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Recommended Reading 2003
by William Thompson

This year I have decided to eschew any "best of" list or ranking, and instead provide a recommendation of those works I believe, for various reasons, are worth the reader's time to seek out. Obviously, by implication, this represents an enumeration of the best I felt I read this year, but by presenting them in this manner I avoid problems I have had in the past with the necessarily artificial and at times arbitrary character inherent in the usual lists, as well as the neglect of many excellent and notable efforts that often become overlooked by the imposition of rankings or a confinement of the selection within a numerical criteria.

Therefore, I have listed my recommendations by author's name, with brief comments that may aid the reader in making selections, as some of the work included is wide-ranging in interest and scope, nor would I expect each work to offer equal attraction to everyone. Nevertheless, I would strongly recommend any of these books, especially to the reader whose interests are varied and open to all the differing riches that fantasy and science fiction represents, and believe that in 2003, these were amongst the best the genre had to offer.

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

Oryx and Crake Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Atwood's dystopian novel is set within a bio-engineered catastrophe where one unlikely hero is left to steward the planet's future. At once humorous and grim, the story confronts the conflict between being human and god, without, in the end, resolving the ambiguity.

The Etched City The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Prime Books
This debut by Australian author K.J. Bishop was one of the more vivid and imaginatively surreal books of 2003, inventively visiting narrative territory until now dominated by the likes of Paul di Filippo and Jeff VanderMeer.

Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror edited by Richard Bleiler
Though published at the end of 2002, I did not get a chance to examine this reference until this year, and felt it important enough to include here. A continuation and supplement to Everett F. Bleiler's pioneering work, his son's two-volume edition is in every way a worthy successor, offering biographical information of the major writers that have defined and influenced the genres of fantasy and horror since the fifties. An essential work for libraries, academics, critics and fans alike.

The Book of Athyra The Book of Athyra by Steven Brust
A reissue of the novels Athyra and Orca, and the last of three published by Ace containing the early tales of the ongoing Taltos cycle. These two novels are amongst Brust's best, written by an author who is perhaps America's premiere fantasy humorist, while at the same time addressing more serious themes. If you enjoy the work of Pratchett and Fforde, hard to imagine you won't like Brust as well.

íLimekiller! íLimekiller! by Avram Davidson
Old Earth Books
Though time did not smile favorably on Davidson -- most of his important work associated with an earlier era -- this series of stories, regaling the exploits of Jack Limekiller, and set in the fictional realm of British Hidalgo in South America, was compiled between 1977 and Davidson's death in 1993. They deserve to be ranked amongst his best, and offer a mix of romance and adventure, drenched with wit and intelligence. Never before published, this collection is among the best in recent memory.

Budayeen Nights Budayeen Nights by George Alec Effinger
Golden Gryphon
As with Davidson, another important posthumous collection, also notable for its verve and sardonic humor. In large part an extension of the author's acclaimed Budayeen novels, where Raymond Chandler blends with Orthodox Islam and cyberpunk sensibility, this collection also boasts "Schr÷dinger's Kitten," perhaps Effinger's best known story. Though the results are mixed, nonetheless a delight.

Kalpa Imperial Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Small Beer Press
Set within a fictional empire at once surreal yet all too familiar, this collection of stories spins narrative threads recalling the best of Borges and Calvino, yet with its own distinct voice. One of the most acclaimed writers in her native Argentina, this is Gorodischer's first novel translated (by Ursula K. Le Guin) into English. Hopefully there will be others.

Felaheen: The Third Arabesk Felaheen: The Third Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
The conclusion to the Ashraf Bey novels, and an obvious successor to Effinger's Budayeen, mentioned above. Set within an alternate history in which the Ottoman Empire remains and resurgent Islam has driven the West from the Middle East and Africa, this blend of hardboiled espionage and cyberpunk is one of the more original and stylish, if indebted, SF series to come along in some time.

Fool's Fate Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb
The concluding novel to The Tawny Man trilogy. Though not as imaginative as her earlier linked series -- in many respects more devoted to character study than action and adventure -- Hobb is nonetheless one of the better authors of epic fantasy currently writing, and fans of her earlier series -- especially Farseer -- should not be disappointed.

A Fortress of Grey Ice A Fortress of Grey Ice by J.V. Jones
The UK edition appeared on my list for last year. Its reappearance here is due to the regrettable delay (almost a year and a half) in TOR's publication of the novel in the US. This edition contains revisions some may find an improvement. Though suffering from some of the usual flaws of a bridging novel, this is nonetheless one of the finer epics currently underway, and the best work J.V. Jones has done to date.

The Briar King The Briar King by Greg Keyes
Ballantine/Del Rey US/Tor UK
The best authors keep finding new ways to refresh tired conventions when it comes to epic fantasy. This newest offering, by Greg(ory) Keyes, is among them, bringing just enough new twists and indelible characters to keep his novel a notch above the usual. Plus, it is written with the author's vivid prose.

The Light Ages The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod
Earthlight UK/Ace US
A clear standout, this imaginative novel subverts faerie, envisioning an alternate history in which magic has been perverted to the service of industry, and science is the source of social stagnation. Crossing genres, this novel is in part barbed social satire, and represents one of the most memorable novels of the year.

GRRM: A Retrospective GRRM: A Retrospective by George R.R. Martin
Subterranean Press
More than thirty stories, including nine novellas, unpublished teleplays and invaluable introductions and commentaries, this sumptuously produced volume represents a wealth of Martin material, some of which has never been collected before. One of the finest collections of work I have ever seen, though according to the publisher's website, now sold out excepted in limited edition.

The Forests of Serre In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip
McKillip is the reigning master of revisionist folklore and fairy tale, and one of fantasy's finest prose stylists. After two rather dense and challenging novels, she delivers one of her more accessible stories, though replete with her usual subtext of allegory and metaphor. A beautiful tale of wonder incorporating elements of Russian folklore into a mythic landscape provoking further thought and reading.

The Skrayling Tree The Skrayling Tree by Michael Moorcock
A sequel to the exceptional The Dreamthief's Daughter, this is part of the long-running Elric saga. Here Moorcock turns his creative myth-making to Native America, turning in another fine fable of the ongoing struggle between Law, Chaos and Balance. A challenging novel that has left the commercial mainstream of fantasy far behind, this represents work by the most important and influential fantasist since Tolkien, though don't expect imitation, as his interests are quite different, and ever original. (USA Today reports an Elric movie is in the works: exciting news indeed!)

Altered Carbon Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Victor Gollancz UK/ Ballantine/Del Rey US
In the shadow of Philip K. Dick, this smartly written thriller is a blend of scifi and hard-boiled detective novel that is a sure page-turner. Impressive as a first novel, and already optioned for film, this is hard to beat for sheer entertainment. Published last year by Gollancz in the UK.

Monstrous Regiment Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Doubleday UK/HarperCollins US
Pratchett has been on a roll for the past couple years, and this newest addition to the burgeoning Discworld franchise is among his better, calling recent events and notions of patriotism into question. Replete with the usual puns and high-jinks. Suspect The Wee Free Men is equally good, though unfortunately have not found time to read it.

Mortal Engines Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Another impressive debut, though this first appeared in the UK in 2001. Written for the Young Adult market, the story is restlessly inventive, and set within a far-future world in which locomotive cities feed upon each other. Shortlisted for the Whitbread Award, and its sequel, published this year in England, is reported to be equally as good.

Polystom Polystom by Adam Roberts
One of scifi's most original authors (his earlier books concern colonists on a planet made of salt; a criminal employed to kill the entire population of a paradise world; or a character that lives on a vertiginous wall), Roberts, in his fourth outing explores a world in which men travel between planets in biplanes, and existence turns out to be a virtual reality. Perhaps not as grand in scope as many more popular novels, and often meditative and understated in his style of writing, Roberts is nonetheless on my short list of "must read" writers.

Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott
Bantam UK/Delacourte US
In a year in which many of the best writers of epic fantasy were absent, the discovery of Boudica was a blessing. Not really fantasy per se but historical fiction, this opening novel to a trilogy, concerning the quasi-mythic queen who led a revolt against the Romans, possessed enough fantastical elements in its incorporation of dreams and Druidic myth to qualify. Regardless of how one chooses to classify it, the most enjoyable book of its type I read this year.

Singularity Sky Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
One of the exemplars of what some have coined the New Space Opera, a "revolution" that questions earlier paradigms and their emphasis upon narrative drama, though as a distinction it seems suspiciously tailored to acclaim some at the expense of others, and is a trifle vague in definition. Nevertheless, a conceptually brilliant and vivid novel, though at times the narrative seems to defer to its ideas.

Ilium Ilium by Dan Simmons
Another important book, the start of a duo that looks poised to surpass Simmons's exceptional Hyperion/Endymion quartet. Drawing from The Iliad, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Proust's └ la recherche du temps perdu, and Browning's Caliban Upon Setebos, Simmons weaves a dramatic science fictional tapestry rich in metaphor and allegory whose ultimate aims remain unclear but pregnant by the end, creating great anticipation for the sequel. May well prove to be Simmons finest work, and has classic written all over it

Veniss Underground Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
Prime/Night Shade Books
VanderMeer has quickly established himself at the forefront of literary fantasy, with last year's City of Saints and Madmen, and now Veniss Underground, representing the best and most imaginative work fantasy has to offer. A science fictional descent into hell that reflects Dante and mirrors Bosch's nightmare vision, all the while surpassing it, VanderMeer's insights are at times searing.

The Risen Empire/Killing of Worlds The Risen Empire/Killing of Worlds by Scott Westerfeld
The first two books of Succession, this space opera is energetic and inventive, combining a near perfect blend of speculation and narrative drama. As one of the new spacers observed, Westerfeld does not seem to be "questioning the form [space opera] so much as celebrating it." Who cares: this is grand celebration indeed!

The Knight The Knight by Gene Wolfe
A new series by Wolfe, and one that, so far, is decidedly fantasy. Where the author is going with all his symbolism and allegory, and his many references to myth and folklore, remains unclear. But based upon earlier work, little question we have a major cycle in progress. With its recurring temporal shifts, mention of characters the reader has yet to encounter, and intentional gaps left in the narrative, one will have accept certain developments on faith. And a brush up on one's knowledge of mythology and folklore is probably in order. But even for those bewildered at times by information withheld, the strength of Wolfe's narrative, and a pervading sense of magic just beyond view, should carry most readers through what bodes to become a voyage of discovery and wonder.

The Sundering The Sundering by Walter Jon Williams
This isn't New Space Opera at all, but I guess, by new definitions, a plodding old burner. But remember when we used to be able to read for pleasure, before others began to define what was in our best interest? Anyway, plenty of action, intrigue and drama to be had here, written with a verve that has to be admired. And if it's not groundbreaking, it's not every day that we wish the earth to shake.

The Weavers of Saramyr The Weavers of Saramyr by Chris Wooding
Though in most respects conventional fantasy, Wooding's first foray outside Young Adult fiction seems more original than most, perhaps because of his facile ability to blend elements from disparate sources -- Japanese folklore, Sheherazade, medieval mercantilism -- into a coherent tapestry, as well as lending it, in his magical conception of The Weavers, an identity all his own. In any event, I found this a well-written and engaging entertainment, and look forward to the sequel.

The Phoenix Exultant/The Golden Transcendence The Phoenix Exultant/The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright
Another two volumes published within the same year by TOR. As with Westerfeld's books, this raises questions, as in terms of coherence, they read like a single volume, leading to the suspicion that TOR is engaging in a new form of double-dipping (triple if one includes Wright's first book in the series). Regardless, these two books, claimed by the new spacers, are among the best science fiction I've read in years, both for originality of conception and voice. If you were to buy only one work of speculative fiction this year, this would be my choice.

The Book/The Writer The Book/The Writer by Zoran Zivkovic
I've lauded this author's work in the past. But until now, much of his work has been unavailable in the US. This is about to change, with this volume combining an earlier novel and novella, and the superb The Fourth Circle appearing in February. Zivkovic writes with an understated and minimal eloquence that sets his work apart. The first narrative relates its story from a book's perspective, dwelling upon its life history and mixed relationship with its creator. Eschewing plot, it represents a daring example of composition that is largely successful. Its companion story tells the tale of a writer visited by the dreaded block. Both are written with the author's usual wry humor and subtle surrealism.

Every year, as much if not more is probably missed as read. Several books wait sitting on my shelf that I suspect should have made my list, including Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World; R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before; Stephen Baxter's Coalescent; Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots; William Gibson's Pattern Recognition; Elizabeth Hand's Bibliomancy; Norman Spinrad's The Druid King; and David Zindell's Lord of Lies, among others. One book that did not make the list, though more than deserving, was Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. Unlike others, I did not feel a science fiction vantage point was enough to qualify it as genre, feeling it is predominantly a work of historical fiction. However, were I to include it, it would be at the top of my list.

Copyright © 2004 William Thompson

In addition to the SF Site, William Thompson's reviews have appeared in Interzone, Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. He also has worked as a freelance editor for PS Publishing, editing The Healthy Dead and Grandma Matchie, by Steven Erikson, and Night of Knives, by Cameron Esslemont. He lives in Mesilla, New Mexico.

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