The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 2004
It’s time to look back over the past year's reading to try to identify the best fantastic novels of the year, starting with science fiction. Certainly the most impressive novel I read last year was The Separation by Christopher Priest, a very unusual alternate history story about two brothers whose lives intersect our own history and one in which England negotiated a separate peace during World War II. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that it's eligible because of a previous edition in England. In its absence, I find it difficult to choose from among three other novels. The first of these is Polaris by Jack McDevitt, a clever and fast paced Mary Celeste story set in outer space. Second is Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson, which assumes that global warming is indeed a valid theory and speculates about our possible, inadequate response. The third is River of Gods by Ian McDonald, a fascinating look at a future India that has splintered into several smaller states. Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds, final volume in his unnamed trilogy, was also a close contender, but was not up to the quality of its predecessors.
Space travel was a major device in SF this year. Kevin J. Anderson continued the Saga of the Seven Suns series with Horizon Storms, in which the spreading interstellar war draws more and more bystanders into the fray. Humans are caught between two rival alien races in Crucible by Nancy Kress, Frederik Pohl continued the saga of the Heechee in The Boy Who Would Live Forever, and the last human confronts aliens in Beyond Infinity by Gregory Benford. Space colonies were also the setting for several fine novels including Coyote Rising by Allen Steele, which continues the adventures of dissidents from Earth on a distant world, and Hostile Takeover by Susan Shwartz, wherein an accountant finds more than the usual irregularities in the finances of a colony world. There is another interstellar conspiracy in The Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross, who also collected two related and very bizarre short novels in The Atrocity Archives. Roger MacBride Allen ended his excellent Solace trilogy about travel through space and time with The Shores of Tomorrow and Peter Hamilton started another large scale adventure with Pandora's Star.
The best first SF novel of the year was Crux by Albert Cowdrey, in which dissidents from a far future society steal a time machine in order to change the past. The best young adult novel was Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, an adventure story in an alternate Earth where zeppelins are used to travel between continents, where sky pirates often prey upon them. Elizabeth Moon's Marque and Reprisal continues the adventures of Ky Vatta, an interplanetary entrepreneur, and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough followed up her story of a scientifically reincarnated Cleopatra with Cleopatra 7.2. Joe Haldeman provided his best novel in years. Two nearly immortal aliens live secretly among humans until their final fatal meeting in Camouflage.
` Perhaps the most unexpected SF novel of the year was The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, a sophisticated and very effective alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President and keeps America neutral during World War II. A few short story collections deserving mention are Collected Stories by C.J. Cherryh, The John Varley Reader by John Varley, and Thumbprints by Pamela Sargent.
This was a very good year for fantasy, with a significant number of novels breaking away, at least in part, from the formulaic fantasy that has been dominant these past several years. The two best novels this year were The Jaguar Knights by Dave Duncan, latest in the King's Blades series, which takes a disgraced warrior to a distant land where even the rules of magic are different, and The Iron Council by China Mieville, another unusual adventure in the world of New Crobuzon. Other outstanding novels which take traditional devices and give them new twists are The Wizard by Gene Wolfe, The Last Guardian of Everness by John Wright, first in a new series, and The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston, also a first novel. For those readers who prefer the familiar, there were some very good novels as well, including The Charnel Prince by Greg Keyes, The Chernagor Pirates by Dan Chernenko, and The Destruction of the Books by Mel Odom, as well as a gentler traditional fantasy by Patricia A. McKillip, The Alphabet of Thorn.
The best first novel this year was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the story of rival magicians in 19th Century Europe. Historical settings – real or slightly altered – were prominent in fantasy fiction in 2004. Strange Cargo by Jeff Barlough is also set in the 19th Century, but one in which the last ice age never came to an end. A monk battles demons hidden within human society in The Nameless Day by Sara Douglass, which was previously published in Australia and which is the first in a series. Ancestors of Avalon by Diana L. Paxson follows the adventures of the survivors of Atlantis who move to the British Isles in the time preceding the rise of King Arthur. William the Conqueror develops his magical talents in Judith Tarr's Rite of Conquest, and Norse legends come to life in The Last Light of Day by Guy Gavriel Kay.
There were a few notable fantasies with contemporary settings. A Korean War veteran is chosen to protect the Holy Grail in One King, One Soldier by Alexander Irvine. A modern day witch confronts evil in Dime Store Magic by Kelly Armstrong, first in a series. Most surprising was Shadows in Darkness by Elaine Cunningham, wherein a private detective discovers that magic is real. The novel is strikingly superior to the author's previous work. The best fantasy for younger readers was Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin, an allegory about international relations.
2004 was a steady but undistinguished year for horror fiction. Dean Koontz's Life Expectancy and Peter Straub's In the Night Room are the two most immediately memorable novels, but neither was even close to being the best work by their respective authors. Jeff Long's The Reckoning was perhaps the most impressive single novel, although its promise begins to dissipate toward the end and it has a very unsatisfying conclusion. I actually had the most fun with The Devil in Gray by Graham Masterton, an unambitious gore fest with a clever premise, a really nasty villain, and lots of thrills and chills. I'm tempted to call it the best of the year, but after thinking about it, I think I'll go with "No Award".
Vampires remained popular of course. F. Paul Wilson expanded his novella, Midnight Mass, in which the world has been completely overrun. It was also released as an embarrassingly bad movie. Charlaine Harris continued her alternate world vampire series with Dead to the World, best in the series so far, and Andrew Fox followed up his story of an overweight vampire with Bride of the Fat White Vampire. Other horror novels of note include The Rising by Brian Keene, Missing Monday by Matthew Costello, Possessions by James Moore, and The Messenger by Edward Lee. Fortunately there were several very good short story collections. Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard and Bumper Crop by Joe Lansdale were the best, but Crypt Orchids by David Schow, Alone with the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell, and Compositions for Young and Old by Paul Tremblay were all impressive as well.
What was the overall best then? Well, for the first time since I've been doing this summary, and assuming that The Separation is ineligible, I'm going for No Award. There were a lot of very good novels published this year, but no single one that stood out sufficiently that I would accord it that honor.
The Shores of Tomorrow by Roger MacBride Allen (Bantam)
Horizon Storms by Kevin J. Anderson (Aspect)
Beyond Infinity by Gregory Benford (Warner)
Collected Stories by C.J. Cherryh (DAW)
Crux by Albert Cowdrey (Tor)
Crucible by Nancy Kress (Tor)
Polaris by Jack McDevitt (Ace)
Camouflage by Joe Haldeman (Ace)
Pandora's Star by Peter J. Hamilton (Del Rey)
River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Simon & Schuster)
Marque and Reprisal by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey)
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel (Eos)
The Boy Who Would Live Forever by Frederik Pohl (Tor)
The Separation by Christopher Priest (Scribner/Gollancz)
Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (Ace/Gollancz)
Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam)
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (Houghton)
Thumbprints by Pamela Sargent (Golden Gryphon)
Cleopatra 7.2 by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (Ace)
Hostile Takeover by Susan Shwartz (Tor)
Coyote Rising by Allen Steele (Ace)
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
The Iron Rain by Charles Stross
Lurulu by Jack Vance (Tor)
The John Varley Reader by John Varley (Ace)
Dime Store Magic by Kelly Armstrong (Bantam)
Strange Cargo by Jeff Barlough (Ace)
The Chernegor Pirates by Dan Chernenko (Roc)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
Shadows in Darkness by Elaine Cunningham (Tor)
The Nameless Day by Sara Douglass (Tor)
The Jaguar Knights by Dave Duncan (Eos)
Exile's Return by Raymond E. Feist (Eos)
One King, One Soldier by Alexander Irvine (Del Rey)
The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay (Roc)
The Charnel Prince by Greg Keyes (Del Rey)
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt)
The Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip (Ace)
The Iron Council by China Mieville (Del Rey)
The Destruction of the Books by Mel Odom (Tor)
Ancestors of Avalon by Diana L. Paxson (Viking)
The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston (Gollancz)
Rite of Conquest by Judith Tarr (Roc)
The Wizard by Gene Wolfe (Tor)
Alone with the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell (Tor)
Missing Monday by Matthew Costello (Berkley)
Bride of the Fat White Vampire by Andrew Fox (Del Rey)
Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris (Ace)
The Rising by Brian Keene (Leisure)
Life Expectancy by Dean R. Koontz (Bantam)
Bumper Crop by Joe Lansdale (Golden Gryphon)
The Messenger by Edward Lee (Leisure)
The Reckoning by Jeff Long (Atria)
The Devil in Gray by Graham Masterton (Leisure)
Possessions by James Moore (Leisure)
Crypt Orchids by David Schow (Babbage)
Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard (Golden Gryphon)
In the Night Room by Peter Straub (Random House)
Compositions for Young and Old by Paul Tremblay (House of Dominion)
Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson (Tor)