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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1997: Editors' Choice
by John O'Neill

Welcome to the SF Site's first Top Ten list, and the end of our first full year as a commercial website. In the last twelve months we've grown from a shoestring operation (with an audience we knew virtually by name) into a thriving commercial endeavour with a monthly readership approaching six figures. The beliefs we articulated in our very first editorial -- that the Web is rapidly becoming the premier source of information for today's authors and readers, and that this audience is hungry for a mature site devoted to the very best of the genre -- seem to have been borne out. We've been able to expand well beyond our original charter, with a dedicated and growing team of writers and editors. We began publishing two issues a month in June and never looked back.

But regardless of our success, there was still a certain trepidation in undertaking something like a "Top Ten" list. Sure, we know what we like... but how many of us can finger the very best with any kind of authority? For one thing, most of us hardly had time to sample the 700-odd review titles that crossed our desks in the last twelve months, much less seek out the nuggets of gold that never rolled near our offices. How could we lay claim to a definitive "Best" list, no matter how long it was?

In the end, some contributors could only volunteer a handful of titles that deserved to be included in a "Ten Best" list, and two senior editors stubbornly insisted on submitting twelve (but that's Steven and Rodger for you -- they read more than anyone else alive). And talk about all over the map -- we had votes for graphic novels, numerous kid's books, and even one written over a hundred years ago: Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century.

But an oddly comforting thing happened when we tallied the votes. To quote the concept of psychohistory: "There's no accounting for the taste of any single reviewer, but as the size of the group expands its consensus opinion takes on solid and predictable characteristics" (it's right there in Book I of Foundation -- trust us). Over forty reviewers, editors and professional writers contributed to this survey, and in the end they agreed with surprising regularity on those titles which delighted, charmed, and startled them in 1997. And without further ado we present them to you.

[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
Trader Trader by Charles de Lint
Tor Books
Charles de Lint has become the senior statesman of the Urban Fantasy. Even in his earliest works, such as Moonheart and Yarrow, de Lint displayed an uncanny talent for transplanting the fantastic right into our midst. In Trader he presents an intriguingly original premise and then spins a marvellous tale around it.

When a mischievous spirit grants loser Johnny Devlin's wish for a new life, mild-mannered Max Trader finds himself waking up in Johnny's body. As Devlin exploits his new situation for the maximum immediate benefit (mostly wine, women and song), Max discovers his new role in life is as a friendless and bankrupt ne'er-do-well. Knocked out of his comfortable and complacent rut, Max finds himself on a mission to reclaim his identity with a vengeance... and along the way confronting questions on its true value. The struggles Max faces will strike a chord in anyone who has questioned the direction their life has taken. And the answers he finds have similar meaning for us all.

Set in de Lint's fictional town of Newford, this is a powerful addition to an already strong body of work by Canada's leading Fantasy author. "It is hard to imagine urban fantasy done with greater skill, even by de Lint himself." -- Booklist.

Cockpit The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt
Stephen Dobyns usually operates well outside the genre, although he's skirted it with such superb suspense novels as The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini and the madcap The Wrestler's Cruel Study. But in 1997 he delivered one of the most chilling and disturbing horror books of the year with The Church of Dead Girls.

When the first young girl goes missing in the small New York community of Aurelius, the townspeople close ranks and begin to mistrust outsiders. When the second one vanishes, neighbours and lifelong friends begin to cast suspicious glances at each other. But when the third girl disappears without a trace, the sleepy little town awakens to a full-blown nightmare. As citizens take matters into their own hands the very fabric of the town begins to tear, revealing the dark secrets and old history buried in the community. Soon every old rumour and forgotten pain will be made fresh, and every embarrassing secret held up to the light. Simultaneously a chilling psychological thriller and an unflinching look at the corrosive effects of fear, The Church of Dead Girls kept us up later than any other book this year. "If ever there was a tale for a moonless night, a high wind, and a creaking floor, this is it." -- Stephen King.

   No. 9
Rose Daughter Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
Greenwillow
Twenty years ago Robin McKinley -- author of The Door in the Hedge and one of our all-time favourite Young Adult novels, The Outlaws of Sherwood -- re-told the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast in Beauty. In 1997 she revisited the story with Rose Daughter. Not a sequel, this a totally new novelization of the classic tale that is simultaneously fuller bodied and possessing a darker edge.

Exposing much more of the background of Beast, McKinley lures us into a mature fantasy with rich characterizations and more potent fantasy elements, including a prescient cat, a ghostly greenwitch, unicorns, and magical Guardians. But the heart of the tale remains a haunting exploration of the transformative power of love -- a subject that, for all of its universal nature, still requires someone with a delicate touch to make it flower. In McKinley's hand this rose blooms beautifully. A novel for lovers of fairy tales of all ages.

   No. 8
Giant Bones Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle
Roc/New American Library
In his introduction to Giant Bones, Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place, admits that he doesn't write "epic trilogies culminating with elves, dwarves, wizards, and men standing at Armageddon and waving magic swords and assorted enchanted jewelry in hopeless defiance of this or that Dark (or anyway Grubby) Lord." What he does write are charming literary fantasies that both tweak the imagination and touch the heart. The six novellas in this brilliant and original collection are all set in the bestselling world of The Innkeeper's Song, Beagle's most recent novel.

The trials Beagle's characters endure are far removed from the typical gauntlet of orcs and demons. In the opening piece, "The Last Song of Sirit Byar," the bard Sirit Byar and his companion try valiantly to cure a woman of her madness, and in "Chousi-Wai's Story," an unwilling bride-to-be is assisted by a singing fish in a palace pond -- but at an unusual price. The magician in "The Magician of Karakosk" is a country bumpkin named Lanak who, in the end, proves himself every bit a match for a court-intrigue obsessed monarch. And the title story, "Giant Bones," is told from the point of view of a harried farmer trying to tend both a pregnant farm animal and his own sleepless son, who is nagging him for a story.

"These tales... don't follow any formula," noted reviewer Stephen Davis. "I don't remember any Dark Riders anywhere in the book, nor will the reader find any dragons here. There are evil creatures lurking in these pages, but none of them look like they got put together by the tossing of twelve-sided dice. Things are rarely what they seem in these stories, and the reader won't find himself saying 'Well, I saw that coming.'" For a taste of fantasy far outside the ordinary, and yet hauntingly reminiscent of the truest fairy tales from your childhood, seek out this excellent volume.

   No. 7
Speaking Dreams Speaking Dreams by Severna Park
Avon Books
Speaking Dreams originally appeared in a very limited edition by Firebrand Books in April of 1992, when it was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction. Avon republished this first novel to a new audience in June, where it made considerable waves. A space opera of the old school told from a unique and refreshing viewpoint, Speaking Dreams signals the arrival of a powerful new voice in our midst.

In the a far future, in a universe on the edge of war, three factions manoeuvre in a complex dance of power and deception: the cruel Faraqui slavers, the mysterious Remiene race, and the slowly deteriorating Emirate empire. Mira, a troubled Emirate diplomat, is forced into acquiring a slave, an event which brings far more than just civilized revulsion into her life. For Costa, a female breeder, has disturbing visions that may well hold the key to overthrowing the domination of her people. As interstellar war looms and Mira and Costa confront the events foretold in Costa's dreams -- and a common enemy -- a fledgling love between slave and master begins to develop.

"Speaking Dreams guides us on a romp through contradictions," said Tom Myer in his feature review. "With Faraqui slavers making deals with aliens to regain lost territory, Emirate forces both opposing and self-consciously bolstered by slaving (in social and economical realms), and aliens with their own agendas, this novel is certainly not lacking intrigue. If this weren't enough, Park mixes a prescient protagonist into the soup, and manages to do so without spoiling the end... I was also grateful for her dead-on prose, the gems that make a reading experience worth more than the cover price." That combination of top-notch writing and classic SF adventure helped create one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year.

   No. 6
Saul's Death  & other poems Saul's Death & other poems by Joe Haldeman
Anamnesis Press
Speculative poetry is not a particularly thriving sub-genre. In fact, we'd be hard pressed to name a half-dozen quality collections for the whole year. But if anyone could single-handedly reverse this, it would be Joe Haldeman. The author of The Forever War, 1968, and the just-released Forever Peace, has been writing SF (and non-SF) poetry for most of his career, and this collection gathers thirty-two of his best pieces into a compact trade paperback. The contents include two Rhysling Award winners: "Eighteen Years Old, October Eleventh" (1991) and "Saul's Death" (1985).

Despite the relative short length of many of the poems, there's no shortage of diverse settings and themes. "Homecoming" tells the life story of a space junkie; "Machines of loving grace" laments the slow extinction of the manual typewriter; and "ice" captures the image of a small ice-sheathed tree. "As I read and re-read them over the years," mused SF Site co-founder Todd Ruthman in his feature review, "I'm sure to find new favourites depending on the moment. I hope you take the opportunity to do the same."

   No. 5
The Subtle Knife The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Knopf
Last year's offering from Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass, landed in our midst with a significant splash. A highly original and dynamic retelling of The Snow Queen, and featuring one of the most endearing protagonists we've met in years, this book was enough to rejuvenate our faith in modern Young Adult fantasy (not that it really needed rejuvenating, mind you). This year Pullman came clean with his publishing plans, calling The Golden Compass the first novel in a trilogy he'd titled His Dark Materials. The arrival of the second book in the series caused an unprecedented free-for-all in our offices as everyone tried to claim it at once.

The new volume does not disappoint. Lyra Silvertongue and her new friend Will have found their way to Cittagazze, a world visited by a plague of Specters who are eliminating adults, leaving only children behind. As Will and Lyra try to piece together the events leading to the plague they encounter a new cast of fascinating characters, including: the witch Sarafina Pekkala, who must save one of her coven from being tortured to reveal the witches' secrets; Lee Scorsby, an aeronaut on a quest to find Stanislaus Grumman, the shaman and explorer; and of course Mrs. Coulter, the "snow queen" of the first novel, still in search of Lyra. The quests converge climatically as the various adults struggle to either protect or capture Lyra and Will.

"In addition to unique worlds, fascinating characters, and emotionally powerful writing, the book has a variety of other exemplary qualities," said our reviewer, Lela Olszewski. "I enjoyed the touches of humour that help relieve the tension. Pullman's straightforward writing style gives a simple elegance to the book -- this style reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy (although the books are dissimilar in plot and setting). Pullman has written a subversive novel... for this isn't the retelling of a fairy tale, like The Golden Compass. This is part of the story of the Old Testament battle between good and evil, but the usual sides have been reversed. I can't wait to see how it all turns out."

   No. 4
The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem
Tor Books
Okay, we cheated a little here. The first short story collection from the author of Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon was originally published by Harcourt Brace in a small print run hardcover in late 1996, but real fame and fortune waited for the arrival of the 1997 trade paperback from Tor. A word of warning, though: these seven stories are not your average, pasteurized speculative fiction tales. Published mostly in small press magazines like Crank!, they push the envelope well beyond standard postal regulations.

In "The Happy Man" we meet a husband and father brought back from the dead to support his family -- but who still suffers periodic out-of-body journeys back to Hell. In "Light and the Sufferer," a strange, cat-like alien determinedly pursues two drug dealers attempting to flee New York city. A white basketball player finds he has access to Michael Jordan's stored skills via an exo-suit in "Vanilla Dunk." And "Hardened Criminals" is a tale of a new prison built of hardened criminals. Literally.

Each of these stories showcases both the author's macabre view of life and his wry sense of humour. If you're looking for a true original amongst the crowded shelves at your local bookstore, look no further than Jonathan Lethem.

   No. 3
Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman by Walter Miller, Jr.
Bantam Books
Some thirty years ago Walter Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the most celebrated science fiction novels ever published (and one of the few SF novels to consistently find its way onto high school and university lit reading lists). A loose collection of three novellas, it chronicled the rise and trials of the order of Leibowitz, a group of monks attempting to preserve knowledge hundreds of years after a holocaust. For years rumours circulated that the reclusive and notoriously perfectionist Miller was preparing a sequel, but nothing ever appeared. In 1995 Miller and his agent contacted Terry Bisson, the acclaimed author of Pirates of the Universe, Voyage To the Red Planet, and the famous story "Bears Discover Fire," asking if he would be interested in helping complete the book. Bisson jumped at the chance. As he was digesting the nearly complete 300+ page manuscript, word came in mid-1996 that Miller had committed suicide.

The book should have been doomed -- at best a curious literary fragment, at worst a botched patchwork effort released to recoup the publishers investments. Instead it confounded critics by arriving on shelves fully formed. That it has found its way on to so many "Year's Best" lists is a testament not only to Miller's genius but Bisson's intuition and tenacity. Working from dialogue fragments and an outline for the ending found in letters to Miller's agent and editor, Bisson has assembled the final chapters for the book with a touch so light that SF Site contributing editor Steven H Silver called it "practically invisible."

This sequel follows Blacktooth St. George, a fallen monk of the Leibowitz order, as he becomes involved in a clash between the papacy and the secular Hannegan empire. Blacktooth's life is complicated by the temptress Drea, the primary cross he must bear as he endures a series of trials. Ultimately salvation for this fragile new civilization may lie with Blacktooth, a simple man who is struggling to realize the extent of his own capabilities. A more seamless work than its predecessor despite its collaboratory birth, Saint Leibowitz is also "a much more ambitious novel," said Steven. It's not often that the SF field gives rise to a literary event such as Saint Leibowitz, and you owe it to yourself to get a copy.

   No. 2
Encyclopedia of Fantasy The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant
St. Martin's Press
It's been a long time since a book landed on our desks with the impact of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. This is a massive tome, some 1049 pages of fine print, and the companion volume to 1993's monumental Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by Clute and Peter Nicholls). In the months since it's arrived, it has become an invaluable office reference, the kind that makes you wonder how you ever got along without it. And like any good encyclopedia, this one offers rewards even when opened at random, with fascinating bits of trivia, insightful analyses of favourite books and authors, and in-depth discussions of trends and themes in Fantasy.

But don't be fooled by its size and comprehensive breadth. This is not a weighty academic reference of use only to your local librarian, and editors of genre websites. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is full of lively discussion and history, with lengthy subject headings on role-playing games, comics, Christmas, cartoons and movies, to name just a few. It is a gold mine for the casual reader, pointing out lost or neglected gems in almost every sub-genre. There's even a fond reference to our favourite bookstore, the late-lamented House of Speculative Fiction in Ottawa, Canada, and a near-complete list of the young authors and fans who flourished in its circle, including Charles de Lint and John Bell. This is precisely the kind of book you can get lost in for days, and if you're at all serious about the genre of Fantasy, you need a copy.

   No. 1
Neverwhere Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Avon Books
British author Neil Gaiman built his reputation on his re-interpretation of The Sandman for DC Comics, one of the most original comics of the '80s and '90s -- and one of the most popular. In the prose arena, he's crafted a number of well received short stories, collected in Angels and Visitations (1993), and co-authored Good Omens with Discworld creator Terry Pratchett. But as with fellow Brit comic book prodigy Alan Moore, Gaiman kept us waiting for that dark fantasy epic we knew he had in him (unless you count his Duran Duran tribute book back in 1984, which we won't).

In 1997 he produced it. Based on Gaiman's own "Neverwhere" TV series for the BBC, which so far has steered clear of North American shores, Neverwhere is a disturbing look at London's literal underworld -- the world of the homeless, the insane, the forgotten and the fey. Its inhabitants are quite literally imperceptible to the city's populace, and the only way to the underworld from above is to "fall through the cracks" -- which is exactly what happens to securities analyst Richard Mayhew when he stops to help Door, an oddly gifted teenager on the run from assassins. Richard soon finds himself drawn into a dark world of fealty, fiefdom, and the forever dispossessed, as he struggles to find his way home -- and begins his own terrifying journey of self-discovery.

It's not merely the story and setting which make this book special, but Gaiman's creepy ability to get under your skin. As SF Site contributing editor Alice Dechene put it in her July review, "Gaiman beautifully orchestrates scenes, fractionally unveiling psychological and physical terrors until the unwary reader totters as unsteadily as Richard on the brink of this terrifying world." This was perhaps the most talked-about book in our offices this year, and is our pick as the best book of 1997.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
We'll be the first to admit that this list of "Top Ten" books is by no means definitive. It's already caused more interesting debates and arguments in our offices than anything since the Ultima Online beta ended. Where, for example, is Ann Benson's The Plague Tales, one of the most original and suspenseful medical thrillers we've read in a decade? Or Patrick O'Leary's The Gift (which one of our editors tried to vote for twice), a startlingly refreshing fantasy which defies traditional description? They're number 11 and 12, respectively, and highly recommended for all that.

In fact, a quick glance at the rest of the list reveals a terrific cross-section of talent. Vincent di Fate's Infinite Worlds is one of the most beautiful art books we've seen in years, and deserves to be on everyone's shelves. The Last Hawk by our own Catherine Asaro, a dazzling and weighty addition to her evolving saga of the Skolian Empire, was rated very high on the charts by her fellow SF Site reviewers. And Donnerjack by Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold was another surprising posthumous collaboration, a gripping and fully polished Zelazny tale that returned to the themes and flavour of Lord of Light. And finally Wizard of the Winds, by Allan Cole, is a splendid modern fantasy for those seeking true wonder and adventure in their tales.

We know you'll have additions to this list -- in fact, we're counting on it. Tell us your favourites and, if we get enough votes, we'll compile them together into a separate list. Here's your chance to point out the very best science fiction, fantasy and horror books of 1997. Your fellow readers will thank you.

And until next year, good reading -- and good web surfing.


Copyright © 1998 John O'Neill


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