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SF Site Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2004: Readers' Choice
by Neil Walsh

I always find it fascinating to compare this Readers' Choice Top 10 list with the Editors' Choice Top 10 List, to see the overlaps and the discrepancies, where the tastes of the Readers and the Contributors are similar, and where different. Generally, I find it comforting to see that the SF Site staff are reviewing and recommending books that our Readers seem to be appreciating (and vice versa, too, since I inevitably find something new and exciting to read from both lists). I was also pleased to see so many more votes for graphic novels and comic books this year, as I believe there are some truly wonderful works being written and drawn out there. Unfortunately, none made it onto the Readers' Top 10 List, but it makes me feel like the SF Site staff is not too far off track by having chosen one for the Editors' Choice Top 10, because clearly there are many of you who share our love of the graphic narrative form.

As is often the case, this list seems more heavily weighted to the fantasy end of the spectrum, although there are a couple of top-notch science fiction titles here too. And, as usual, we've allowed any ties to stand. Finally, as seems almost always to be the case, the number one book was the undisputed champion.

Here, then, is the Official SF Site Readers' Choice Top 10 Books of 2004, as chosen by you, the SF Site readership!

[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
Fool's Fate Fool's Fate: The Tawny Man, Book 3 by Robin Hobb
(Voyager, October 2003/February 2004 / Bantam Spectra, February 2004)
One of the quirks of the SF Site Best Of lists is that you'll occasionally find a book appearing here that has been on a previous list. This one, for example, captured the No. 7 spot last year, and is still holding strong, due to the US release in 2004 and a new UK edition. Robin Hobb has proven to be a perennial favourite with the SF Site readership, as each volume of this series has been featured on the Readers' Top 10. This final volume concludes The Tawny Man trilogy.

   No. 9 (tie)
Shadowmarch Shadowmarch, Volume 1 by Tad Williams
(Orbit / DAW, November 2004)
If you thought you had read every possible variation on "high fantasy" involving some kind of conflict between humans and faeire, Shadowmarch just might surprise you. It has all the elements you'll be expecting, but much more as well. And in the hands of this skilled writer, the varied elements and subplots are manipulated with ease and style. It is, however, only the first in a new series and the end of this novel will leave you wanting more.

   No. 9 (tie)
Light Light by M. John Harrison
(Gollancz, October 2002/September 2003 / Spectra, August 2004)
Two years ago, this book was No. 4 on this list. It's such an excellent science fiction novel, that even two years after initial publication, the release of a new edition can still generate enthusiasm in new readers. This novel has three major strands, spun out seemingly effortlessly and almost at random. One is more or less in the present, and two others are set in the more distant future. But as the narrative progresses, you begin to realize how the spiraling strands are growing together more and more tightly until finally it all coalesces in a brilliant flash. Definitely one of the best science fiction books of the past few years.

   No. 8
Pandora's Star Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton
(Tor UK, February 2004 / Del Rey, March 2004)
When space-faring humans encounter a strange and almost impenetrable barrier around a distant star, natural human curiosity must be satisfied. Unfortunately, however, it is discovered only too late that the barrier wasn't intended to keep us out, but rather to keep something contained. Oops! Hamilton is extremely adept at writing space opera the way readers really want to read it, with depth, intelligence, well-defined characters (both human and alien) and sprawling plotlines that are nevertheless controlled by the author (instead of the other way around). Once you start reading, you'll be amazed at how quickly you'll be swept along by the story.

   No. 7
The Charnel Prince The Charnel Prince: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Book 2 by Greg Keyes
(Del Rey, August 2004)
No. 10 on this list last year was The Briar King, first book of this series. This second of a projected four volumes picks up where the first left off, continuing the political intrigue, dark magic, and fulfilling of prophecies in this richly textured world. The Briar King has been awakened, and his awakening spells doom for humanity. Now that the inhabitants of this land know the legend of the Briar King is no mere fairy tale, the question arises: what form will that doom take? Keyes has set himself a high standard to live up to in The Blood Knight, which will be published this year.

   No. 6
The Last Light of the Sun The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
(Penguin Viking, February 2004 / Roc, March 2004 / Simon & Schuster, April 2004)
Guy Kay has a unique style of reinventing historical periods, peoples and sometime even events, and making them distinctly his own. This time, the parallels are to dark ages Britain and northern Europe, linking the stories of the Cyngaels (Celts), the Anglcyn (Angles/Saxons) and the Erlings (Scandinavian Vikings). But it wouldn't be a Kay tale without an element of magic. So this dark, violent and extremely colourful world also harbours a magical half-world that co-exists in the shadows of the light of the relatively new Jaddite religion. It's a tremendously entertaining read, and made it to the No. 3 spot on the SF Site Editors' Choice Top 10.

   No. 5
The Wizard The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe
(Tor, January 2004/November 2004)
No. 2 on this year's Editors' Choice Top 10, The Wizard Knight is really one novel, published as two separate volumes called The Knight (a Nebula Award nominee) and The Wizard. Together, these two books tell the story of 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 the hands of this exceptionally talented writer, this story is breathes fresh life into the mythic-heroic fantasy tradition.

   No. 4
The Runes of the Earth The Runes of the Earth: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1 by Stephen Donaldson
(Gollancz / Putnam, October 2004)
It's been more than 20 years since the last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant book was published, but Donaldson is back with a new series that returns to the carefully constructed world he brought to life. It's a decade later for Linden Avery, and, when she finally returns to The Land, several millennia have passed. After all this time, Donaldson and his readers have quite a bit of catching up to do, which is largely what this book sets out to accomplish. It's a real credit to this author that so many of his faithful readers seem to have been waiting anxiously all those years for this book, and he has not disappointed.

   No. 3
Iron Council Iron Council by China Miéville
(Del Rey, July 2004 / Macmillan/Tor, September 2004)
Also No. 3 on the Editors' Choice list. I found Miéville's writing has hit a plateau. On the positive side, this author's plateau is high above the quality of many of his contemporaries. Miéville is able to suspend reader disbelief as he writes convincingly about a group of renegade railroad workers who steal the train and the track, setting off across the continent taking up the track behind them and laying more ahead as they go. For the duration of the novel, he makes this somehow not merely plausible, but renders it a truly mythic journey. And that's only a part of what's going on. True to his previous two novels in the world of New Crobuzon, there are many layers of complexity in plot and in the characters themselves. An admirable follow-up to his award-winning Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

   No. 2
Midnight Tides Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson
(Bantam, March 2004)
No. 7 on the Editors' Choice Top 10 this year, Erikson's 5th volume of his vastly-scoped Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen takes us rather far from the lands he has already shown us -- far enough, in fact, that the Malazan Empire has almost no influence here. Instead, we are shown a land in a turbulent time, when a new ruler of the Tiste Edur unites the clans to bring war to the troublesome Letherii humans who have grown arrogant in the strength of their empire, headed by the mercantile city of Letheras, where money is the root of all power. As we have come to expect from Erikson, there are characters we love to spend time with (Tehol Beddict and his manservant Bugg share banter that is at times laugh-out-loud funny), concepts and ideas that are jaw-droppingly cool, and so much going on that we're hard-pressed to follow along. I still maintain this is the best fantasy series going, and apparently quite a number of you agree.

   No. 1
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, September 2004)
As with the SF Site Editors' Choice Top 10, this book made a clean sweep at the Readers' polls too. Clarke's innovative approach to fantasy and magic has certainly caught the attention of readers and critics alike. Her sly sense of humour also helps to make this book an all-around enjoyable read, and the top recommended book of the year by SF Site Readers and Contributors (as well as a nominee for the BFSA Award). It's a clever, witty and thoroughly surprising debut novel. In the 18th and 19th centuries, two very different magicians emerge to bring about the rediscovery of lost English magic. The novel hinges on the contrast of their personalities and their respective approaches to magic and how it works. If you're only going to read one title from 2004, this should be the one.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
    Who can resist having a peek at the ones that narrowly missed the Top 10? Not me. So here they are...
  • 11. The Dark Tower: Dark Tower, Book 7 (Hodder & Stoughton, September 2004) by Stephen King, who only narrowly missed our Top 10 because votes were split between this and Song of Susannah: Dark Tower, Book 6 (Hodder & Stoughton, June 2004);
  • 12. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Sceptre, March 2004 / Random House/Vintage, August 2004), No. 4 on the Editors' Choice Top 10;
  • 13. The Warrior-Prophet (Overlook Press, January 2005; appeared in stores late 2004) by R. Scott Bakker, who also missed a higher ranking because some votes went to the first volume of The Prince of Nothing series, The Darkness that Comes Before (Penguin, January 2003 / The Overlook Press, June 2004 / Simon & Schuster, March 2004) which was No. 3 on this list last year;
  • 14. Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz, November 2004), surprised me by not ranking higher -- maybe when it sees a US release;
  • 15. Ilium by Dan Simmons, the SF Site Readers' Choice No. 1 book from 2003 (Eos, July 2003 / Gollancz, August 2003/March 2004) is still finding new fans;
  • 16. The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks (Orbit, September 2004);
  • 17. Century Rain (Gollancz, November 2004) by Alastair Reynolds, who also picked up some votes for his Absolution Gap (Gollancz, November 2003/May 2004 / Ace, June 2004), which was No. 5 on this list last year;
  • 18(tie). Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer (Golden Gryphon, June 2004), which was No. 5 on the Editors' Choice list;
  • 18(tie). Iron Sunrise (Ace, July 2004 / Orbit, February 2005) by Charles Stross, who also picked up votes for Atrocity Archives (Golden Gryphon, May 2004) and The Family Trade (Saint Martin's Press, December 2004);
  • 19(tie). Air by Geoff Ryman (Griffin, October 2004);
  • 19(tie). Gardens of the Moon (Bantam, March 2000 / Tor, June 2004) by Steven Erikson. If you combined the votes for this, for The Healthy Dead (PS Publishing, April 2004), and for Midnight Tides, No. 2 above, Erikson would have given Susanna Clarke a real run for her money;
  • 20(tie). Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart (Small Beer Press, July 2004);
  • 20(tie). The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker (see No. 13, above).
And, finally, I think it's worth mentioning that Terry Pratchett picked up votes for Going Postal (Doubleday / HarperCollins, October 2004) and for A Hat Full of Sky (Doubleday / Random House, April 2004 / HarperCollins, June 2004) , which, if combined, would have seen him ranking will into the Top 20, if not the Top 10.
Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2003           
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: 2003
           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

Thanks to everyone who voted. Happy reading for 2005!

Copyright © 2005 Neil Walsh

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