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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2005: Editors' Choice
by Neil Walsh

If you've been an SF Site reader for more than a couple of years, you'll know that our annual Top 10 list is never limited to a mere 10 books. We've never fudged the numbers, which means that we always present ties exactly as they came out in the voting. Usually, however, there is a clear winner in the number one spot -- a runaway lead that leaves everything else far behind. This year was different. Oh, we still have plenty of ties, resulting in 14 titles on our "Top 10" -- plus, as always, a number of honourable mentions that we just couldn't resist. But there was no one single book that garnered the bulk of our reading attention; on the contrary it was an extremely close race. Any book on this list could have leapt to the top with only one or two more people voting for it. In fact, we have for the first time ever a tie in the number one spot. So if what is presented here is not the best of the best (and it may well be just that), it is at the very least an honest look at the best of what we read last year.

At the same time the SF Site reviewers and staff were looking back on the best of what we read, we've also been soliciting your opinions on the best of what you read. Next issue we'll look at the SF Site Readers' Choice Top 10 (polls are now closed). In the meantime, here's the Official SF Site Best Books of 2005, as chosen by the SF Site contributors...

[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
Life Life by Gwyneth Jones
(Aqueduct Press, October 2004)

Starting off on a slightly wrong foot, our list of the Top 10 books of 2005 begins with one that was published in 2004. Nevertheless, enough SF Site contributors voted for it to enable it to make the list. Apart from this mild stumble as we pass through the starting gate, we must be on the right track, because here we are recommending a Philip K. Dick Award winner.

Life is, as you might guess from the title, a novel about life. It's about the difficulties encountered by a woman scientist trying to make headway in a male-dominated field. It's about personal and professional relationships, artificial intelligence, gender issues, and a genetic research discovery that may force humanity to re-examine our notions of our own evolution.

   No. 9 (tie)
Woken Furies Woken Furies by Richard Morgan
(Gollancz, March 2005 / Del Rey, September 2005)

Ancient alien relics and technology, payback and paranoia, cynicism and action: this book is quite the package. This is the third in Morgan's series of Takeshi Kovacs novels, following Altered Carbon (2002) and Broken Angels (2003). Kovacs is the tough-as-nails anti-hero in this noir space thriller. This time out, he runs up against a younger version of himself after a digital cortical stack recording of his consciousness is illegally "re-sleeved" into a new body. Would you be able to out-think a younger version of yourself? Are you clever enough to do that, or were you too clever to ever let it happen?

Undoubtedly Morgan is not yet finished with Kovacs, who will be back again, I'm sure, with a new face, ready to pit himself against the injustice that is his world.

   No. 9 (tie)
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco, translated by Geoffrey Brock
(Harcourt, May 2005 / Secker & Warburg, June 2005)

In what may be Eco's best novel yet (no small praise), the narrator has suffered some kind of stroke which has robbed him of his memories. But only the memories pertaining to his own life; he still remembers everything he's read. When his family and friends tell him about himself, it's like they're speaking of a stranger. In an effort to find out more about himself, he tries to reconstruct his life by the books that influenced his former life. He secludes himself in his childhood home and re-reads everything he finds there -- comic books, war propaganda, novels, letters -- in an effort to find out who he really is. But how far can words and pictures go towards replicating a life?

   No. 8
Vellum Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan
(Macmillan, August 2005)

The Vellum is "the vast realm of eternity on which our world is just a scratch." Except that eternity isn't necessarily eternal, and we're about to discover that reality is more malleable than we previously may have thought. In the near future, with the apocalypse imminent, angels are walking the earth. These angels are former humans who have been remade by the archaic machine-code language that forms the essence of reality. Unfortunately, however, the book in which all of reality has been written is now lost. And these angels are preparing for war, recruiting for the final battle to control the Vellum -- or destroy it. An impressive debut, this novel has been nominated for the Crawford Award.

   No. 7
The Ultimates The Ultimates 2 by Mark Millar, illustrated by Bryan Hitch
(Marvel Comics, ongoing series)

Millar's comic book series The Ultimates received honourable mention in last year's Best Read of the Year; this time it's planted firmly in the Top 10, both as a continuing series and for the trade graphic novel collection from Marvel which appeared in September 2005, The Ultimates 2, Vol. 1: Gods and Monsters, which collects issues 1 through 6 of The Ultimates 2.

This is the series that brought us costumed heroes versus alien invasion, secret origins of some of Marvel's favourites, and, more importantly, provides some surprisingly insightful comment on the world around us through the metaphors and parallels of the Marvel universe.

   No. 6 (tie)
The Carpet Makers The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, translated by Doryl Jensen
(Tor, April 2005)

This is the first English translation of this 1996 award-winning German novel. It's a cleverly crafted, intricate piece of literature; primarily a work of ideas rather than characters. The ideas focus on a desert planet where the sole occupation is the meticulous and delicate weaving of carpets made from human hair. Each carpet takes a lifetime to create. On another distant planet, the Emperor covers the floors of his opulent palace with these carpets from thousands of subservient worlds, collected annually as a tribute. This has been the way of the worlds for hundreds of years; the carpet makers are held in their servile and backwards way of life by the oppression of the vast and powerful Empire. Or are they partly to blame for "their own cultural inertia"?

   No. 6 (tie)
The Hounds of Avalon The Hounds of Avalon by Mark Chadbourn
(Gollancz, April 2005)

This novel is the third and final volume of The Dark Age trilogy, which itself follows on The Age of Misrule trilogy. Chadbourn pits magic against modern technology and he does it better than most. Since the Fall, the world has become a very different place, with forces of Fey having invaded and fundamentally changed everything we know. The story is told from the perspective of what's happening in the UK, isolated as it is from the rest of the world, which, presumably, is in no better shape. This book introduces two new Brothers of Dragons enlisted to fight the ultimate war. The final enemy to confront humanity is known as the Void. It is the antithesis of life and may possibly represent the end of all existence.

   No. 5 (tie)
Pushing Ice Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
(Gollancz, October 2005 /Ace, June 2006)

Reynolds is doing his best to revive the space opera novel. This one is involves first-contact and time-travel. Plenty of traditional SF elements, but presented in an entertaining original manner. Enough so to pick up a nomination for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The trouble starts when a commercial spaceship -- on a routine mission to recover ice comets and push them back to civilization to be exploited for their water -- is called on to investigate and intercept a strange phenomenon: one of Saturn's moons is heading out of orbit, much in the way you would expect it to if someone were controlling it. Certainly this is something that needs to be checked out; but the question is, will this crew of ice-pushers be able to do that and return home again? And how will what they find change the course of our future?

   No. 5 (tie)
9-Tail Fox 9-Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
(Gollancz, October 2005)

This book is a BSFA Award nominee. It's one of those rare novels where the author has a really cool idea, and actually manages to make it soar. Bobby Zha is a cop in San Francisco's Chinatown. He's half Chinese, and is therefore fairly used to being regarded as an outsider by pretty much everyone in his community. Also, he's convinced his wife is cheating on him with his partner. While investigating a suspicious homicide, Bobby is murdered -- and his partner is almost certainly implicated. Then Bobby wakes up in someone else's body. Now he may have a chance to finish the case he was on, plus find out who murdered him and why. Of course, he may also be interested to find out why he's been given this second chance, and to know just how much time he has left to figure it all out.

   No. 4
The Silences of Home The Silences of Home by Caitlin Sweet
(Penguin Canada, 2005)

While this novel is set in the same world as Sweet's first book, A Telling of Stars (2003), the action takes place several hundred years earlier. The legendary Queen Galha of the previous book is a real flesh-and-blood person in the present work. But she's not quite the same as she is depicted in the legends. Of course, that's all according to her calculated design. This is a rather more intricate novel than its precursor, with a larger cast of characters. The story is deftly told and the characterizations have real depth. The primary character is Lanara, best friend of the Queen's daughter. It is through Lanara's eyes that we see (even when she doesn't yet) the true, tyrannical nature of Queen Galha. The tone is dark; the style is literary; the book is excellent.

   No. 3
Magic For Beginners Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
(Small Beer Press, July 2005)

Link's first collection, Stranger Things Happen (Small Beer Press, 2001), forced readers of short fiction magic realism to sit up and take notice -- and coerced everyone else to become a reader of short fiction magic realism. Apparently her second collection is also refusing to be ignored. The title story from this collection is on the preliminary Nebula ballot for best novella, and is also a BSFA Award nominee for best short fiction. Link's style is dark and humorous, charmingly engaging and utterly original. Some of these stories will conjure echoes of tales you think you may have heard before, but guaranteed these are fresh takes on what may feel vaguely like traditional themes and tropes.

   No. 2
Accelerando Accelerando by Charles Stross
(Ace, July 2005 / Orbit, August 2005)

Accelerando has been nominated for both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award. It may well represent the best of post-human SF currently being written. Manfred Macx trades sure-fire business models in exchange for favours that grant him great wealth and power. And this is happening in the context of a massive transformation of the Solar System into a single, vast group consciousness. Some, however, are still clinging to their individuality. AI, bio-tech, nano-tech and aliens. It may all sound familiar to you, but aside from being a tremendously entertaining book, this is also a novel that is just ahead of the razor-sharp cutting edge of SF.

   No. 1 (tie)
Spin Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
(Tor, April 2005)

One night the stars go out. The earth has been enveloped in some kind of cosmic sack, while sunlight is somehow artificially simulated and the influence of the moon on the tides is still in effect. Soon enough we find that time outside this mysterious barrier is passing at a vastly different rate. In fact, we seem to have only about 40 years left before our sun will expire. How do we deal with what may be our final years on Earth?

In Wilson's latest novel his writing is even sharper than ever. He examines this apocalyptic scenario by focussing on three characters whose lives are inextricably entwined. One seeks solace in religion; one seeks answers from science; the other, the narrator of the novel, loves, admires and lives always in the shadow of the other two, even while the shadow of the end of the world looms over them all.

   No. 1 (tie)
The House of Storms The House of Storms by Ian R. MacLeod
(Simon & Schuster, Feb 2005 / Ace, May 2005)

The Light Ages (2003) was number 1 on the SF Site Top 10 two years ago. This book takes place in the same world, but a century later and with a whole new crew of characters. In an alternate England, an alternate Industrial Revolution has been powered by a dangerous and magical substance called aether. Alice Meynell, who has some magical abilities, is willing to make unscrupulous sacrifices in order to save her dying son, Ralph. Once returned to health, Ralph pursues his studies in the field of natural science, leading him to some rather controversial conclusions -- and the unhappy realization that his pursuit of truth is of considerably less interest to those in power. After all, ignorant masses are more easily controlled masses. But sometimes you lose control and, as Alice herself learns, your best laid plans do not bear the fruit you might have wished they would.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
    As I mentioned above, it was a very close race this year. All of the following books very nearly made it onto the 2005 Official Editors' Choice Top 10 (or top 14, if you must be precise). Therefore, they are presented here in no particular order. Consider them to be further recommendations from the SF Site editors and reviewers.
  • Burn by James Patrick Kelly (Tachyon, December 2005);
  • Counting Heads by David Marusek (Tor, November 2005);
  • Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder (Tor, July 2005);
  • Thud! by perennial favourite Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins /Doubleday /Transworld, October 2005);
  • Trash Sex Magic by Jennifer Stevenson (Small Beer Press, July 2005), which is on the preliminary ballot for the Nebula Award;
  • Air by Geoff Ryman (St. Martin's Griffin, October 2004 / Gollancz, July 2005), winner of the Sunburst Award, and nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the BSFA Award, and the Nebula;
  • Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson (Simon & Schuster, February 2005), not to be confused with Steven Erikson, another SF Site favourite;
  • Ravenor Returned by Dan Abnett (Black Library, April 2005);
  • In Search of Myths and Heroes by Michael Wood (BBC Books, March 2005); and
  • Years in the Making: The Time-Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp edited by Mark L. Olson (Nesfa Press, February 2005).
    In addition, to those books, we recommend the following authors, each of whom might have risen higher on this year's Top 10 if we had been voting for our favourite authors rather than our favourite books:
  • Alastair Reynolds, as well as making #5 on the list above with Pushing Ice, also picked up votes for Century Rain (Gollancz, November 2004 / Ace, June 2005) and for Diamond Dogs (PS Publishing 2001), Turquoise Days (Gollancz, January 2003 / Ace, January 2005);
  • Patricia A. McKillip split our votes by publishing two excellent books this year, Harrowing the Dragon (Ace, November 2005) and Od Magic (Ace, June 2005);
  • Terry Bisson did the same with his Greetings and Other Stories (Tachyon, September 2005) and Numbers Don't Lie (Tachyon, September 2005);
  • John Crowley for The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines (Subterranean, June 2005) and Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (William Morrow, June 2005);
  • China Miéville for Looking for Jake (Macmillan / Del Rey, September 2005) as well as for the story "Reports of Certain Events in London" which appeared in that collection, first published in McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon (Vintage, November 2004);
  • Ian R. MacLeod (tied for #1, above) also picked up votes for his The Summer Isles (Aio Publishing, June 2005); and finally
  • Charles Stross (#2 on the list above) also received votes for The Hidden Family (Tor, August 2005).
Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2004           
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: 2004
           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
Come back next issue to view the results of your own choices in the SF Site Readers' Choice Top 10 (or more?) for 2005!

Copyright © 2006 Neil Walsh

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