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Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1998: Editors' Choice
by John O'Neill

Nothing drives home the divergent nature of the SF Site staff -- some forty editors, columnists, and freelance reviewers scattered over two continents -- like our annual Best of the Year issue. Most of our contributors have never met, and in fact I've met less than a dozen F2F (that's "face-to-face" to you non-cyberfolk) myself.

But regardless of our different backgrounds, tastes, and sensibilities, one amazing commonality emerges every year: we all love to disagree.

Even when we agree on a book, we rarely agree on a title. I had several votes for Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium, one for "his sailing book," and even one for Sailing to Byzantium (presumably written in collaboration with Robert Silverberg).

Still, compiling a Top Ten list is its own reward. Who else gets to sift through recommendations from such folks as Paul J. McAuley, Catherine Asaro, Victoria Strauss, and the ever-inventive Dr. Georges T. Dodds? (who tried to sneak in a vote for an 1888 novel -- but we would've been disappointed if you hadn't, Georges.) Nobody else, that's who. I'll be busy for a month tracking down all the tantalizing titles that've piqued my curiosity (not to mention searching endlessly for Guy Kay's Sailing to Byzantium...).

But you needn't worry about that. For you, dear readers, the very best has been assembled. Without further ado, I present to you the Best Books of 1998, as selected by the Writers and Editors of the SF Site.


[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
Someplace to be Flying Someplace to be Flying by Charles de Lint
Tor Books
De Lint is the third repeat performance on the list -- his 1997 novel Trader was on our Best of 1997 list. This is another major novel from Canada's master fantasist, who is no doubt growing a little weary by now of having the label "urban fantasy" tagged to everything he does. Set in de Lint's fictional, modern North American city of Newford and featuring a few of the characters from Trader, the novel follows the characters Lily and Hank as they investigate the bizarre rumours of "animal people" living in the city's darkest slums... and stumble onto a drama far greater than they expected. For the city's oldest inhabitants, those the Native Americans call the First People -- the Crow Girls, Raven, Fox, and even Coyote the Trickster -- are involved in a secret war for the city's mythic soul. "One of the underlying themes throughout Someplace to be Flying is the role of storytelling in a society," notes Neil Walsh in his review. "I am a great believer in the importance of storytelling, and maybe that makes me a little bit biased. But if you don't find something in the plot to keep you turning pages ravenously (and I'm sure you will), then the colourful characters, both animal people and people people, will charm you thoroughly."

   No. 9
Inversions Inversions by Iain M. Banks
Orbit (UK)
It was a good year to have a spouse who makes frequent trips to Europe -- or to know a decent book importer or two. Despite the lack of a North American edition (and being unlisted in our Books of 1998 Summary), Inversions captured enough attention among our readers and staff to vault over numerous other nominees and land triumphantly as a write-in candidate. Iain M. Banks (who doubles as just-plain-old Iain Banks when he pens mainstream fiction such as The Wasp Factory and A Song of Stone), has produced some of the most original and popular modern Space Opera, including the novels Use of Weapons, Excession, and Against a Dark Background, many of which feature his galaxy-spanning Culture. This time his setting is a little less overt -- and, with the exception of an extra moon or two overhead and some intriguing background chatter about a toppled Empire, is virtually free of prominent SF elements -- although careful readers of his other work will spot clues here and there. We haven't seen it on any major US publisher's schedule yet, but when we do you'll be the first to know.

   No. 8
Summon the Keeper Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff
Who says the best books of the year must all be heavy, serious tomes? Not us. Just as Connie Willis did with To Say Nothing of the Dog, Tanya Huff delighted her readers with a sudden change of direction, confounding those whose expectations were based on her early work -- especially her popular urban horror series, which included Blood Lines, Blood Pact, and Blood Debt. Summon the Keeper is a very funny start indeed to what may be a new series. Claire Hansen is a Keeper, a direct descendent of Adam and Lilith, and one of the Earth's protectors. On her way to answer a summons, she and her talking cat Austin stop at the Elysian Fields Guesthouse... where the next morning Claire awakens to find herself the new owner. The Elysian Fields is far more than it appears, for its inhabitants include a lascivious French ghost, an attractive young caretaker named Dean, a woman who's been asleep in Room Six for decades -- and a hole to Hell in the furnace room. Claire has to seal the hole to Hell quickly without awakening the occupant of Room Six, while simultaneously resisting the charms of an amorous ghost, fighting her attraction to the friendly Dean, and dealing with an impetuous younger sister with more power than common sense. "Entertainment, pure and simple," says reviewer Margo MacDonald. "Huff tells a great story, but never takes herself or it too seriously."

   No. 7
Song for the Basilisk Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip
The new fantasy from the much admired author of The Book of Atrix Wolfe, The Sorceress and the Cygnet, Winter Rose, and The Riddlemaster of Hed vaulted into the ranks as a "Best of the Year" candidate within weeks of its release, as we began to hear the first reports from our reviewers. "Though it takes the form of a tale of revenge, Song for the Basilisk is really, like so many of McKillip's novels, about love, transformation, and power," wrote Victoria Strauss. "The power of memory, of hatred, of forgiveness, of family, of self. And of music... McKillip is without doubt one of the finest stylists now working in the fantasy genre. Her exquisite, evocative prose sings with all the power and magic of the music she describes. "

   No. 6
Cythera Cythera by Richard Calder
St. Martin's Press
The author of Dead Boys, Dead Girls and Dead Things delivered another near-future yarn in 1998, this one packed with computers, robots, and sex (but, thankfully, marginally fewer dead things). Dr. Max Moroder is an "atrogenic psychiatrist" and ex-inmate of Boys Town prison, living in the city complex of Antarctica. His nightly companion is Dahlia Chan, a female virtual-reality martial arts expert who hails from the cyber-realm of Earth2, and who exists on Earth via a Translator. When the authorities close the loophole that allows Dahlia to download, she finds herself trapped in Earth2 -- and Max attempts a bold experiment to join her. "Make no mistake about it," says David Soyka in his feature review, "this is a literary work in the fine tradition of Mary Shelley. If you have any interest at all in science fiction that presents serious art, you must read Richard Calder."

   No. 5
Sailing to Sarantium Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
Simon & Schuster UK / Viking, Penguin Canada
I'm forced to admit -- this one took us by surprise. The British edition of Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay's latest fantasy epic has yet to see a US release (it's scheduled for a March release from HarperPrism), and it wasn't even on our list of suggested titles. For a write-in candidate, it certainly did well. Kay, author of such popular fantasy novels as The Lions of Al-Rassan, A Song for Arbonne, and Tigana, has wrapped his newest saga in the rich intrigue and splendour of the Byzantine Empire of old. Taking inspiration from W.B. Yeats's famous Byzantium poems, Kay has crafted a world where magic shimmers, artificial singing birds dart through brushes and draw life from an unexpected source, and a dark god has set in motion a horrible scheme. When an outlander is summoned to Sarantium City -- a place of riots and rebellion, treachery and great wealth -- he discovers a world of ever-evolving court intrigues, mechanical trickery, and constant tests... where even a single slip could bring exile, or worse.

   No. 4
To Say Nothing of the Dog To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra
Willis' earlier time travel effort, Doomsday Book, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel. It was a very serious endeavor, with plagues and crises and all kinds of dire outcomes hovering over the next chapter. The title for To Say Nothing of the Dog -- and certainly its inspiration -- comes from Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog!, the classic book of Victorian comedy by Jerome Klapka Jerome, often called the funniest book ever written in English. Ned Henry and his time-traveling companions are searching the bombed ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1940 for the mysterious bishop's bird stump, an object whose relevance escapes him. All that's certain is that if they fail to uncover, the powerful and enigmatic Lady Schrapnell will keep sending them back in time -- again and again and again... Perhaps it benefited from having two editions -- one hardcover and one paperback -- bracket the year, and perhaps it was simply the joy of discovering a new dimension to a writer we thought we had pegged. Those readers who partook of this volume expecting another work of solemn prose (or clued out to the inspiration) often found themselves mystified. But if like us you were looking for a different brand of entertainment in 1998, Willis' brilliant comic novel might be exactly what you're searching for.

   No. 3
The Death of the Necromancer The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
The third novel by Martha Wells, author of The Element of Fire and the well-received City of Bone, was an instant hit in our offices -- and in fact was at the top of more reviewers' ballots for Book of the Year than any other title. In the gaslight kingdom of Ile-Rien, few people know that the nobleman Nicholas Valiarde leads a double life as the infamous thief, Donatien. At his side he's gathered a talented band of loyal criminals, including his lover Madeline, and an opium-addicted sorcerer. Together they are stealing gold in a complex plot of revenge on the dire Count Montesq. A daring night raid leads them into a surprise confrontation with a golem, and soon Nicholas and his band are on the run from a real necromancer, headed for a confrontation where the fate of all Ile-Rien may be decided.

As Wayne MacLaurin sums up in his review, "Martha Wells' first two novels were praised for their rich detail and original concepts. The Death of the Necromancer raises those two points to new levels and adds characterization that is every bit as rich and passionate as the details of the fantasy world. It's a stunning achievement that is utterly captivating."

   No. 2
Smoke and Mirrors Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
Speaking of recurring appearances... Neil Gaiman topped last year's list with his first solo novel, Neverwhere, a dark fantasy which showed Gaiman's rep as a modern spinner of fairy tales was well deserved. This collection of thirty short stories and poems (some of which were previously published in the small print-run volume Angels and Visitations) was the first opportunity he's had to demonstrate his true range, since his 60-issue run on DC Comics Sandman, and he didn't waste it. Beautifully packaged by Avon, this volume was perhaps the best gift suggestion of the year. The collection opens with "Chivalry," the story of a widow who discovers the Holy Grail in a secondhand shop; other tales include "Nicholas Was," a disturbing look at the legend of Santa Claus. For Lovecraft fans there's "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" and "Only the End of the World", both of which pay hilarious tribute to both the Cthulhu Mythos and classic horror film conventions. The poems include "Bay Wolf," which manages to mix Beowulf and Baywatch -- true evidence of genius. Really, what more do you need?

   No. 1
Girl In Landscape Girl In Landscape by Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem -- Crank! magazine stalwart, Salon critic, and enfant terrible emeritus -- made a tremendous impression with his quirky debut novel Gun, with Occasional Music, and followed quickly with Amnesia Moon (1995) and As She Climbed Across the Table (1997). Last year he made his mark on the SF Site's consciousness with The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, a collection of stories which ranked fourth on our 1997 Best of the Year list. This year he conquered the list with his fourth novel, the tale of thirteen-year-old Pella Marsh, who departs a dying Earth to come with her family to the Planet of the Archbuilders -- an arid world dotted with countless strange structures, bizarre food, and the dusty mystery of a vanished ancient race. As Lisa DuMond put it in her review:

"You will find Girl In Landscape is as far-removed from As She Climbed Across The Table, Lethem's most recent novel, as it is from Gun, With Occasional Music... [Yet] there is a point early in every piece when the reader relaxes into the rhythm and reason of Lethem's prose. From this instant until the last page, it is impossible to put Girl In Landscape aside."

Lethem's ability to surprise and delight -- and above all, never repeat himself -- brought us to Girl In Landscape with high hopes, and we weren't disappointed. We're looking forward to his next.

The Very Near Misses and Other Honourable Mentions
The Runners-Up

Mainstream Novel of the Year
[Cover] It wasn't true SF, or fantasy, or horror. But it kept showing up on the ballots anyway: Underworld by Don DeLillo (reprint, Scribner, trade paperback, July). "Some would argue that the ending is SF," notes David Soyka. "What the hell -- SF or not, it's a worthwhile read".
We'll be the first to admit that this list of "Top Ten" books is by no means definitive -- in fact, at heart we don't really believe that the best work of 1998 can be summarized with a list of ten titles, no matter how carefully selected. Our goal here is merely to celebrate the authors and editors who've succeeded -- and often succeeded brilliantly -- in capturing our imagination over the last 12 months, and in so doing have helped raise the bar for SF and Fantasy for one more year. If by presenting this list we can bring even one of the above titles to the attention of a fresh group of fans, then we've done what we set out to do.

As long as we're making up the rules as we go, there's nothing to spot us from rolling out those titles which almost made the list -- or which tumbled off at the last minute as players were swapped, votes were traded, and back-room deals were made. In neck-and-neck competition with the last two titles on the above list was Newton's Cannon by J. Gregory Keyes (Del Rey, trade paperback, May), the first volume in the The Age of Unreason, and the best alternate-world science-fantasy novel we read this year, hands down. Next was Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman (reprint, Ace, paperback, October), which just goes to prove that Hugo Award winners do get read in paperback.

Following these is Pat Cadigan's first novel in more than five years, Tea From an Empty Cup (Tor, hardcover, October) -- a book which reminded us that Cadigan had been at the forefront of the cyberpunk movement since its inception, and she isn't called the Queen of Cyberpunk for nothing. Tied with Cadigan was the newest volume from Lois McMaster Bujold, Komarr (Baen, hardcover, June), the most recent volume in the Miles Vorkosigan saga, and the reprint of Neil Gaiman's chart-topper from 1997, Neverwhere (reprint, Avon, paperback, October).

Top Ten Reprints of 1998
  • Forever Peace - Joe Haldeman
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • Slant - Greg Bear
  • Greenmantle - Charles de Lint
  • The Rise of Endymion - Dan Simmons
  • Princess Bride: 25th Anniversary Ed - William Goldman
  • Freeware - Rudy Rucker
  • Ribofunk - Paul Di Filippo
  • Spares - Michael Marshall Smith
  • Otherland - Tad Williams

Reprints in fact did very well in the voting. In addition to Forever Peace and Neverwhere we had the next two in the honor queue, Greg Bear's Slant (reprint, Tor, paperback, June) and Greenmantle by Charles de Lint (reprint, Orb, trade paperback, August) -- which was originally published in 'way back in 1988. The inclusion of reprints in the voting was a matter of some controversy, but it's a genuine pleasure to see some older novels still being read and enjoyed.

Next on the list was a borderline mainstream tale, and a Young Adult volume to boot: A Killing Frost, by John Marsden (Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, April). This third volume in a near-future saga of an occupied Australia captured everyone who read it -- and sent more than a few of us to the special order counters to find the next three volumes, currently available only in Australia. The Best of Crank!, edited by Bryan Cholfin (Tor, hardcover, September) did extremely well in the voting also -- especially for a volume of reprinted stories. But then again, Crank! was no ordinary magazine. And last on the list is Raymond Feist's Shards of a Broken Crown (Avon/Eos, hardcover, March), the fourth volume in his extremely popular Serpentwar Saga.

Copyright © 1999 John O'Neill

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