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SF Site Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2009: Readers' Choice
by Neil Walsh

I blame the Olympics.

Traditionally, the SF Site posts a Best Reads of the Year list in mid-February and another in early March. One will be, as this one is, the Readers' Choice list, selected by our readership; the other will be the Editors' Choice list, selected by the SF Site reviewers and other contributors. I know, I'm late this year. I blame the distraction of the Vancouver Olympics.

But excuses aside, here's what this is all about. Every year the SF Site asks our readers to vote for their favourite books of the year just ended. Since January of this year, we've been examining your choices and compiling the results. I hope you'll find something worthwhile to read from the list that follows. I know there are a few that I missed in my reading last year which I'm definitely going to chase down now.

And so, without further ado, here's the Top 10 (and more) books of 2009, as chosen by you, the SF Site readers:

[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)
Gardens of the Sun Gardens of the Sun Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley
(Gollancz, October 2009)

In this sequel to The Quiet War (see #6, below) we examine the aftermath of the war, in which the Outers and their once glorious cities and gardens are exploited by the conquerors. But the victory won by Earth over the colonists on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn is tenuous at best, threatened by plots and counterplots among the victors. At the same time, rebellion bubbles just below the surface in the outer reaches of the Solar System. A final battle could forever change the future of humanity.

   No. 10 (tie)
The Makers (Voyager) The Makers (Tor) Makers by Cory Doctorow
(HarperVoyager, October 2009 / Tor, November 2009)

Perry and Lester are inventor geeks, converting technological cast-offs into desirable techno-commodity-oddities, like seashell robots that can make toast for you. Their brilliance is unbounded, as ideas come fast and furious, including a cure for obesity, and the most popular theme parks ever. Their vision for a new economic system reinvents the nation -- for a while. Then it all starts to implode. The author describes this as "a book about people who hack hardware, business-models, and living arrangements to discover ways of staying alive and happy even when the economy is falling down the toilet."

   No. 9
Transition (Orbit) Transition (Little, Brown) Transition by Iain M. Banks
(Orbit / Little, Brown, September 2009)

From the author's web site: "A world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse, such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organisation with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers? On the Concern's books are Temudjin Oh, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice; and a nameless, faceless torturer known only as the Philosopher. And then there's the renegade Mrs Mulverhill, who recruits rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, hiding out from a dirty past in a forgotten hospital ward. As these vivid, strange and sensuous worlds circle and collide, the implications of turning traitor to the Concern become horribly apparent, and an unstable universe is set on a dizzying course."

   No. 8
The Gathering Storm (Tor) The Gathering Storm (Orbit) The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
(Tor/Orbit October 2009)

When Robert Jordan died in 2007, countless fans of his Wheel of Time series were distraught -- both at the loss, and at the thought that their beloved series begun nearly 20 years previously would remain forever incomplete. However, Brandon Sanderson was awarded the daunting task of wrapping up the series based on the work that Jordan had left unfinished. The present novel is the first in the final three books that will at long last bring the series to its conclusion and end the struggle against the Shadow. Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, attempts to reforge alliances in an effort to frustrate the northward advance of the Seanchan. But his dubious allies are further terrified by the shadow they see growing within the Dragon Reborn. Now Tarmon Gai'don, the Last Battle, is at hand. And mankind is not ready.

   No. 7 (tie)
Finch Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
(Underland Press, November 2009)

In his latest, Nebula-nominated novel, VanderMeer returns to the city of Ambergris. The events in this noir mystery take place about a century after those described in Shriek, although no previous knowledge of this world is required. If you are familiar with the world of Ambergris, then you'll know what it means that the grey caps are now in charge. Humans are herded up and kept under strict control using psychedelic mushrooms. Rebellion seethes just below the surface, and the threat of anarchy is very real. Among all this chaos, the challenge of detective John Finch is to solve an impossible double murder, the victims being one human and one grey cap. But whether or not Finch can uncover the truth, the future of Ambergris hangs in the balance.

   No. 7 (tie)
Galileo's Dream (Voyager) Galileo's Dream (Spectra) Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
(HarperVoyager, August 2009 / Ballantine Spectra, December 2009)

This multiple award-winning author now brings us an engrossing novel of the dawning of the modern era and the possible paths for humanity to follow at this fascinating time. The story, as the title suggests, follows Galileo in his struggle with science and the church, both on a personal level as well as on a wider scale. In Renaissance Italy, Galileo's telescope shows him the marvels of other worlds. But Galileo is also shown a vision of the future, in which in the inhabitants of the Jovian moons reach back into the past to contact this great man at a pivotal point in history. In this future, different factions grapple with the possible pasts in an effort to fix one that will affect their future. Galileo is caught in the crossfire, destined either to die as a heretic for his scientific beliefs, or sacrifice science to his faith.

   No. 6 (tie)
Yellow Blue Tibia Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts
(Gollancz, January 2009)

Roberts' latest novel is a BSFA award nominee. From the author's web site, quoting a review by Eric Brown: "It's 1945. Stalin calls together a group of science fiction writers and orders them to produce a scenario of alien invasion; he perceives the American threat to be on the wane, and the Soviet state needs an enemy against which to rally. No sooner have the writers developed a scenario than Stalin demands they forget the idea on pain of death. Skip to 1986, when Konstantin Skvorecky, ex-SF novelist and world-weary alcoholic now working as a translator, is approached by an old colleague who tries to convince him that their long-forgotten scenario is in fact coming to pass: aliens appear to be invading the world. What follows is in part a droll comedy of manners parodying the fall of Soviet communism, part an intellectual inquiry into the idea of multiple quantum realities and part an attempt to discover why, despite the ubiquity of reported sightings, UFOs have never been proved to exist. As ever with Roberts, the writing is impeccable and the ideas riveting."

   No. 6 (tie)
The Quiet War (Gollancz) The Quiet War (Pyr) The Quiet War by Paul McAuley
(Gollancz, October 2008 & September 2009 / Pyr, September 2009)

Taken from the author's web site: In the 23rd century there exists a fragile detente between the Outer cities, on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the dynasties of an Earth now ravaged by climate change. This balance is threatened by the ambitions of the rising generation of Outers, who want to break free of their cosy, inward-looking pocket paradises, colonize the rest of the Solar System, and drive human evolution in a hundred new directions. On Earth, many demand pre-emptive action against the Outers before it's too late; others want to exploit the talents of their scientists and gene wizards. Amid campaigns for peace and reconciliation, political machinations, crude displays of military might, and espionage by cunningly wrought agents, the two branches of humanity edge towards war.

   No. 5
Boneshaker Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
(Tor, September 2009)

In an effort to accelerate profits flowing out of the northwest during the gold rush, a Russian mining company hires inventor Leviticus Blue to build a machine that will access the richest vein of Alaskan gold yet discovered. However, in testing his invention, Blue inadvertently destroys half of Seattle and releases a toxic gas that turns anyone exposed to it into the living dead. A wall is built to contain the resulting horror. Now, sixteen years later, Blue's teenage son Zeke leaves the relative security of the shanty town that has evolved around the disaster area to enter the forbidden zone in an effort to redeem his father's memory. This novel represents the first in a new steampunk world Cherie is calling the Clockwork Universe, and it's already generating quite a lot of positive attention, including a Nebula nomination.

   No. 4
Julian Comstock Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson
(Tor, June 2009)

Expanded from his 2007 Hugo-nominated novella, Julian: A Christmas Story, this novel is a story of a future America in which technology and values have reverted to those more closely resembling the 19th century. Religious freedom is severely limited, state censorship is the rule of the day, indentured servitude is the new norm, representation in the Senate is based on wealth and property, and the presidency is now hereditary. Julian Comstock is a free-thinking radical, who also happens to be the nephew of the current president. He befriends a young writer, and the pair travel, adventure in and explore the world, while Julian strives to make it a better place than he found it. Many years later, his writer friend will recount all these adventures -- but how much is truth, and how much is fiction?

   No. 3
Best Served Cold (Gollancz) Best Served Cold (Orbit) Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
(Gollancz, April 2009 / Orbit, July 2009)

This author is well known to SF Site readers, who placed his The First Law novels prominently on our previous annual Top 10 lists, for his dark, gritty, and very bloody fantasy. Best Served Cold is a stand-alone novel that takes place in the same world as his previous books, but one that doesn't require any previous knowledge of what has come before. I don't think I'll spoil anything by telling you this is a book about vengeance. Monza Murcatto, horribly disfigured and left for dead when her brother is murdered, dedicates herself to tracking down her brother's killers. In describing his work, Abercrombie said: "If forced to sum it up I'd probably call it a fantasy thriller, light on the magic and heavy on the blood, treachery and poison, with the usual hefty portions of dark grey characters and black humour." His characters are certainly dark grey at best -- fascinating and realistic portraits of people you'll be glad not to have as your neighbours, but whose adventures you'll follow with avidity.

   No. 2
The Windup Girl The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
(Night Shade Books, September 2009)

Bacigalupi won a Theodore Sturgeon Award for "The Calorie Man" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2005). He returned to that same world with "Yellow Card Man" (Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2006) and received a Hugo nomination for his efforts. Visiting that world once again, this time with a full-length novel, he's been nominated for a Nebula. The Windup Girl is not quite human. Emiko is "an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe" (quoted from the publisher's web). This is a novel that will surprise you, even as it disturbs, horrifies and delights you.

   No. 1
The City & the City (Macmillan/Pan) The City & the City (Del Rey) The City & the City (Subterranean) The City and the City by China Miéville
(Macmillan / Pan / Del Rey, May 2009 /Subterranean Press, August 2009)

Miéville has been a favourite with SF Site readers and staff since his multiple award-winning Perdido Street Station captured the #1 spot in the SF Site Editor's Choice awards for 2001. He's appeared several times before on the Readers's Choice top 10, but this is the first time you've chosen his work above all others -- and it was an uncontested win, easily surpassing your other selections.

The City is Beszel and the City is Ul Quoma. The two cities overlap physically, but are in different nations with different languages, customs, styles and laws. The ultimate crime in either city is to Breach -- to cross illegally from one to the other. But since citizens of each city may find themselves walking down two different streets that are in reality only one street, Breach could happen simply by acknowledging a citizen of the city you are not legally in. And acknowledgement can be as simple as reacting to a car backfiring, smiling at someone, or even to be caught seeing them. Life in this environment is very stressful, and particularly challenging for outsiders. Investigating a murder in which the victim is found in Beszel is complicated when it is discovered that the murder itself took place in Ul Quoma. Things get even more interesting when the victim is found to have been a foreigner researching the existence of an alleged third city that exists (if it exists at all) only in the in-between places, those zones that Ul Quoma and Beszel each believe to belong to the other...

Certainly one of Miéville's best works to date (and that's saying something!), this is the book that SF Site readers recommend most highly as the pick of 2009. It's also nominated for the Nebula, so you're not alone in your good opinion of this book.

Honourable Mentions
    As you may have noticed, our top 10 list this year contains more than 10 books because of a few ties. And of course there are many, many more books worth reading that appeared in 2009. What follows are a few more that nearly made it onto the Top 10 for 2009, which should also be considered as what your fellow readers regarded to be among the best reading of the past year:

  • The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Roc, September 2009)
  • Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente (Spectra, February 2009)
  • Dust of Dreams, by Steven Erikson (Bantam, August 2009)
  • The Judging Eye: The Aspect-Emperor, Book 1, by R. Scott Bakker (Orbit /Overlook, January 2009)
  • Wake: The WWW Trilogy, Book 1, by Robert J. Sawyer (Ace, April 2009 / Gollancz, November 2009)
  • The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart / Bloomsbury, September 2009)
  • Peter V. Brett's The Painted Man: Demon Trilogy, Book 1 (HarperVoyager, September 2008 and January 2009), also titled The Warded Man for the US release (Del Rey, March 2009)
  • The House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, April 2008 and March 2009 / Ace, June 2009)
  • The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness (Walker, May and September 2009 / Candlewick, September 2009)
  • Price of Spring: The Long Price Quartet, Book 4, by Daniel Abraham (Tor, July 2009)
  • The Other Lands: Acacia Trilogy, Book 2, by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday, October 2009)
  • Lifelode, by Jo Walton (NESFA, February 2009)
  • The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (William Heinemann, May 2009 / Viking, August 2009 / Penguin, September 2009 / Random House UK, October 2009)
  • The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, November 2009)
  • Return of the Crimson Guard, by Ian C. Esslemont (Bantam, September 2008 and June 2009)
  • Ark, by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz, August 2009)
  • Seeds of Earth: Humanity's Fire, Book 1, by Michael Cobley (Orbit, March 2009)
  • The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction, by Gene Wolfe (Tor, April 2009), also titled The Very Best of Gene Wolfe (PS Publishing, July 2009)
  • The Strain: The Strain Trilogy, Book 1, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan (HarperCollins / William Morrow, June 2009)
  • Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey (Eos, August 2009)
  • Green, by Jay Lake (Tor, July 2009).

    Everything mentioned above represents recommendations from the SF Site readers among the books of 2009. If you're searching for even more good reading, have a look at our previous Best Read of the Year pages, below.

Best Read of the Year in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Previous Years
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2008           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2007           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2006           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2005           
Readers' Choice: Best Read of 2004           
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: 2008
           Best Read of the Year: 2007
           Best Read of the Year: 2006
           Best Read of the Year: 2005
           Best Read of the Year: 2004
           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
Thanks to all the SF Site readers who voted. Hope you had as much fun with this as I did. I'm looking forward to seeing your recommendations for next year too.

Copyright © 2010 Neil Walsh

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