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SF Site Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2008: Readers' Choice
by Neil Walsh

For more than a decade now, SF Site has been annually soliciting you, our readers, to vote for your favourite books of the past year. Over the past couple of months, we've been receiving your input on the best of 2008 with interest, and now we're ready to present the results. What follows is the best books of 2008 as chosen by the SF Site readers.

It's an interesting list this year and one that I personally feel good about, since there's so much overlap with the Editors' Choice Top 10 which we presented last issue. Whenever I see that the SF Site reviewers and readership are in agreement about what the best books are, it gives confidence that we're reviewing and recommending books you want to hear about, and you're reading books that maybe you first heard about right here.

The only significant difference that really leaps out at me this time is that the SF Site Editors' Choice Top 10 for 2008 includes 4 graphic novel titles, whereas the Readers' Choice Top 10, below, has none. I'm not sure what this means: perhaps the SF Site audience isn't big on comics, or perhaps you just haven't given them a real chance.

In any case, there are plenty of excellent recommendations for good reading between the two lists, and I hope we all find something new and exciting to read which we might otherwise have missed.

[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
Zoe's Tale Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
(Tor, July 2008)

A novel in the Old Man's War universe, fourth in the sequence. This one, however, is largely a retelling of events depicted in the third, The Last Colony (Tor, April 2007) which was #7 on this list last year. This time, we see things from the point of view of Zoe, teenaged daughter of a traitor and adopted daughter of John and Jane Perry. A few puzzle pieces from the previous novels are fit more snugly into place, and Scalzi's writing is as tight as ever. High praise when you recall that Old Man's War (Tor, January 2005) received a Hugo nomination.

   No. 9
Dragons of Babel Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
(Tor, January 2008)

In this extremely clever and satiric novel, Swanwick returns to the world he created in his classic "anti-fantasy" The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993). Both books are likely not quite what you would expect from the title, as Swanwick's dragons are as much machine as they are magic or mythology, and his world is an oddly familiar mix of the one we live in and the ones we explore in fantasy literature. Dragons of Babel examines some issues that are particularly relevant in our modern world today, such as terrorism and the corruption inherent in great power. A truly inspired work. Only just barely squeezed out of the top 10 Editors' Choice.

   No. 8
Matter Matter by Iain M. Banks
(Orbit, February 2008)

In this novel, Banks makes a long-awaited return to his Culture universe. He takes us to another low-tech shellworld, but this time one of the natives (a member of the royal family) has lived most of her life in the Culture and is now an agent of Special Circumstances. When she learns of her father's death and the resulting political upheavals, she decides to return to her rather backwards world and take a more active interest. Banks once again demonstrates a masterful handling of a variety of styles and genres all in one book, with some surprising twists along the way.

   No. 7
The Steel Remains - Gollancz The Steel Remains - Del Rey The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan
(Gollancz, August 2008 / Del Rey, January 2009)

Morgan has established himself as an award-winning author of SF thrillers; this book is his first fantasy novel. His protagonist is a middle-aged and mostly retired war hero who has fallen somewhat out of favour, and is lured back into further adventure. It's very much in Morgan's now-familiar style of sleekly-plotted, gloves off and no punches pulled storytelling. However, Morgan takes what you might expect from sword and sorcery fantasy and gives it a brutal thrashing until he has molded it into something that is uniquely his own. And that means, of course, convincing characters and dialogue, and an unflinching treatment of sex and violence. It's a powerful kick-butt novel, not for overly delicate readers.

   No. 6
The Graveyard Book - Bloomsbury The Graveyard Book - Children's The Graveyard Book - Subterranean The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
(HarperCollins, September 2008 / Bloomsbury & Subterranean, October 2008)

Gaiman is no stranger to SF Site readers -- and contributors (this book also appeared at #5 on the Editors' Choice Top 10 for 2008). He's a universal favourite, and his latest is a young adult fantasy that is cleverly constructed to parallel Kipling's The Jungle Book. The crucial difference is that instead of being taken in and raised by animals in the forests of India, Gaiman's orphan child is adopted by the undead inhabitants of a graveyard. The US editions are illustrated by Dave McKean, who has collaborated with Gaiman on many past projects. If you haven't already, you should read this book before they make the film version of it.

   No. 5
Toll the Hounds - Bantam Toll the Hounds - Tor Toll the Hounds: Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 8 by Steven Erikson
(Bantam UK, August 2008 / Tor, September 2008)

Erikson is another perennial favourite of SF Site readers and editors. This book also appeared on the Top 10 books chosen by the SF Site Editors as #4. This time, Erikson takes us back to Darujhistan, where we began in Book 1. But going home again is never easy. So discovers the heartbroken Cutter, formerly Crokus Younghand. And the surviving Bridgeburners, who set out to open a tavern and live peaceably. (This book boasts one of the most brilliantly-described battle scenes, involving retired Bridgeburners and the unlucky assassins hired to kill them.) Meanwhile, the city of Black Coral, occupied by Anomander Rake, Son of Darkness, is enshrouded in permanent darkness, with evil brewing in the form of a plague of addiction and insanity, courtesy of the Dying God's blood. And inside Rake's cursed sword, Dragnipur, the wagon of eternal torment is running out of road. What will the dead do when eternity ends?

   No. 4
Pump Six Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
(Night Shade Books, February 2008)

Bacigalupi is an author of short SF, generally hard SF, and typically his stories have an environmental theme. "Pump Six" is a new story, and the remainder of the collection is represented by his previous output, including the Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning "The Calorie Man" (2006) and the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated "The People of Sand and Slag" (2005) and the Hugo-nominated "The Yellow Card Man" (2007). His short fiction has definitely been noticed, and this collection will show you why. Now we're all curious to see what his first novel will be like: The Windup Girl is coming from Night Shade Books in September 2009.

   No. 3
Little Brother - Tor Little Brother - HarperVoyager Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
(Tor, April 2008 / HarperVoyager UK, October 2008)

This is another one that appeared on both lists: SF Site Contributors ranked it at #7. Doctorow's Orwellian vision rings frighteningly true. Four high school students are apprehended after a terrorist bombing of the San Francisco Bay bridge, because they happen to be in the area. They are held as enemy combatants based only on the flimsiest evidence. The Department of Homeland Security has effectively revoked the Bill of Rights, and San Francisco has become a police state. It's up to Marcus Yallow, student and suspected terrorist, to fight for freedom and liberty using his technological know-how and natural cleverness.

   No. 2
The Last Argument of Kings The Last Argument of Kings: The First Law, Book 3 by Joe Abercrombie
(Gollancz, March 2008 / Pyr Books, September 2008)

Abercrombie burst onto the fantasy landscape with bloody murder in his eye and a snarling shout that was not to be ignored. Volume 2, Before They Are Hanged, was #5 on this list last year; that the concluding volume has moved into the #2 spot is a clear indication that the author has not disappointed with his first fantasy trilogy. The Last Argument of Kings offers more black humour, realistic characters, bloody battle scenes, political intrigue, and all around high quality entertainment. And it provides an unyielding, cynical end to the series -- precisely what was demanded by what had come before.

   No. 1
Anathem - Wm Morrow Anathem - Atlantic Anathem by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow / Atlantic Books, September 2008)

Here again the SF Site readers and contributors are in agreement: if you're only going to read one novel from 2008, it should be this one. In this ambitious novel, Stephenson playfully tackles philosophy and physics, and wrestles them into a plot of adventure that rivals the best thrillers. It is, simply put, a demonstration of the highest standards that science fiction can achieve. Arbre is a world not so different from our own, except that there's a sort of monastic system in place which shuts its members off from the rest of society to maintain and to further all knowledge. Once per decade, the monks of all knowledge open their doors and interact with the rest of humanity. This time, however, it's not just the rest of humanity, it's also aliens -- leading our protagonist, Fraa Erasmus, into great adventure, mystery and sophisticated debate, interspersed with healthy doses of humour. Stephenson really outdoes himself in this one -- it's not to be missed.

The Near Misses and Honourable Mentions
    As always, there are so many more good books in a year than just 10. What follows are some titles that very nearly made it onto the Top 10, which can also be considered as what your fellow readers regarded to be among the best reading of 2008:

  • Brent Weeks, narrowly missed the top 10 with The Way of Shadows (Orbit, October 2008), plus he also picked up votes for the other books in the Night Angel Trilogy, Shadow's Edge (Orbit, November 2008) and Beyond the Shadows (Orbit, December 2008);
  • Lavinia, by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harcourt, April 2008);
  • Thunderer, by Felix Gilman (Spectra, December 2007 & September 2008);
  • House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, April 2008); and
  • Neuropath, by Scott Bakker (Orion, May 2008).

    Other books that gathered enough votes to be worthy of Honourable Mention are listed below:

  • Multireal, by David Louis Edelman (Pyr, September 2008);
  • The Ten Thousand, by Paul Kearney (Solaris, September 2008);
  • Caine Black Knife, by Matthew Stover (Del Rey, September 2008);
  • Galactic Empires, edited by Gardner Dozois (SFBC, 2008);
  • Black Man by Richard Morgan (Gollancz, May & November 2007), retitled Thirteen (Del Rey, July 2007 & June 2008) for the US edition -- which was #13 on this Top 10 last year, and appears again for the Del Rey reprint in 2008;
  • The Hero of Ages: Mistborn Trilogy, Book 3, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, October 2008);
  • Implied Spaces, by Walter Jon Williams (Night Shade Books, April 2008);
  • The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1, by Patrick Rothfuss (Daw, March 2007 & April 2008 / Gollancz, September 2007 & June 2008), which was number 1 on last year's list -- glad to see you're taking the recommendations of your fellow readers;
  • Kushiel's Mercy, by Jacqueline Carey (Grand Central Publishing, June 2008) -- sequel to Kushiel's Justice (Warner, June 2007), which was #20 last year;
  • Blindsight, by Peter Watts (Tor, January & October 2006 & April 2008) -- which was #4 on this list when it was first published in 2006;
  • Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross (Orbit, July 2008 / Ace, July 2008), who also picked up votes for his Halting State (Ace, October 2007 & July 2008 / Orbit, January & September 2008);
  • The Temporal Void: Void Trilogy, Book 2, by Peter F. Hamilton (Macmillan, October 2008 / also coming from Del Rey in March 2009) -- the first book The Dreaming Void: Void Trilogy, Book 1 (Tor / Macmillan, August 2007), also received an honourable mention last year;
  • The Gone-away World, by Nick Harkaway (Alfred A. Knopf / William Heinemann, September 2008);
  • Victory of Eagles: Temeraire, Book 5, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey, July 2008 / HarperVoyager, August & December 2008);
  • Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman (Ace, July 2008);
  • Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch (Subterranean, November 2007 / Gollancz, June & November 2007 / Bantam, July 2007 & July 2008) - this book made it onto the Top 10 last year, and appears again this year as an honourable mention, thanks to the 2008 Bantam reprint edition;
  • The Night Sessions, By Ken MacLeod (Orbit, August 2008);
  • Hunter's Run, by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois & Daniel Abraham (HarperVoyager, September 2007 & June 2008 / Subterranean, January 2008 / Eos, January 2008);
  • Emissaries From the Dead, by Adam-Troy Castro (Eos, March 2008); and
  • The Drowned Life, by Jeffrey Ford (Harper Perennial, November 2008).

    If all of that doesn't give you enough inspiration to pick up a good book, have a look at what you might have missed in years past in our previous Best Read of the Year pages.

Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2007           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2006           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2005           
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: 2008
           Best Read of the Year: 2007
           Best Read of the Year: 2006
           Best Read of the Year: 2005
           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
A huge thank you to all our SF Site readers who participated. I truly enjoy and appreciate your input, without which we wouldn't have a Top 10 list for you! Happy reading for 2009, and remember to keep in mind the best of what you read for when we ask for your favourites again next year.

Copyright © 2009 Neil Walsh

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