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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2000: Readers' Choice
by Neil Walsh

For the past 6 weeks or so, we've been soliciting your votes on what you thought were the best books of the year 2000. The result is this, the third annual SF Site Readers' Choice Best SF & Fantasy of the Year Top 10 List. And once again, SF Site readers know what they like. The number one choice was the clear winner very early on, and the votes just kept pouring in. Thanks to everyone who voted!

If you compare this list to the SF Site Contributors' Best Read of the Year: 2000, you'll note that there is some overlap between readers' and reviewers' choices. I take this as a sign that we, the SF Site, are continuing to review the books you want to hear about and/or we are pointing you to the sort of thing you like. However, you'll also note some surprising discrepancies between the two lists, which may be an indication that the SF Site reviewers (who, after all, don't have the opportunity to read all the books we want to in the course of a year) could take a lead from our readers and find a few good books we might not otherwise have considered.

You'll note that both lists are dominated by fantasy titles. Indeed, more than a few voters commented on the relative dearth of truly excellent science fiction in recent years. Perhaps we are living in the Golden Age of epic fat fantasy series...

[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
Deadhouse Gates Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
Also in the #10 spot on the contributors' list, this is the second in Erikson's 10-volume epic Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and the direct sequel to his first fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon (1999), which was reprinted in mass market edition in 2000. As a result of that reprinting, votes for Erikson were split between the two volumes of his series; if you were to count both books together, Erikson would rise a few notches in the esteem of the SF Site readers.

In the course of this vast and complex novel, there is enough intrigue, magic and warfare to keep even the most hard-core fantasy fans salivating, and enough solid characterization to make sure we care. This is very memorable fantasy fare, with some way-cool ideas and imagery, although it is certainly not a light-reading beach book. Sit up and pay attention. You'll be glad you did.

   No. 9
Winter's Heart Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan
Tor (US) / Orbit (UK)
This is Book 9 in Jordan's hugely popular and, well, huge epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time.  Last year, A Path of Daggers (Book 8) captured the #6 spot on the Readers' Choice Top 10 list. But I don't think this apparent slipping indicates any waning in the popularity of the series; probably it's just a result of more quality books becoming available and being discovered by the reading populace.

In a review of a previous volume in the series, SF Site Reviewer Jim Seidman praised Jordan for his excellent writing. His main complaint -- and a common one at that -- was that the book left you wanting more, and having to wait. (It does, after all, take rather longer to write a book than to read it.) The same could be said for Winter's Heart, and there are still at least 3 more volumes to follow. For a series that was originally projected to span 8 volumes, we're now at volume 9, and the end of the story is not yet in sight!

   No. 8
The Truth The Truth by Terry Pratchett
Doubleday (UK) / HarperCollins (US)
Many have said that humour is difficult to write well. Terry Pratchett does it very well. He is one of the genre's most absurdly popular authors. I don't know why anyone even bothers reviewing his books, since readers will devour them anyhow. As a matter of fact, votes were split this time between this book and yet another Discworld novel, The Fifth Elephant (Corgi - UK, paperback reprint, November 2000 / HarperPrism, first US edition, hardcover, March 2000).

In The Truth, William de Worde uses the printing press to present Ankh-Morpork with its very first daily newspaper. The results, as we have come to expect from this author, are nothing less than tremendously entertaining. SF Site's Steven H Silver says: "Pratchett has indicated that he is interested in exploring new areas of the Disc through different characters and settings. If The Truth is any indication of how he intends to make these explorations, the Disc is going to become a stronger and more vibrant setting, which should be able to garner legions of new fans in addition to the hordes Pratchett already commands."

   No. 7
Galveston Galveston by Sean Stewart
This is another example of the SF Site readers and reviewers thinking in tandem. It was #6 on the contributors' list, and you've voted it into the #7 spot.

In this book, the city of Galveston, Texas, is as an oasis of sanity in a world gone mad. Well, mostly. As SF Site reviewer David Soyka explains: "Occult forces have been confined in an eternal Mardi Gras carnival celebration segregated from the 'real' city, which has contrived to maintain a sense of 'normalcy' using jury-rigged technology and an oligarchic government."

One central theme or concept of this novel is the game of poker -- a game which, like life, is anything but fair. It's a truth that sometimes, no matter how good a player you might be, you still lose. But in the case of Galveston, the only way you'll lose is if you don't read it. This is a truly remarkable novel, brutally told and peopled by solidly real characters.

   No. 6
Prophecy Prophecy by Elizabeth Haydon
The first volume in this series, Rhapsody, made it onto last year's Readers' Choice list in the #10 slot. The fact that the second volume has moved up a few pegs to #6 is testament to the skill of the author, with her ability to create realistic characters and an intriguing scenario and storyline.

Victoria Strauss said of the first volume: "Readers will be left satisfied for the moment, while still eagerly anticipating the further adventures of Rhapsody and her friends." Obviously Victoria was correct, and many readers have made the commitment to follow this new series from a strong new fantasy writer.

   No. 5
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Bloomsbury (UK) / Raincoast (Can) / Arthur A. Levine (US)
It seems odd to me that last year's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 3rd book in the immensely popular Harry Potter series, was #3 on the SF Site Contributors' Top 10 for 1999, and didn't appear on the Readers' Choice list; while this year the 4th book in the series has attained the #5 spot on the Readers' list and didn't appear at all on the Reviewers' list. I can't explain it; I'm only pointing it out.

At any rate, I expect the Harry Potter series and its Wizard school at Hogwarts need no introduction at this point in time. It's a particularly clever young adult fantasy series in that the succeeding volumes become increasingly more sophisticated, with the result that a young reader who follows the series will find more depth and more challenge as she or he increases in reading ability. It's also particularly clever because it's thoroughly enjoyable to adults as well.

   No. 4
Ship of Destiny Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb
This is the 3rd and concluding volume of Hobb's Liveship Traders series, which is set in the same world as her highly acclaimed Farseer series. Magical ships, pirates, dragons, adventure and treachery on the high seas. The author displays considerable skill tying various plots together in a complex pattern, much like the rigging of a ship. And the reader, like a sailor climbing those ropes, gains a little more perspective with each step, but also feels the heart pounding a little stronger from the thrill and the danger of the climb.

As SF Site's Wayne MacLaurin says, "Robin Hobb just keeps getting better and better." Looks like there are quite a few of us now who are anxious to see what she'll bring us next.

   No. 3
Ash: A Secret History Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Victor Gollancz
This was the #1 choice on the contributors' Top 10 list. So if you've already chosen it as #3 on your list, then I guess we're not steering you too far wrong here. It's a clever blend of SF & fantasy, following the adventures of Ash, a 15th century female mercenary captain and, in the frame story, following the adventures of the 21st century scholar who discovered the manuscript telling of Ash. There is some debate between the scholar and his would-be publisher about whether the manuscript, and indeed the whole legend of Ash, is mere fiction or actual history. As the story unfolds, the scholar discovers that it may be both -- that the world and the history we know may not be the only world and the only history.

In the words of SF Site's David Soyka: "An incredible book that, if there were any justice, should be #1 on everyone's list. I fear people might be put off from reading this book by its size -- but it truly is a page-turner, even with all the pages there are to turn." Hear! hear! If you haven't already done so, seek this book out, read it, and be amazed.

   No. 2
Lord of Emperors Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
HarperPrism (US) / Earthlight (UK) / Viking (Canada)
This concluding book of the 2-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and the sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, was #3 on the contributors' list. It's obvious that when Kay sets out to write a fantasy novel, he researches a particular period until he knows it so well that when he presents a parallel setting in his creation there is no doubt in the reader's mind that this imaginative locale is as real as any that ever existed. In this case, Sarantium is parallel to Constantinople during the reign of Justinian, builder of the magnificent and monumental church, Hagia Sophia.

Personally, I have a healthy respect for a fantasy writer whose hero is a mosaicist who only ever draws a sword once and is greatly relieved that he doesn't actually have to use it, since he's not really sure how. But even the grand players in this novel -- the Emperor and Empress of Sarantium, for example -- are equally human: real and complex credible characters. And, best of all, what happens is not at all what you expect. A brilliant conclusion to a terrific series.

   No. 1
A Storm of Swords A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Voyager (UK) / Bantam Doubleday Dell (US)
Last year A Clash of Kings effortlessly caught the #1 spot on the Readers' Choice list. This year, Martin has once again found his way to the top of the Readers' list with the 3rd book of a projected 6 in the series A Song of Ice and Fire. In fact, this book earned more than double the number of votes as its nearest contender, and more votes as the best book than all the other 9 books on this list.

In his review, Wayne MacLaurin says: "It's particularly impressive that while jumping back and forth amongst the characters, no one character really takes over. Every story is given more or less equal billing (with respect to intensity and importance) and I never found myself dismissing one chapter, hoping to get back to 'something better.' Given how many characters and stories he is juggling, this speaks volumes about Martin's skill as a writer."

And speaking of volumes, there are more coming in this series, which is now only halfway done. No doubt the next one, A Dance with Dragons, will be appearing on a future Best Of list...

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
Beyond the top 3 on this list, the competition was really quite fierce. Here are some of the runners-up in the Readers' Choice list, just to give you an idea of what else your fellow readers would recommend:
11- Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (Macmillan, hardcover, March 2000).
12- The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt, hardcover, September 2000), who also garnered votes for reprints of earlier works. If votes were awarded to the author, rather than to the individual book, Le Guin would have made it onto the top 10.
13- Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (Orbit, hardcover, August 2000).
14- Zeitgeist by Bruce Sterling (Bantam Spectra, hardcover, November 2000), which ranked #8 on the Contributors' list.
15- In Green's Jungles by Gene Wolfe (Tor Books -US, hardcover, August 2000 / St. Martin's -UK, hardcover, January 2001), second volume of The Book of the Short Sun. Wolfe had votes split between this and the first volume, On Blue's Waters, a 1999 release, but reprinted in paperback in 2000. So if you want to go by the series, rather than the individual volumes, you could move this up a few notches. In the opinion of the SF Site Contributors, it was ranked considerably higher; it was #2 on that list.
16- Eater by Gregory Benford (Avon Books, hardcover, May 2000), who also picked up some votes for other new and reprinted works that appeared in 2000.
17- Here the competition was so close there was actually a three-way tie between the following: The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (Knopf - US, hardcover, October 2000 / Scholastic David Fickling Books - UK, hardcover, November 2000); Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint (Tor, hardcover, June 2000), which was the #4 book chosen by the SF Site Contributors; and Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card (Tor, hardcover, August 1999 / mass market reprint, December 2000).
18- The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia McKillip (Ace, hardcover, May 2000).
19- The Grand Design by John Marco (Bantam - US, trade, April 2000 / Victor Gollancz, hardcover & trade, May 2000), second volume of Tyrants and Kings.
20- Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (Bantam, Corgi/Transworld, mass market reprint, March 2000), which, as I mentioned above, split off some votes for Deadhouse Gates, both of which are superb fantasy novels.

I could go on, but I really do have to stop somewhere. So let me end here by saying thank you, once again, to everyone who participated. I think there are quite a few who will be reading this feature looking for the recommendations of readers like themselves. I hope this list leads you to find something new to enjoy!

Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1999           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1998           
           Best Read of the Year: 1999
           Best Read of the Year: 1998
           Best Read of the Year: 1997

Copyright © 2001 Neil Walsh

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