SF Insite Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map

Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2004: Editors' Choice
by Neil Walsh

Every year I find the SF Site Top 10 Lists to be full of surprises. Every year I find a few great recommendations for books I might otherwise have passed by. I hope you find the same thing, because we've polled the SF Site contributors, reviewers and editors and come up with the following titles which are what collectively we consider to be among the best of the past year. SF Site tradition is to allow ties to stand, and so you'll find more than 10 books on our Top 10 List; in fact, there are a couple of ties this year (including one 3-way tie) so that we have no less than 14 recommended Top 10 books. Plus, as always, you'll find our list of near misses that are also worth investigating. Nevertheless, as is often the case, the number one book was indisputably ahead of the pack.

And here it is: the Official SF Site Top 10 Books of 2004, as chosen by the SF Site contributors...

[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 (tie)
The Fourth Circle The Fourth Circle by Zoran Zivkovic
(Ministry of Whimsy Press / Nightshade Books, February 2004)
Zivkovic is a Serbian writer whose work is becoming more widely known in the English-reading world over recent years. This book, possibly his most ambitious and most challenging to date, should cement his reputation as an author of significance. There's an awful lot going on this book, on various literary, intellectual and metaphysical levels. But don't let that scare you; if you're up to the challenge, there's some real wealth to be mined in this text. The interweaving imagery and story threads, ranging in scope from medieval art through an adventure of Sherlock Holmes to the development of artificial intelligence, offer a reinterpretation of the world you think you know.

   No. 10 (tie)
All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories edited by David Moles & Jay Lake
(Wheatland Press, November 2004)
This themed anthology seems an unlikely choice. Zeppelins? How many good zeppelin stories can there be? Apparently enough to fill this volume. The various authors, including some of the more ubiquitous names in genre writing and some previously unknown to me, have taken widely different approaches. Some have tried to recreate the atmosphere of 1930s pulp adventure stories that the mere idea of zeppelins conjures for most of us, while others have approached the theme from the angle of light parody. On the whole, this is a solid collection of well-crafted and fun tales.

   No. 9
System of the World System of the World by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow & Co. / William Heinemann, October 2004)
This book represents the third volume of the Baroque Cycle, following Quicksilver and The Confusion, neither of which escaped the attention of readers and critics alike. As one might hope from third book of a trilogy, this novels sees the resolution of a great many of the plot elements introduced in the previous volumes. And, as one has come to expect from Stephenson, this novel is well-honed and the overall series is masterfully plotted. The current and concluding volume sees more action than the first, but may be viewed as more thoughtful than the second. On the whole, it represents an ideal balance, which probably explains why it has been short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

   No. 8
The First Heroes The First Heroes: New Tales of the Bronze Age edited by Harry Turtledove & Noreen Doyle
(Tor, June 2004)
The second anthology on this year's Top 10 has also chosen a theme that evokes a specific period in human history. In this case, however, the time period is considerably broader, particularly when you consider the geographical variations. The tales in this book range from China to Europe, the Mediterranean basin to South America, and from the earliest age of bronze and the introduction of this new metallurgical process, to the present day and a computer game about the age of bronze. Many of these stories have seeds of inspiration from some of the greatest epics of all time. The result is a wholly worthwhile anthology.

   No. 7 (tie)
Midnight Tides Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson
(Bantam, March 2004)
Erikson's 5th volume of his vastly-scoped Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen takes us rather far from the lands he has already shown us -- far enough, in fact, that the Malazan Empire has almost no influence here. Instead, we are shown a land in a turbulent time, when a new ruler of the Tiste Edur unites the clans to bring war to the troublesome Letherii humans who have grown arrogant in the strength of their empire, headed by the mercantile city of Letheras, where money is the root of all power. As we have come to expect from Erikson, there are characters we love to spend time with (Tehol Beddict and his manservant Bugg share banter that is at times laugh-out-loud funny), concepts and ideas that are jaw-droppingly cool, and so much going on that we're hard-pressed to follow along. I still maintain this is the best fantasy series going.

   No. 7 (tie)
Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
(Del Rey, August 2004)
The story follows a couple of friends, Hamza and Yehat, somewhat left behind by life and working at dead-end jobs. One element of their lives that makes it all worthwhile is their shared love of classic SF. The author spends some time ensuring that the reader understands and empathizes with his characters, so that when the story really takes off (complete with all the essential elements: conspiracy, murder, drugs) you can't help but be swept along by the plot -- and by the author's energetic style. For sheer fun in your reading, this novel is it. It's also a nominee for the Philip K. Dick Award.

   No. 7 (tie)
Two Trains Running Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard
(Golden Gryphon, March 2004)
Did you know there are still gangs of hobos riding the rails of America just like they did by the hundreds back in the dirty thirties? Lucius Shepard knows all about these train tramps -- and he ought to, since he spent some time travelling with them. As well as a non-fiction exploration of this phenomenon, this collection also includes a couple of fictional stories based on the Freight Train Riders of America (one of which is a winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award). Shepard's stories explore some of the myths, and some of the ugly realities, behind this alternate lifestyle. The result is a book that will make you think, about life, about love, about the nature of the world we live in.

   No. 6
Kinetic Kinetic by Kelley Puckett & Warren Pleece, created by Allan Heinberg & Kelley Puckett
(DC Focus, December 2004)
This is the first time a comic book has landed securely in an SF Site Top 10 list. It's not the one I would have expected to break down that barrier, although it's an excellent example of what can be accomplished in this medium, with as much of the story conveyed by the artwork as by the words. It's a self-contained story told in 8 issues, now also available under one cover in a trade collection. Tom is a high school student with severe health problems, including partial paralysis. He lives alone with his mother. Following an unusual occurrence, Tom's condition improves, and more than improves as he develops supernormal abilities. The interesting thing about this story is the relationship between Tom and his mother, and how they each deal with his transformation from an invalid to... whatever it is he is becoming.

   No. 5
Secret Life Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer
(Golden Gryphon, June 2004)
As with any collection of short fiction, I found a few particular favourites here. I'm always a sucker for keenly executed metafiction, and the closing piece is a particular gem in that vein, plus there are some other truly great stories here -- I'm sure you'll find your own favourites. What I didn't find was the unevenness that might have been expected from such a varied collection of work spanning 15+ years of writing. This solid collection includes stories set in the dark and dangerous futuristic world of VanderMeer's recent novel Veniss Underground, the dank and oppressive, seemingly antiquated world of his award-winning Ambergris stories, and in worlds more closely resembling our own past or present, albeit with some distinctively VanderMeer stylish twist. Some tales in Secret Life have a horrific edge, others a piercing humour, some a bit of both -- the precision cut and thrust of VanderMeer's prose will not leave you unmoved.

   No. 4
Cloud Atlas Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
(Sceptre, March 2004 / Random House/Vintage, August 2004)
This novel is a graceful interweaving of six distinct storylines, each following a different character from a different period of our history or future. And each story is only told in part, until the resolution of each ties the whole package together, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place, so neatly that the reader is left wondering at the elegance of the writing, the genius of the author, and the importance of the themes he has been exploring. And considering the bleakness and brutality of some of those themes, the ultimate message is surprisingly uplifting. At least I think it is. This is definitely a novel that warrants rereading. Not only has it been short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Aware, it is also a Booker nominee.

   No. 3 (tie)
The Last Light of the Sun The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
(Penguin Viking, February 2004 / Roc, March 2004 / Simon & Schuster, April 2004)
Guy Kay probably does more historical research than just about any other fantasy writer. He has a unique style of reinventing historical periods, peoples and sometime even events, and making them distinctly his own. This time, the parallels are to dark ages Britain and northern Europe, linking the stories of the Cyngaels (Celts), the Anglcyn (Angles/Saxons) and the Erlings (Scandinavian Vikings). But it wouldn't be a Kay tale without an element of magic. So this dark, violent and extremely colourful world also harbours a magical half-world that co-exists in the shadows of the light of the relatively new Jaddite religion. The interesting thing about this novel is that the author manages to create reader sympathy for all of the various peoples -- both as individuals and as nations -- who are each warring against the other. Ultimately, it's a novel with a very hopeful message. It's also a tremendously entertaining read.

   No. 3 (tie)
Iron Council Iron Council by China Miéville
(Del Rey, July 2004 / Macmillan/Tor, September 2004)
Personally, I think Miéville's writing has hit a plateau. On the positive side, this author's plateau is high above the quality of many of his contemporaries. Miéville is able to suspend reader disbelief as he writes convincingly about a group of renegade railroad workers who steal the train and the track, setting off across the continent taking up the track behind them and laying more ahead as they go. For the duration of the novel, he makes this somehow not merely plausible, but renders it a truly mythic journey. And that's only a part of what's going on. True to his previous two novels in the world of New Crobuzon, there are many layers of complexity in plot and in the characters themselves. An admirable follow-up to his award-winning Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

   No. 2
The Wizard The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe
(Tor, January 2004/November 2004)
The Wizard Knight is really one novel, published as two separate volumes called The Knight (a Nebula Award nominee, which also appeared on last year's SF Site Top 10) and The Wizard. Together, these two books tell the story of a boy transported to a magical realm, where he is magically transformed into a man who must pursue a quest that takes him into encounters with giants, elves, wizards and dragons. In the hands of this exceptionally talented writer, this story is nothing less than a breath of fresh air to the mythic-heroic fantasy tradition.

   No. 1
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, September 2004)
This book was the clear winner this year, an early front-runner that never let up. Clarke's innovative approach to fantasy and magic has certainly caught the attention of readers. Her sly sense of humour also helps to make this book an all-around enjoyable read, and the SF Site's top recommended book of the year (as well as a nominee for the BFSA Award). It's a clever, witty and thoroughly surprising debut novel. In the 18th and 19th centuries, two magicians, Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, emerge to bring about the rediscovery of lost English magic. The novel hinges on the contrast of their personalities and their respective approaches to magic and how it works. If you're only going to read one title from 2004, this should be the one.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
    As many of you discovered while voting for the SF Site Readers's Choice Best Books of 2004 (results to be posted in the March 2005 issue), it's hard to narrow down your choices. Here, in no particular order, are some of the books that nearly made it onto our Editors' Choice Top 10 for 2004:
    • Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, November 2003/May 2004 / Ace, June 2004)
    • The Best of Xero edited by Pat & Dick Lupoff (Tachyon, June 2004)
    • Blue Girl by Charles de Lint (Penguin Viking, October 2004), one of SF Site's perennial favourites
    • The Ships of Air: The Fall of Ile-Rien, Book 2 by Martha Wells (Eos, HarperCollins, July 2004), sequel to likewise quite excellent The Wizard Hunters (Eos, May 2003/June 2004)
    • Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris (Ace, May 2004) 4th novel in her Anthony Award-winning Southern Vampire series
    • Schism: Triad, Part One by SF Site's own Catherine Asaro (Tor, December 2004), who had a busy publishing year, with the appearance of Sunrise Alley (Baen, August 2004) and The Charmed Sphere (Luna, February 2004)
    • Light by M. John Harrison (Gollancz, October 2002/September 2003 / Spectra, August 2004), a near miss on the Top 10 list of the past two years, and still gaining respect and admiration with each new edition published
    • The Cryptographer by Tobias Hill (Faber and Faber, October 2003/August 2004)
    • Less Than Human by Maxine McArthur (Aspect, October 2004)
    • Ravenor a Warhammer 40,000 novel by Dan Abnett (Black Library, November 2004)
    • Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed (Tor, June 2004)

    The following authors might have risen higher on this year's Top 10 if not for the votes split off by the appearance of multiple works from them:

    • Steven Erikson (#7 above) also gathered votes for the US publication of Gardens of the Moon (Bantam, March 2000 / Tor, June 2004) as well as his shorter work The Healthy Dead (PS Publishing, April 2004)
    • Jeff VanderMeer (#5 above) was also noted for the appearance of the UK edition of City of Saints and Madmen (Cosmos, September 2001 / Prime, May 2002 / Wildside, October 2003 /Tor UK, April 2004), which is the author's acknowledged definitive edition
    • Kelley Armstrong missed the list, possibly due to split votes for Dime Store Magic (Orbit/Random House/Time Warner, February 2004 /Spectra, April 2004 ) as well as Industrial Magic (Orbit, September 2004 /Spectra, October 2004)

    And finally, here are some of the great comic book titles from 2004 that also garnered some votes and are worth your attention:

    • Neil Gaiman for Creatures of the Night, with Michael Zulli (Titan, November 2004 /Dark Horse, December 2004), and for Marvel 1602 (Marvel Comics, October 2004)
    • J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars (Image Comics)
    • Mark Millar's The Ultimates (Marvel Comics)
    • Phil & Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius (Airship Entertainment), which has a much more vibrant look now that it's in colour.
    You may also want to have a look at Matthew Peckham's Sequential Art column for more recommended graphic reading from 2004.
Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2003           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2002           
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: 2003
           Best Read of the Year: 2002
           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
Come back next issue to view the results of the SF Site Readers' Choice Top 10 for 2004!

Copyright © 2005 Neil Walsh

SearchHomeContents PageSite Map

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide