous and magical substance called aether, mined from the earth. Exposure to aether can cause humans to change. These Changelings become horrifying, magical creatures, not quite human anymore, and they are taken out of society to suffer untold abuses or to be exploited for their newfound relationship to aether.

The main protagonist, Robert Borrows, is raised in a poor northern mining town, son of a member of the Toolmakers' Guild. After his mother is claimed by the magic of aether, Robert makes his way to London where he becomes a revolutionary, striving to destroy the class system that perpetuates the poverty and misery of those who labour so hard for the the very element that benefits the rich and powerful.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
We had 13 books on our Top 10 this year -- well, ok, 14. But the point is, why stop there? Answer: No reason in the world. So here are some more great books from 2003...
  • The #11 slot saw another three-way tie: Cigar-Box Faust by Michael Swanwick (Tachyon, USA, trade, November 2003);
    #11 (tie) Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, debut novel from Cory Doctorow (Tor, USA, hc, February 2003 / trade, December 2003); and
    #11 (tie) Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (G.P. Putnam's Sons, USA, hc, February 2003 / Viking, UK, hc, April 2003), which has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
  • #12 Broken Angels by Richard Morgan (Gollancz, UK, hc & trade, March 2003 / mm, December 2003) - sequel to his debut, Altered Carbon (see below).
  • #13 Felaheen: The Third Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Earthlight, UK, hc, May 2003), conclusion to the series begun with Pashazade and continued in Effendi.
  • #14 Evolution by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz, hc & trade, November 2002 / mm, August 2003 / Del Rey, USA, hc, February 2003).
  • #15 The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hc & trade, July 2003 / Viking, USA, hc, February 2004), third book in this series, following his Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book (#6 above). I expect this one would have made it into the top 10 as well if it had've been more widely available in the US in 2003. Look for it next year...
After #15, the running was so close that it really wasn't worth trying to rank them. So here, in no particular order, are some further honourable mentions:
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese / Thorndike / Bloomsbury, UK & USA & Canada, hc, May 2003);
  • Jennifer Government by Max Barry (Doubleday, hc, January 2003 / Abacus, trade, May 2003 / Vintage, USA, mm, January 2004);
  • Trampoline an anthology edited by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press, USA, trade, July 2003);
  • Green Angel by Alice Hoffman (Scholastic Press, USA & Canada, hc, March 2003);
  • Altered Carbon debut novel by Richard Morgan (Gollancz, UK, hc & trade, February 2002 / mm, June 2003 / Del Rey, USA, trade, March 2003), and one of this year's nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award;
  • Dragon Blood by Patricia Briggs (Ace, USA, mm, January 2003) sequel to Dragon Bones;
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (Eos, USA, hc, October 2003 / Voyager, UK, trade, October 2003);
  • Light by M. John Harrison (Gollancz, UK, hc & trade, October 2002 / mm, September 2003), #12 on this list last year, and still here because it was released in a new format in 2003, and because it's such a good book;
  • Things that Never Happen a collection of stories by M. John Harrison (Night Shade Books, USA, hc, January 2003);
  • Contact Imminent by Kristine Smith (Eos, USA, mm, November 2003); and
  • Wondrous Beginnings edited by Steven H Silver and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, USA, mm, January 2003) one of several Silver/Greenberg anthologies from DAW this year that highlight career-launching stories from numerous genre writers.
As usual, there are a couple of writers who might have made it higher on the list if the votes hadn't been split between their various efforts (like Jasper Fforde, for example). Particularly notable in this category is Neil Gaiman, usually one of the SF Site shoe-ins for a top 10 placing. This year, Gaiman received votes for Wolves in the Walls (HarperCollins, USA, hc, August 2003 / Bloomsbury, UK, hc, September 2003), a children's book illustrated by the very talented Dave McKean. Gaiman also received votes for his comic book writing, in both 1602, (Marvel, USA, serial comic book, beginning in 2003), and The Sandman: Endless Nights (Titan Books, USA, hc, October 2003), which was done in collaboration with various artists.

Similarly, China Miéville, who placed so well last year with his novel The Scar, received votes for his novella The Tain (PS Publishing, UK, hc & trade, October 2002) which appeared in a 2003 anthology that also captured some notice from the SF Site contributors, Peter Crowther's Cities (Gollancz, UK, hc, April 2003). In addition to The Tain, and novellas from Michael Moorcock and Geoff Ryman, Cities also contained Paul di Filippo's A Year in the Linear City, which was nominated last year as best novella for both a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award (having been previously published separately by PS Publishing, UK, hc & trade, April 2002).

So that's it for our highest recommendations for the Best Books of 2003, chosen by the SF Site editors, reviewers and interviewers. Drop in for a look next issue, when we'll rank the Best Books as chosen by the SF Site readers.

Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2002           
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: 2002
           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 © 2004 Neil Walsh


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