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Top 10 Fantastical Books of 2002
by Jeff VanderMeer

A couple of notes about my picks. I didn't read much SF this year, but I also didn't, in my casual browsing, find much SF that looked like it deserved to be read. I have also included two reprints at #9 and #10 that, if first published in 2002, would have been #1 and #2 respectively. (The re-release by Old Earth Books of Edward Whittemore's classic magic realism novels set in the Middle East still ranks as the literary event of the year.) My one regret this year is not having a chance to dive into new work by Steve Aylett, one of our most talented writers.

Editor's Note: Links lead to SF Site reviews of the books.

   No. 1
Light Light by M. John Harrison
In returning to SF after 25 years, M. John Harrison not only revitalized the genre with Light -- he turned it on its arse, combining literary mainstream sensibilities and the sheer joy of space opera to great effect. By both parodying and giving in to a "sense of wonder", Harrison managed to create a novel simultaneously playful and serious. A stunning achievement.

   No. 2
The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford
Some books play new tricks using old tropes. In Portrait, Jeffrey Ford uses every legitimate trick of pacing and confounding reader expectations to pull off a masterpiece of mystery and fantasy. From low to high humor, from scenes of amazing beauty to scenes of great terror, Portrait delights, entertains, and moves the reader. The central conceit -- an artist asked to paint a portrait of a woman who will not allow him to see her -- builds to a harrowing climax.

   No. 3
A Year in the Linear City A Year in the Linear City by Paul Di Filippo
(PS Publishing)
Paul Di Filippo also revitalized genre in 2002 with his short fantasy novel, A Year in the Linear City. For once, a quest that doesn't feature anyone trying to save the world, even a piece of it. The pleasures of characterization and clever world-building in Di Filippo's work should not be under-estimated; the quiet confidence displayed by the writing is not an easy effect to pull off.

   No. 4
Girl Imagined by Chance Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olsen
(Fiction Collective 2)
Lance Olsen has often skirted the edge of the fantastic with his experimental approaches to narrative. In Girl Imagined by Chance, a couple pretends to have a child to appease relatives, with far-reaching results. By using characters named "Lance" and "Andi" (Olsen's wife), Girl Imagined by Chance takes huge risks, but these risks result in great rewards. A commentary on the culture of reproduction in our society, it is also, by dint of its imaginative links and creations, about the fantasy of reproduction. Powerful, moving, and quite funny all at once. Highly recommended.

   No. 5
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant The Fantasy Writer's Assistant by Jeffrey Ford
(Golden Gryphon)
Jeffrey Ford's uncanny knack for combining the surreal and every day situations makes for fantasy that resonates with depth of characterization and unusual imagery. This first collection of his short fiction proves that Ford is one of our best short story writers. Uncollected stories such as "The Weight of Words" from the recent Leviathan 3 demonstrate that Ford is moving from strength to strength.

   No. 6
Black Projects, White Knights Black Projects, White Knights by Kage Baker
(Golden Gryphon)
Saucy and silly, profound and unsettling, Kage Baker's interconnected Company stories in Black Projects, White Knights knocked me off my feet. A versatile writer who combines Iain M. Banks' ethical concerns in his Culture novels with the slapstick of P.G. Wodehouse, Baker is a formidable talent in the field.

   No. 7
Stories from a Lost Anthology Stories from a Lost Anthology by Rhys Hughes
Criminally overlooked by reviewers and award juries for his previous collection, The Smell of Telescopes, Rhys Hughes returns with a collection nearly as strong in Stories from a Lost Anthology. From the opening salvo aimed at Dylan Thomas, Stories creates a sense of absurdity and pure invention unmatched by few other living writers. Like Italo Calvino on acid, Hughes makes the reader enter his worlds and never look back.

   No. 8
The Scar The Scar by China Miéville
(Macmillan UK/Del Rey)
The Scar balances early structural deficiencies with, in its latter half, some of the most amazing scenes in fantasy literature. Images from this megalithic anti-quest novel still return to me at odd moments because China Miéville's imagination dwarfs that of most other fantasists. Miéville's decision to allow the final revelations regarding the titular Scar to occur "off-camera" ranks as a brave, and necessary, decision. If not for nagging stylistic issues, The Scar would be ranked much higher.

   No. 9
The Jerusalem Quartet The Jerusalem Quartet by Edward Whittemore
(Old Earth Books)
Finally back in print, Edward Whittemore's classic novels Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic (which form The Jerusalem Quartet) compare favorably with the very best fantasy published in the last hundred years. The characters are unforgettable, the themes timeless.

   No. 10
A Voyage to Arcturus A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
(Savoy Books edition)
The Savoy Books' edition of David Lindsay's classic journey to another world literally re-imagines the book through its design. Designer John Coulthart has created a masterpiece of the book as artifact while simultaneously allowing a new generation of readers to enjoy this visionary masterpiece. An introduction by Alan Moore doesn't hurt.

Copyright © 2003 by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime will release his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in April 2003.

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