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Best Fantasy of 2002
by William Thompson

Such lists are always questionable. In the first place, they presume the compiler has read everything published, which is certainly not true for me, many works that I suspect should have made my list -- Black Projects, White Knights by Kage Baker, The Mount by Carol Emshwiller, amongst others -- remaining unread by year's end. Also, they are always to a degree idiosyncratic, reflecting the reviewer's personal tastes and preferences in reading, rarely comprehensive and usually tending to concentrate upon a specific area of genre, be it traditional epic or cross-genre and slipstream. In my particular case, I tend to eschew collections and short stories, which is echoed in the selections below.

That said, what I have chosen is divided into two categories, one obvious, the other more questionably gerrymandered together. My reasoning for this is that the intentions of more traditional epic fantasy are usually quite different from that of cross-genre, faerie or gaslight romance, though obviously all can borrow from another, and that to lump such distinct categories together in judgment seems unfair for all concerned. Of course, I have done just that in the gathering of my second group of narratives, but hopefully this will be tolerated if not excused for the sake of expediency.

The three reissues that appear would have placed much higher had they first been published in 2002, with Savoy's edition of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus easily topping the list. Finally, science fiction has not been included, as I tend not to read it.

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

Epic Fantasy
   No. 1
House of Chains House of Chains by Steven Erikson
(Bantam UK)
Steven Erikson once again amply proves why he is the best writer of heroic fiction today. Truly epic in scope, he has no peer when it comes to action and imagination, and joins the ranks of Tolkien and Donaldson in his mythic vision and perhaps goes them one better. His ongoing Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is a classic in progress.

   No. 2
Voyage of the Shadowmoon Voyage of the Shadowmoon by Sean McMullen
At times quirky, this novel combines a cast of characters reminiscent of Leiber's Lankhmar in a landscape that could easily have been written by Jack Vance. Marvelously inventive, this is as much a comedy of errors as heroic fantasy, with outcomes often entirely unexpected. The start of a of a new series by this acclaimed Australian author.

   No. 3
The Standing Dead The Standing Dead by Ricardo Pinto
(Transworld / Bantam)
To date not receiving the attention it deserves, this sequel to The Chosen balances the imaginative, at times obsessive world-building of the former with a greater emphasis upon story that succeeds in creating one of the more unique imaginary realms and heroes in high fantasy. I expect much from this relative newcomer.

   No. 4
The Golden Fool The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb
(HarperCollins Voyager UK / Bantam Spectra US)
Robin Hobb continues her explorations into human nature in this sequel to Fool's Errand. While adventure and magic are present, they continue to take a back seat to the author's interest in human character and relationships, making this one of the more thoughtful and introspective novels of the year.

   No. 5
A Fortress of Grey Ice A Fortress of Grey Ice by J.V. Jones
Delayed and troubled in publication, J.V. Jones' sequel to the impressive Cavern of Black Ice proved, if not quite as successful, worth the wait. With this ongoing series the author has moved significantly beyond her earlier work, creating one of the more original worlds found in high fantasy. In terms of its bleak landscape, characters and intrigue, some comparison can be drawn to the recent work of George R.R. Martin. Sadly, still not available in the US.

   No. 6
Trial of Fire Trial of Fire by Kate Jacoby
But for the all-gathered-together, happily-ever-after ending, Ms. Jacoby has concluded her Book of Elita series with great success. One of the better epic fantasies of recent years, this relative newcomer has shown she is an author to watch when it comes to conventional high fantasy. Written with far greater imagination and skill than most.

   No. 7
The Visitor The Visitor by Sheri S. Tepper
(Victor Gollancz)
A selection that really doesn't fit in either of the artificial categories I have created, is placed here solely because of its wonderfully descriptive medieval setting. Though, as often with Sheri Tepper, as much science fiction as fantasy, elements of the latter appear to dominate. Telling a tale of a future society that has regressed into another dark age, where magic has replaced science, Tepper effectively uses this conceit to explore more contemporary issues, in the process turning in another excellent novel. Unfortunately the story is marred near the end by the author's usual tendency towards didacticism, though fans of her work should not find themselves put off.

   No. 8
Elfsorrow Elfsorrow by James Barclay
A series that started out as fairly typical, if rousing, heroic fantasy, author James Barclay has consistently improved upon his original model, with this fourth installment turning in one of his best adventures to date. Written with verve and energy, while no one will confuse him with Steven Erikson or Matthew Stover, as entertainment, far more enjoyable than Glen Cook or David Gemmell.

   No. 9
The Broken Sword The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
This grim vision of faerie has long been out of print in its original version. Published the same year as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Poul Anderson offered a dark counterpoint to Tolkien's more heroic vision, in many ways its equal in terms of its re-interpretation of Eddic sources, and some would contend more faithful. Reissued by Gollancz as part of their Fantasy Masterworks series, and offset directly from the original, the re-publication of this classic has been long overdue.

   No. 10
The Dragon Waiting The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
Another important reissue from Gollancz. An alternate history set during the War of the Roses this novel represents an eclectic blend of folklore, literary and historical sources wonderfully re-imagined and powerfully rendered. An obvious forebear for authors as diverse as Guy Gavriel Kay, Mary Gentle, Judith Tarr or Sara Douglass, John Ford has probably never equaled this first impressive novel.

Cross-Genre, Gaslight & Faerie
   No. 1
City of Saints and Madmen City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
An expansion upon the earlier trade paper edition published in 2001, this sumptuously printed hardbound is almost worth purchasing for its artwork and layout alone. But the contents, a wonderfully realized fabulation of related stories, exceeds even the book's beautiful presentation, easily making this collection the best fantasy published this year.

   No. 2
A Mouthful of Tongues: Her Totipotent Tropicanalia A Mouthful of Tongues: Her Totipotent Tropicanalia by Paul Di Filippo
(Wildside Press/Cosmos Books)
By now everyone should know the work of Paul di Filippo. Perhaps his most serious and daring work to date, this novel has been largely ignored in favor of the more straightforward Year in the Linear City. Perhaps this is due to his choice of unfettered eroticism in which to express his themes, but in my opinion this is the finest work of its kind since Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer or the novels of D. H. Lawrence.

   No. 3
White Apples White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
A compositional tour de force from this noted author, in which the cosmology of the novel is recreated in its structure. No mean feat, which when added to all the other intellectual richness the narrative has to offer, provides further proof of why Jonathan Carroll is one of the finest authors of fantasy writing today.

   No. 4
Ombria in Shadow Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip
While not exactly fitting comfortably here, Patricia A. McKillip's most recent work is certainly the intellectual equal of the other novels included, even though set within a landscape and tropes more commonly associated with faerie. She has taken her adopted format in directions little envisioned by her contemporaries, and, I suspect, often overlooked by both critics and fans alike.

   No. 5
The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford
This macabre gaslight romance is set in Manhattan during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Bridging the gap between literature and genre, Jeffrey Ford turns in another superlative performance, rich in metaphor and mystery, that, along with his three previous novels, have established him at the forefront of authors today writing serious literary fantasy.

   No. 6
The Scar The Scar by China Miéville
(Macmillan UK / Del Rey)
Though not as impressive in my opinion as the seminal Perdido Street Station, China Miéville comes close with this second novel set within the fictional realm of New Crobuzon. Continuing to stand epic fantasy tropes on their heads, the author creates an endlessly inventive sea-going cityscape as complex and reflective as his first, marred only by an occasional lack of cohesion. Most, I suspect, when faced with its monumental achievement, won't notice.

   No. 7
Leviathan Three Leviathan Three edited by Jeff VanderMeer & Forrest Aguirre
(Ministry of Whimsy/Prime Books)
A cutting-edge collection of short stories by some of the more creative writers of contemporary fantasy. Wonderful contributions by James Bassett, Stepan Chapman, Zoran Zivkovic, Jeffrey Ford, Tamar Yellin and Brian Stableford, and exceptional quality throughout. Best anthology I've read in quite some time, and not unexpectedly a nominee for this year's Philip K. Dick award.

   No. 8
Lost In A Good Book Lost In A Good Book by Jasper Fforde
(Hodder & Stoughton)
A worthy sequel to last year's widely acclaimed The Eyre Affair. Continues to follow the exploits of literary detective Tuesday Next, this time into the pages of Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka and Arthurian romance. A smart blend of humor, literature and fantasy that makes inroads into the territory of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.

   No. 9
A Voyage to Arcturus A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
(Savoy Books edition)
Long out of print, 2002 saw several reissues of this classic, first published in 1920, and regarded by many as the finest work of fantasy written during the first half of the twentieth century. A complex voyage into metaphysics, David Lindsay's novel is sumptuously reproduced by Savoy, complete with the seminal essay, The Haunted Man by Colin Wilson, and is the only reissue worthy of its contents. A beautiful, loving tribute to a great novel, whether it be fantasy or literature.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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