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Thursday 15 January 2003


The Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2003

by Claude Lalumière

This year's SF and fantasy round-up will concentrate on books of prose fiction, with the exception of anthologies. I didn't get to see everything I hoped to, but I still had access to a sizeable portion of the year's output. So, with that caveat in mind, here are my selections for the best of SF and fantasy books of 2003.

2003 was a strong year for genre novels, both SF and fantasy, although, as in the past few years, superlative — and wildly diverse — fantasy novels upstaged the SF ones. The single-novella book continued to be a popular format, and not just from the groundbreaking PS Publishing. And my favourite book of the year is a collection by an author who left us much too soon.


Geoffrey Bromhead's Struck (Anvil Press) won the 25th Annual 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, and it's a fun ride. Finnegan Heller's peculiar relationship to lightning has turned him into a reclusive and abrasive drifter. His condition — he's basically a human lightning rod — has drawn more attention to him than he cares for, and the various people trailing him are closing in. The inventive story has lots of attitude, and its characters are simply marvelous. For novella master Lucius Shepard, 2003 was a particularly productive year. One of his excellent novellas for the year is Floater (PS Publishing), a dark cross-dimensional police investigation heavily peppered with voodoo lore, rave culture, and disturbing rituals.

J.K. Potter provided potently eerie illustrations for this year's top novella, another Lucius Shepard opus. Louisiana Breakdown (Golden Gryphon) is a lusty, mysterious, and down-and-dirty tale of love, music, and magic, set in the isolated community of Grail, Louisiana. Heartbreaking and intense, this noirish tale carries a deliciously pungent Lynchian whiff. Louisiana Breakdown lingers deliriously — and more than a little menacingly — in the imagination.


Righteous Blood (PS Publishing) by Cliff Burns showcases two new novellas, both of them relentlessly bizarre and provocative. 2000's winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finally received his first collection; Cory Doctorow's A Place so Foreign and 8 More (Four Walls Eight Windows) contains several not-to-be missed stories, including the title novella and the author's signature piece, "Craphound". Tales from the Crypto-System (Prime) by Geoffrey Maloney suffers from sloppy prose; and it's a shame, because, in terms of ideas, scenarios, and settings, this is the most intriguing and outré 2003 collection I've read. Norman Spinrad weighed in with a collection of three very entertaining and politically relevant long tales, Deus X and Other Stories (Five Star).

The book that wowed me more than any other in 2003 is Budayeen Nights (Golden Gryphon) by the late George Alec Effinger. Budayeen Nights serves as a beautifully evocative postscript to Effinger's trio of Budayeen novels (When Gravity Fails, etc.). The stories featuring the novels' protagonist, Marîd Audran, are the most effective, but the whole book is wondrously sensuous, seductive, witty, and thrilling. Effinger's creation, the Muslim underworld of the Budayeen, is one of my favourite settings in SF, and revisiting it for this final outing was a moving experience.


2003 yielded an impressive crop of fantasy novels. Each of the titles listed below could easily have deserved the number one spot on the list any other year. Andrew Fox's debut novel, Fat White Vampire Blues (Ballantine), is a rollickingly original New Orleans adventure that combines vampires, Louisiana cuisine, racial politics, and superheroes. Tom Piccirilli's A Choir of Ill Children (Night Shade Books) is a darkly askew Southern Gothic set in the backwater town of Kingdom Come; gruesomely unforgettable and strangely poignant, Piccirilli's novel is as terrifying as it is beautiful, as witty as it is profound. Jeffrey Thomas revisited his signature setting, Punktown, in his wonderfully charming 2003 novel, Monstrocity (Prime); despite the superficial SF trappings — aliens, the far future, planetary colonization, etc. — this text is best read as fantasy, a magic/punk allegory for twenty-first century urban life; there's no speculation, really, just (post)modern life writ large and mythologized. Thomas interweaves Lovecraft's mythos with his own in this pulpish, romantic story of "sex and monsters in the city".

As far as I'm concerned, the fantasy event of the year is the debut of Ashok Banker's epic retelling of the classical Hindu text, The Ramayana. The first two volumes of the projected seven-book series came out in 2003, Prince of Ayodhya (Orbit, UK/Warner Aspect, US) and Siege of Mithila (Orbit). In the distant mythological past, the demonic Asura are gearing up to invade and attack the mortal world and its great cities, including Ayodhya, home of Prince Rama, who at the very time his city is threatened must fulfill a spiritual obligation and go on a journey with an ancient seer-mage. Sumptuously written with captivating and vivid details, peopled with a fascinating array of complex characters, Banker's The Ramayana is mythic — and epic — fantasy at its best.


Of the uberprolific Stephen Baxter's 2003 output, the most impressive work that I've come across is the first novel in his Destiny's Childrens series, Coalescent (Ballantine/Del Rey). Here, Baxter plays around with several plotlines in different eras past, present, and future to tell of the story of the birth of a new stage in human evolution, throwing into the mix cosmic artefacts à la Arthur C. Clarke, a Roman secret society, and even brief appearances by historical figures who may have given rise the to myths of King Arthur and Merlin. Coalescent is a deliciously ambitious undertaking that never fails to stimulate the speculative imagination. Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel, The Time Traveler's Wife (MacAdam/Cage, US/Knopf, Canada), is a heartbreakingly gorgeous love story whose occasional excesses of naivety are spectacularly overshadowed by its top-notch storytelling and its solidly intelligent attention to the intricate details of time-travelling back and forth within one lifetime. Robert Silverberg assembled his Roma Eterna (Eos) stories into a novel of the same name; the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, but it's nevertheless an impressive sum. There's a lot of great material here in this 1500-year span of alternate history, most especially the concluding chapter, "To the Promised Land".

Christopher Moore's novels are always thoroughly witty and entertaining, and his first foray into SF (all his previous novels have been fantasy) is a real winner. Fluke; Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings (Morrow) reveals the startlingly unexpected secrets behind the song of the humpback whale, leading readers to an even more wondrous evolutionary mystery. Fluke is a rare combination: it's both a side-splitting comedy with outrageously imagined characters and a seriously intelligent, awe-inspiring speculative novel.

Claude Lalumière edited three 2003 anthologies: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic, Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk. His criticism is featured regularly in The Montreal Gazette, Black Gate, Flesh & Blood, and Infinity Plus. He's the editor and publisher of the webzine Lost Pages. In Autumn 2003, his fiction will appear in Intracities, On Spec, and the final issue of Fiction Inferno.

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