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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2002: Readers' Choice
by Neil Walsh

Once again we solicited our loyal SF Site readership to vote for their favourite books of the year. The results are in, and the Top 10 Readers' Choice Best Books of 2002 are a healthy mix of science fiction, fantasy, and other genre-bending, boundary-blurring work. I invite you to compare this list to the Editors' Choice Top 10 Books of 2002 to see what the SF Site staff recommends and where there is some overlap in what you, the readers, have chosen.

A sincere thank you to everyone who voted according to the rules. This list wouldn't be possible without your cooperation and participation. If you voted fairly, please skip the next paragraph; it's addressed to those who voted in contravention of the rules.

It saddens me to note the amount of ballot-stuffing that was attempted this year. Where else do you get to vote with 10 votes? I would have thought that was plenty! And for most, it was. To all you ballot-stuffers out there -- and you know who you are -- shame on you! All your votes were discounted. If you had've played it fair, you might have affected the outcome. In many cases, the ballot stuffers' choices made it onto the Top 10 list anyhow, even though I discounted all the votes of anyone who cheated. In fact, there were a number of invalid votes for what became the top choice, but because I had to discount all votes from everyone who cheated, the number 1 choice almost got bumped out of that spot. So next time, kids, play by the rules or don't play at all.

Whew! I never thought I'd have to say that. Anyhow, back to the list....

Like the Editors' Choice Top 10 for 2002, this Readers' Choice list shows a good balance of styles, and some great fiction all around. I think the high quality of literature represented on this list is an indication of the discerning tastes of the SF Site Readers, as well as a measure of the health of speculative fiction writing at this moment in history.

[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
The Mount The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
Small Beer Press
As well as being the publisher of the quaintly-named magazine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Small Beer Press is also responsible for such gems as Kelly Link's collection Stranger Things Happen (#5 on the SF Site Readers' Choice Top 10 for 2001), and this Philip K. Dick Award-nominated novel of a world where humans serve as mounts to alien conquerors. From the book's press material:
"Charley is an athlete. He wants to grow up to be the fastest runner in the world, like his father. He wants to be painted crossing the finishing line, in his racing silks, with a medal around his neck. Charley lives in a stable. He isn't a runner, he's a mount. He belongs to a Hoot: The Hoots are alien invaders. Charley hasn't seen his mother for years, and his father is hiding out in the mountains somewhere, with the other Free Humans. The Hoots own the world, but the humans want it back. Charley knows how to be a good mount, but now he's going to have to learn how to be a human being."

   No. 9
Solitaire Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge
Eos, HarperCollins
These Readers' Top 10 lists always harbour a surprise or two for me. This book is one of them. It's a debut novel that tells the story of a woman known as Jackal, who has spent her whole life preparing for and being prepared for the time when she will step into a high-ranking position in the corporate government of her homeland. But before that moment arrives, circumstances see our heroine locked away in a virtual solitary confinement.

Eskridge explores such complex issues as power and corruption, crime and punishment, and deeply personal insecurity. Most interesting, is the evolution of the character of Jackal from self-doubt through to self-revelation. All in all, a surprising and impressive first novel.

Redemption Ark Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds made quite a stir with his debut novel Revelation Space (2000). It was followed by Chasm City (2001), which takes place in the same universe. Redemption Ark returns to the storyline begun in the first novel. Something is preventing faster-than-light interstellar travel -- by destroying solar systems where such technology is attained. With such revolutionary technology within our grasp, what should we do about this threat?

In his review, David Soyka says:

"If you like hard SF, even if you have know no idea what the hell Stephen Hawking is talking about half the time, with fast-paced action and hard-boiled characters driven by necessity to take steps they'd rather not, you're in for a great ride." This is space opera with a healthy respect for the laws of physics (the author is an astrophysicist, after all). And, in the true tradition of space opera, there are plenty of plot threads left dangling...

   No. 8
Coraline Coraline by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins (USA & Canada) / Bloomsbury (UK)
Neil Gaiman is no stranger to most SF Site readers. In 1998, Smoke and Mirrors was voted the #1 book of the year by SF Site readers and Neverwhere was voted #4. Last year, American Gods was voted the #3 book of 2001. This year Coraline also appeared on the Editors' Choice Top 10 list, in the #5 slot.

Coraline is a sort of Alice in Wonderland adventure with a young reading audience in mind. The eponymous heroine is a charming, quirky character, who has recently moved into a big old house with a mysterious locked door that eventually leads her into a different realm. And, because it's Neil Gaiman, there's a nice balance of dark creepiness and magical wonderment.

As SF Site reviewer Cindy Lynn Speer notes, Coraline makes a great read-aloud story and is sure to be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

   No. 7
The Impossible Bird The Impossible Bird by Patrick O'Leary
This is the latest novel from the author of The Gift, Door Number Three and Other Voices, Other Doors: A Collection of Stories, Meditations and Poems. It's the story of two brothers, Daniel and Mike, a literature professor and a movie director; each is sent to find the other -- sent by a threatening stranger. In his "Patrick O'Leary Reading List" SF Site's helmsman Rodger Turner says the following:
"It soon becomes apparent to both that something is wrong but what that may be is just beyond their ken. Odd characters, empty landscapes, evident (at least to the reader) clues make you want to scream at them but their pace is so frantic that the obvious just skips past. But they do learn that they are just pawns on a game board guided by two factions each with their own agenda. The two are aided by aliens working through volunteer hummingbirds. But Mike and Daniel have something extra -- the aliens that control this murky dimension have met them before..."

   No. 6
The Golden Fool The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb
Voyager, HarperCollins (UK) / Bantam Spectra (USA)
Book 1, Fool's Errand, was #8 on the Readers' Choice list last year. This year the second book of the series has captured the #6 spot -- a clear indication of the continuing popularity of Hobb's writing. While the current Tawny Man series returns to territory made familiar in the Farseer trilogy, it also draws on characters and events from the Liveship Traders trilogy. SF Site's William Thompson, in his review, states his belief that "Robin Hobb's recent novels are among the best the genre has to offer."

The Golden Fool focuses most intensely on the character of Fitz (aka Tom Badgerlock), exploring his relationships with others, his growing understanding of himself, his loneliness following the loss of his wit-partner, and his doubts and fears about what is to come. Although there are moments of action and drama, this is largely a novel of introspection and character development. Obviously many readers feel an affinity for such a deeply human document, written, as it is, with skill and passion.

   No. 5
The Years of Rice and Salt The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam (USA & Canada) / HarperCollins (UK)
Robinson is at his best in a massive tale, spanning great lengths of time and great swaths of physical space, such as in his Mars trilogy. This novel, although very different from that series, is similarly massive. It's an alternate history in which the Black Plague of 14th century Europe pretty much did in the Europeans once and for all, effectively clearing a path for the unhindered development of the East -- and the Near East, and the New World, and Africa. From this premise, Robinson presents a series of novellas, set over a period of several centuries, in widely different locations of the globe, but with a recurring set of characters who are reincarnations of their former selves, hammering out different and similar issues each time.

In his review, SF Site's Rich Horton describes this as one of the most ambitious books in recent years. It is ambitious, and it is much more massive than its hefty page count, but it's also a great book.

   No. 4
Light Light by M. John Harrison
Victor Gollancz
Harrison is frequently cited as having been a significant influence on many better-known authors. If you've read his latest novel, Light, you can easily see why. What may be harder to understand is why Harrison's name isn't a household word outside of the UK.  M. John Harrison has too long been Britain's best-kept secret.

This novel has three major strands, spun out seemingly effortlessly and almost at random. One is more or less in the present, and two others are set in the more distant future. But as the narrative progresses, you begin to realize how the spiraling strands are growing together more and more tightly until finally it all coalesces in a brilliant flash. Definitely one of the best science fiction books of the year, and indeed one of the best books of the year in any genre. Click on the title or the cover image above to read Jeff VanderMeer's glowing review.

   No. 3
City of Saints and Madmen City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
This book was this year's number 1 choice of the SF Site staff of editors and reviewers. It had also appeared on the 2001 Editors' Choice Top 10 in its earlier Cosmos edition. The Prime hardcover edition, released in 2002, was expanded to include 60,000 words of additional material. Both editions contain the World Fantasy Award-winning novella, "The Transformation of Martin Lake."

As SF Site reviewer, Ian Nichols, notes, City of Saints and Madmen "is more an invitation than a book. It is an invitation to wake up in Ambergris, after dreaming of Earth." Ambergris is a city of baroque beauty and creeping nightmare, as real as any place you've ever read about, dreamed of, or visited.

VanderMeer likes to push at the boundaries of conventional fiction, offering and testing other forms and other media -- the 2002 Prime edition includes a story entirely in code (with a sealed envelope containing the decoded story, for those less ambitious readers) as well as another tale embedded in the artwork of the cover itself.

   No. 2
The Scar The Scar by China Miéville
Macmillan (UK) / Del Rey (USA & Canada)
China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award, was voted the number 2 book by the SF Site Readers last year, and his follow-up novel, The Scar, has attained that same position this year.

As William Thompson says in his SF Site review:

"The book's greatest strength remains Miéville's vivid description and fecund ability to create and imaginatively bring to life his highly exotic, often perverse yet wonderfully revealed and realized cities, as well as the cultures and mythography of Bas-Lag.... Anyone who has read Perdido Street Station will instantly suspect there is much more going on here in The Scar than simple or mere tale-spinning, however wonderfully or inventively imagined. From title until the end, the nature and perception of scars is a recurrent theme throughout, echoed in the author's cast of grotesques."
The Scar is set in the same dark and fantastical world created for Perdido Street Station, although the action takes place almost entirely outside of the city of New Crobuzon. This is a brilliant novel -- full of inventive ideas, complex and fascinating characters, and an underlying sense of mystery and dread that never diminishes.

   No. 1
House of Chains House of Chains by Steven Erikson
Bantam Press
The number 1 choice of SF Site Readers for the best book of the year is the fourth book in Erikson's massive epic Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is, perhaps, a surprising choice when you consider that it's a hefty tome which only appeared very late in the year and had limited distribution in the United States. That it made it to the number 1 slot on this list is a testament to Erikson's skill in captivating his readers.

As the series continues to grow in complexity, it also grows in popularity: last year Memories of Ice (Book 3) was #9 on the Readers' Choice Top 10, and the previous year Deadhouse Gates (Book 2) was #10. Unlike the previous novels in this cycle, House of Chains begins as a clear, relatively straightforward narrative following one central character. However, by the second quarter of the book, we return to the multiple inter-linked story lines we have come to expect from Erikson, following many different characters. And, as usual, he doesn't allow much slack in his storytelling -- keep up or get lost; those are your choices. I strongly recommend the former.

I personally think this is Erikson's best yet. I also believe this is easily the best fantasy series to appear in the past decade. Looks like I may not be alone in that opinion.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
In many cases, the results were so close that it would be almost unfair not to mention those books that came so close to being on the actual Top 10. So here are a few that nearly made it, and a few that maybe should have made it...
  • #11:  The Fantasy Writer's Assistant by Jeffrey Ford (Golden Gryphon, USA, hc, June 2002) -- this book was #4 on the Editors' Choice Top 10 for this year;
  • #12:  The Birthday of the World & Other Stories by Ursula K. LeGuin (HarperCollins, USA & Canada, hc, March 2002 / Perennial, HarperCollins, USA & Canada, trade, March 2003) -- this collection was also a near miss on the Editors' Choice list;
  • #13:  Fortress of Grey Ice (Sword of Shadows, Book 2) by J.V. Jones (Orbit, UK, hc, April 2002 / Orbit, UK, mm, November 2002) -- the long-awaited sequel to A Cavern of Black Ice;
  • #14:  Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey (Saint Martin's, USA & Canada, hc, April 2002 / Tor, USA & Canada, mm, March 2003) -- sequel to Kushiel's Dart (2001), which was #6 on the Readers' Choice Top 10 last year;
  • #15 (tie):  Fire Logic by Laurie Marks (Tor, USA & Canada, hc, May 2002); and
  • #15 (tie):  Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen, USA, hc, May 2002) -- another Vorkosigan adventure. Bujold's The Curse of Chalion was the #1 Readers' Choice book last year, and A Civil Campaign was the Readers' #7 choice for books of 1999.
Here are a few more books, in no particular order, also deserving of honourable mention:
  • The Golden Age by John C. Wright (Tor, USA & Canada, hc, April 2002);
  • I Dare by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller (Meisha Merlin, USA, hc & trade, February 2002);
  • Tainted Trail by Wen Spencer (Roc, USA & Canada, mm, June 2002);
  • The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford (HarperCollins/William Morrow, USA/UK, hc, June 2002) -- #3 on the Editors' Choice Top 10;
  • Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (Gollancz, UK, hc, February 2002 / Gollancz, UK, mm, September 2002);
  • Fool's Errand (The Tawny Man, Book 1) by Robin Hobb (Bantam Spectra, USA, hc, January 2002 / Voyager, HarperCollins, UK, mm, 2002) -- this book, in its 2001 hardcover edition from Voyager, was #8 on last year's Top 10;
  • The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman (Bantam Spectra, USA & Canada, trade, October 2002);
  • Warchild by Karin Lowachee (Warner Aspect, USA & Canada, mm, April 2002);
  • Ares Express by Ian McDonald (Earthlight, UK, hc, May 2001 / Earthlight, UK, mm, March 2002);
  • The Separation by Christopher Priest (Simon & Schuster, UK & Canada, trade, October 2002) -- which made it onto this year's Top 10 as chosen by the SF Site staff;
  • The Isle of Battle (The Swans' War, Book 2) by Sean Russell (Eos, HarperCollins, USA & Canada, trade, July 2002 / Orbit, UK, hc, September 2002) -- sequel to The One Kingdom (2001), which also received an honourable mention last year.
So that's it for this year. The SF Site Readers have offered an enticing selection of top recommendations from 2002 -- thanks again to everyone who participated. If you'd like to see what the SF Site staff chose this year, again I invite you to check out the Editors' Choice Top 10 Books of 2002. And if you want to see what the results looked like in years past, they're linked below. Happy reading for 2003!
Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2001           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2000           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1999           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 1998           
           Best Read of the Year: 2001
           Best Read of the Year: 2000
           Best Read of the Year: 1999
           Best Read of the Year: 1998
           Best Read of the Year: 1997

Copyright © 2003 Neil Walsh

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