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

Here at last are the results of our SF Site readers' poll for the best books of 2003. There were a couple of books that made this list that I figured right from the beginning were going to do fairly well here, and there were more than a few that I wasn't expecting to see do so well. Guess I'm not quite ready for that career switch to psychic fortune teller. Maybe you'll be less surprised than I was; read on and see for yourself.

You may also find it interesting to compare the Readers' Top 10 list to the Editors' Choice Top 10 Books of 2003. There's considerably less overlap than there has been in past years, so check out both lists to see where the reading tastes of SF Site staff and readers converge and diverge.

[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 Briar King The Briar King by Greg Keyes
Del Rey (USA) / Tor (UK)
This is the first volume in a new series in the high fantasy tradition. You'll find political intrigue, prophecies of ancient evil and dark magic in a richly textured world, complete with its own history, myths, religions, and languages. In the midst of assassination attempts, threats of war, and other problems plaguing the human kingdoms, rumours arise from the primeval forests. These rumours concern the stirring of the Briar King, whose awakening may well bring about the doom of humanity. Of course, everyone knows the Briar King is only a fairy tale...

Victoria Strauss, in her SF Site review, suggests that this is anything but the formulaic fantasy you might be expecting. Look for the second volume, The Charnel Prince, later this year.

   No. 9
Harry Potter, Book 5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Bloomsbury/Raincoast (UK & Canada & USA)
I think it says something that this long-awaited 5th book in the immensely popular Harry Potter series slipped so much in our ranking: Harry went from #3 on the SF Site Contributor's list for 1999 with Prisoner of Azkaban, Book 3, to #5 on the Readers' list for Goblet of Fire, Book 4in 2000, to #9 on the Readers' list for book 5 in 2003 (where it didn't even appear on the Contributors' list).

I've enjoyed the whole Harry Potter series, including the latest volume, but in my opinion, Prisoner of Azkaban was the last installment that was really worthy of a strong recommendation. Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix (even moreso) were flawed. They both contained subplots that went nowhere, redundant passages, explanations for things that didn't need explaining. In short, it seems to me that Rowling has become untouchable, and her editors are now afraid to do their job. The result is that the books are suffering. They're still good, mind you, but not as good as they should be -- not as good as the first three volumes.

If Rowling wants to do justice to her material, and to her fans, she should be demanding that her editors not be afraid to cut what needs to be cut.

   No. 8
Broken Angels Broken Angels by Richard Morgan
Gollancz
In this sequel to his debut novel, Altered Carbon, Morgan takes us on an adventure of violence, sex, intrigue, violence, politics, warfare -- and did I mention violence? Told in the first person, this is the story of Takeshi Kovacs (from the previous novel), currently acting as a mercenary contracted to quell a rebellion on one of the many inhabited worlds of the 26th century. But Kovacs, grown weary of warfare, is looking for a way out...

Apart from an exciting story, there's also a healthy dose of satire here, if you want to acknowledge it. All in all, Morgan is shaping up to be one sharp writer, offering up some solid genre writing while at the same time turning the genre sideways and giving it a good slap.

   No. 7
Fool's Fate Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb
Voyager (UK) / Bantam Spectra (USA)
Robin Hobb has held pretty steady with the SF Site readership: Fool's Errand, Book 1 was #8 on this list two years ago, and The Golden Fool, Book 2 was #6 last year. The conclusion to The Tawny Man series is #7 this year. In this final adventure, honour outweighs ordinary desires, and forces Fitz and his companions to undertake an unpleasant task that may spell their own doom.

This latest volume concludes not only The Tawny Man trilogy, but also the trilogy of trilogies that includes the bestselling Farseer and Liveship Traders books. Hobb still ranks among the best of the authors of fat fantasy epics.

   No. 6
Pattern Recognition Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Viking (UK) / Berkley (USA)
Personally, I've never managed to read a whole book by Gibson. I tried to read Neuromancer, but when I was about halfway through I realized I didn't care in the least what happened to any of his characters, so I tossed it aside and never looked back. Gibson fans tell me I have no soul; I say go back and have another look at Neuromancer -- it's wank. Anyhow, maybe it's time I tried some of his recent work. This book has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It only very narrowly missed getting into the SF Site Contributors' Top 10 list, sliding into the #11 spot.

In Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard has a special gift -- or curse, depending on how you look at it: she has an intense, violent reaction to logos and name brands. Advertisers find this unusual... erm, skill useful for pointing them in the right direction for the best way to brand their products. This novel offers mystery, suspense, and commentary on our modern consumer culture.

   No. 5
Absolution Gap Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz
This novel completes a trilogy begun in Revelation Space and continued in Redemption Ark. The Inhibitors, a mindlessly efficient mechanical plague, continue to threaten space-venturing races -- most recently, humans. Humanity is faced with a choice: attempt to fight what is likely a futile war, or seek refuge in flight. But now a third option may be available: to bargain with powers that may prove worse than the Inhibitors...

This is space opera at its best, with plenty of action and adventure, real characters and a compelling story. It's no accident that Reynolds has begun to attract notice and win awards.

The Light Ages The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod
Ace (USA) / Earthlight (UK)
This is the book that the SF Site contributors voted as the number one best book of 2003. For SF Site readers, it ranked #5. This is a case of divergent tastes, since all the contributors who voted for this ranked it in their top two choices, but for many of the readers it ranked further down on their personal lists.

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. 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.

   No. 4
Quicksilver Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow (USA) / Heinemann (UK)
This is one of the books that overlapped the two lists. Ranked #4 with you, the readers, it ranked #5 with the SF Site contributors. It's also been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which shouldn't be too surprising for Neal Stephenson, no stranger to awards and acclaim.

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. Obviously, though, Stephenson's name carries enough weight with readers that they won't be scared off that easily.

   No. 3
The Darkness That Comes Before The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
Penguin (Canada) / The Overlook Press (US) / Simon & Schuster (UK)
Not only is this the first novel of an epic fantasy trilogy, it's also the first novel of R. Scott Bakker. It's clearly the result of a great deal of careful preparation and world-building. The exotic cultures of this world are fully realized, which lends further depth to the characters of the story. This book largely sets the stage for what is to follow, but already we're introduced to a holy war on the brink of Apocalypse in a world that has already seen one Apocalypse.

In her SF Site review, Victoria Strauss describes this book as "a strikingly original work, the start of a series to watch. For readers who enjoy being challenged, or those looking for epic fantasy that explores beyond the typical tropes and themes, it's very much worth seeking out."

   No. 2
Veniss Underground Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
Night Shade Books (USA) / Tor UK (UK)
More overlap with the SF Site Contributors' list, this book was likewise #2 on that Top 10. Clearly, it's a book worth reading. Jeff VanderMeer was #3 on this list last year (#1 on the Contributors' list) with his stunning collection, City of Saints and Madmen.

VanderMeer's Veniss is a very different milieu from the territory of his 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
Ilium Ilium by Dan Simmons
Eos, HarperCollins (USA) / Gollancz (UK)
A respectable #3 on the SF Site Contributors' list, Ilium was the clear choice of the SF Site Readers, far outstripping the competition. 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.

While Ilium is clearly only half a novel -- the second half due to appear in 2004 -- so far, it is easily as good as anything Simmons has given us before. And that's certainly saying something!

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
It's hard to stop after just 10, isn't it? Let's keep going for a little bit, shall we. If we extended this to the top 15, our results would have looked like this:
  • #11:  Altered Carbon, the 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 (it's interesting to note that combined votes for Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, #8 above, would have brought Morgan into about the #3 spot);
  • #12:  saw a three-way tie between the following:
    • House of Chains by Stephen Erikson (Bantam, UK, hc & trade, December 2002 / mm, September 2003), which was the #1 choice last year in its hardcover and trade paperback edition;
    • 1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle (Victor Gollancz, UK, hc & trade, November 2003), another alternate history novel with stylistic echoes of Ash: A Secret History;
    • The Dark Tower: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hc, November 2003 / Donald M. Grant/Scribner, USA, hc, November 2003, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson), latest installment in King's long-running and bestselling Dark Tower series;
  • #13:  was another three-way tie between the following:
    • Felaheen: The Third Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Earthlight, UK, hc, May 2003), conclusion to the series begun with Pashazade and continued in Effendi (here again, votes were split between Felaheen and Effendi, which was reissued in 2003 in paperback -- this would otherwise have brought Grimwood cleanly into the top 10);
    • The Knight by Gene Wolfe (Tor, USA, hc, January 2004), which attained #10 on the Contributors' list;
    • The Etched City by K.J. Bishop (Prime, USA, trade, February 2003/Tor, UK, hc, January 2004);
  • #14:  was Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey (St. Martin's Press, USA, hc, April 2003), sequel to Kushiel's Dart (2001 - #6) and Kushiel's Chosen (2002 - #14); and
  • #15:  was Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (Eos, USA, hc, October 2003/Voyager, UK, trade, October 2003).
Both books of Succession by Scott Westerfeld, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds (St. Martin's Press, USA, hc, July 2003 and October 2003, respectively) also received notable attention from SF Site Readers.

There were many more, but we really do have to stop somewhere. So that wraps up our 2003 Top 10 lists -- this one here and last issue's Editors' Choice Top 10 Books of 2003. Thanks very much to everyone who participated; I appreciate seeing your suggestions, recommendations and comments, and I look forward to hearing from you next year!

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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