The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 2003
Yet another year has gone by, and so it's time to take a look back at 2003. Looking through the list of titles I have marked for consideration, I'm afraid that in general it was a very disappointing year for science fiction, a mildly interesting one for fantasy, and an indifferent one with a couple of high spots for horror fans. That's not to say that there were few good books published because that's not true; all three fields provided several excellent reading experiences. But with the exception of Peter Straub's Lost Boy, Lost Girl, there wasn't a single novel that stood out in my memory this year.
There were two developments in SF this year worth mentioning. First, it was the best year in a long time for single author collections, chiefly thanks to the small press. Most welcome was the latest in North Atlantic's effort to collect all of Theodore Sturgeon's short fiction, And Now the News. Five Star brought out several collections of note including In This World, or Another by James Blish, Babylon Sisters by Paul Di Filippo, and Tangled Webs by Adam-Troy Castro. Cory Doctorow's first collection, A Place So Foreign and Other Stories was brought to us by Four Walls, Eight Windows, and Golden Gryphon supplied Brighten to Incandescence by Michael Bishop and Budayeen Nights by George Alec Effinger. Major publishers provided Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany and Changing Planes by Ursula K. LeGuin.
The second development was a resurgence of space adventures. The most visible of these was probably The Machine Crusade by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, latest of their new Dune novels. Anderson alone continues his own interstellar epic with A Forest of Stars. Jack McDevitt brought the career of Priscilla Hutchins to an apparent close and saves the human race in Omega and Catherine Asaro mixed romance and interstellar politics in her new Skolian Empire novel, Skyfall. Dan Simmons' Ilium doesn't stray from the solar system but it plays with technologies far in advance of anything found in other novels this year. Charles Stross presents a human colony that just wants to be left alone in Singularity Sky, Nancy Kress presents us with an alien culture that shouldn't be where it is found in Crossfire, and Mike Resnick has great fun with interstellar politics in The Return of Santiago.
The best hard SF novel of the year was, unsurprisingly, Saturn by Ben Bova. Possibly the strangest was The Mockymen by Ian Watson, which mixes alien invasion with reincarnation. Robert Sawyer provided the middle and final volume of his Neanderthal trilogy, Humans and Hybrids, and both were entertaining if not as amusing and likeable as the first in the series. Robert Charles Wilson demonstrates the difficulty of being an objective observer of alien cultures in Blind Lake and Alan Dean Foster lets us watch him foil the reptilian Aann again in Drowning World. Steven Barnes' new alternate history novel, Zulu Heart, was every bit as good as the earlier Lion's Blood and John Varley's Red Thunder harkened back to the old days when SF writers told us that average people and not governments could run the space program. Best of the year in SF was Ilium, but it's not nearly as good as Simmons' other SF novels and at book length I thought 2003 was pretty disappointing overall.
Fantasy in 2003 was obviously overshadowed by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, the fifth in that series. It dominated the bookstores as expected and probably gave a slight bump to other young adult fantasy. Adult fantasy went on pretty much as usual, the same general themes and mostly in trilogies or open ended series. The best of these included Dragon Venom by Lawrence Watt-Evans, final volume in the dragon series, In the King's Service by Katherine Kurtz, a Deryni novel set before the main story line, The Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan, part of the Wheel of Time sequence, and Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, which uses an unconventional protagonist to excellent effect.
Other mainstream fantasy worth noting incluces The Lord of Castle Black by Steven Brust, written in an affected style that might turn off some readers, Wraiths of Will and Pleasure by Storm Constantine, set in a far future Earth where magic and technology are indistinguishable, Impossible Odds by Dave Duncan, a respectable new title in the King's Blades series, and Talon of the Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist, first novel in a new series. L.E. Modesitt's Darknesses continues what promises to be his best fantasy sequence to date, and Cecilia Dart-Thornton brought her excellent Bitterbynde series to an apparent close with The Battle of Evernight.
Christopher Paolini's Eragon, originally self published when he was a teenager, is predictable and sometimes a bit awkward, but demonstrates strong storytelling skills. Michelle West's The Riven Shield is the fifth and best in her Sun Sword series. Martha Wells does an excellent job with The Wizard Hunters, David Farland winds up the Runelords series with The Lair of Bones, and Robin Hobb continues the saga of the Tawny Man with The Golden Fool.
There were two very good historical fantasies this year. House of War by Judith Tarr is the second in her series about Richard the Lionheart and the fairies, and fairies also figure in Sarah A. Hoyt's Any Man So Daring, the third adventure of William Shakespeare. Jo Walton turned fantasy on its head with Tooth and Claw, the story of a family of drargons, and Terry Pratchett was up to his usual delightful nonsense with Monstrous Regiment. Contemporary fantasy had a generally disappointing year, but Charles De Lint gave us a fine Newford novel, Spirits in the Wires, and Kim Antieau was very impressive with Coyote Cowgirl. Lust by Geoffrey Ryman is also very impressive, the story of a man who can wish people into and out of existence.
Michael Moorcock's latest Elric novel, The Skrayling Tree, crosses multiple worlds and variations of Elric as the series moves even further from its sword and sorcery beginnings. Ian MacLeod provided an industrial age fantasy with Light Ages, set in an alternate England where magic can literally be mined from the Earth. Kage Baker's first fantasy, The Anvil of the World, reminded me of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories, and it's the first in a series. Diana Wynne Jones provided another of her novels that appeal to a cross section of age groups, and The Merlin Conspiracy is one of her best. From this solid but not remarkable crop of fantasies, I picked Paladin of Souls as best fantasy of the year.
It was an okay year for horror, with Peter Straub's brilliant Lost Boy Lost Girl the single brightest light. Graham Masterton had two excellent novels as well, particularly A Terrible Beauty, a ghost story variation, and The Doorkeepers, a very different kind of story involving hidden doorways to an alternate London. F. Paul Wilson's Gateways, a Repairman Jack novel, has some good moments but is not up to the quality level of previous volumes in the series. Rick Hautala's short novel Cold River contains some genuinely creepy scenes and Christopher Golden's vampire novel, The Gathering Dark, was also very effective.
Most of the other noteworthy novels were from newcomers. Among the best were House of Bones by Dale Bailey, Club Dead by Charlaine Harris, Low Red Moon by Caitlin Kiernan, Face by Tim Lebbon, and The Rising by Brian Keene. Two excellent short story collections came from more established writers, Duel by Richard Matheson and Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard. Best horror of the year was unquestionably the Straub novel, which is also my choice as best overall novel of fantastic fiction for the year.
A Forest of Stars by Kevin J. Anderson (Warner & Earthlight)
Skyfall by Catherine Asaro (Tor)
Zulu Heart by John Barnes (Warner)
Brighten to Incandescence by Michael Bishop (Golden Gryphon)
In This World, or Another by James Blish (Five Star)
Saturn by Ben Bova (Tor)
Tangled Strings by Adam-Troy Castro (Five Star)
Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany (Vintage)
Babylon Sisters by Paul DiFilippo (Five Star)
A Place So Foreign and Other Stories by Cory Doctorow (Four Walls, Eight Windows)
Budayeen Nights by George Alec Effinger (Golden Gryphon)
The Drowning World by Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey)
The Machine Crusade by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Hodder & Tor)
Crossfire by Nancy Kress (Tor)
Changing Planes by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harcourt)
Omega by Jack McDevitt (Ace)
The Return of Santiago by Mike Resnick (Tor)
Ilium by Dan Simmons (Eos & Gollancz)
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (Ace)
And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon (North Atlantic)
Red Thunder by John Varley (Ace)
The Mockymen by Ian Watson (Golden Gryphon)
Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Coyote Cowgirl by Kim Antieau (Tor)
The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker (Tor)
The Lord of Castle Black by Steven Brust (Tor)
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (Eos)
Wraiths of Will and Pleasure by Storm Constantine (Tor)
The Battle of Evernight by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (Warner)
Spirits in the Wires by Charles De Lint (Tor)
Impossible Odds by Dave Duncan (Eos)
The Lair of Bones by David Farland (Tor)
The Talon of Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist (Eos)
The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb (Bantam)
Any Man So Daring by Sarah A. Hoyt (Ace)
The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow
The Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan (Tor)
In the King's Service by Katherine Kurtz (Ace)
The Light Ages by Ian MacLeod (Ace & Earthlight)
Darknesses by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (Tor)
The Skrayling Tree by Michael Moorcock (Warner)
Eragon by Christopher Paolini (Knopf)
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett (Harper)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic)
Lust by Geoffrey Ryman (St Martins & Flamingo)
House of War by Judith Tarr (Roc)
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton (Tor)
Dragon Venom by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Tor)
The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells (Eos)
The Riven Shield by Michelle West (DAW)
House of Bones by Dale Bailey (Signet)
The Gathering Dark by Christopher Golden (Ace)
Club Dead by Charlaine Harris (Ace)
Cold River by Rick Hautala (CD)
The Rising by Brian Keene (Leisure)
Low Red Moon by Caitlin Kiernan (Roc)
Face by Tim Lebbon (Leisure)
The Doorkeepers by Graham Masterton (Leisure)
A Terrible Beauty by Graham Masterton (Pocket)
Duel by Richard Matheson (Tor)
Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard (Golden Gryphon)
Lost Boy Lost Girl by Peter Straub (Random House)
Gateways by F. Paul Wilson (Forge)