My Amazon SF/F Picks, and Other Worthy Books

Jeff VanderMeer • November 16th, 2007 @ 11:15 am • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

For those who might have missed my top 10 list of the year for Amazon, I thought I’d recap here, along with a few additional books I considered when compiling the list.

First off, Amazon’s requirement for the list was that it should include only books first published in 2007 in the US. This meant I couldn’t include novels like M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing. My own further self-imposed restriction was not to consider the middle books of trilogy or short story collections. Both of these restrictions were meant to winnow the possible choices down to a manageable list, even as I acknowledge there’s a certain element of the arbitrary to making that decision. But, then, most of the year’s best lists out there aren’t particularly scientific. There’s also the argument that a middle book of a trilogy is likely to be, in some ways, a bridge, and not self-contained. As for short story collections, 2007 was a down year for collections in terms of quantity of quality possibilities (this is not to say that some fine collections weren’t published in 2007).

The only other self-imposed restriction was to try to have a roughly equal number of SF and F titles. I also decided that I would let Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, the best of a fine batch of indie press SF/F titles in 2007, represent what I’d call an “overlooked books” slot, reserving the rest for material that had received at least some attention. Of course, the most important constraint was that they had to be books that, after I’d read them, had stuck with me and seemed memorable in some way. Finally, there is a certain amount of give-and-take between Amazon editors, and just as some of my recommendations made the general best books list, so I accepted one recommendation from them: Patrick Rothfuss’ novel, which I had looked over but not read. Given that this seemed to provide representation to a type of book not otherwise on the list, I felt this was an acceptable compromise. I was under no pressure to include it, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Here, then, is a short summary of my top picks, followed by an annotated list of other books I thought were worthy and might’ve made my list under other circumstances. No year’s best list is objectively comprehensive–like awards, every list is going to overlook something. So I encourage you to add your own recommendations in the comments section of this post.

My Top 9

The Terror by Dan Simmons – About a doomed search for the Northwest Passage, this is one of Simmons’ most compelling and deeply felt novels. The characterization and description is topnotch, and the unexpected but ultimately satisfying ending stayed with me long after I finished reading. I know there are some readers unwilling to tackle this huge book, possibly in part because there is a sense of fatalism in its underlying impulse, but I found it well worth my time, with some of the most haunting scenes I’ve read in a long time. Because of the brilliance of the execution and Simmons’ refusal to take any easy way out, this was my favorite read of 2007.

Brasyl by Ian McDonald - With three separate strands describing the Brasil of past, present, and future, Brasyl is a tour de force of storytelling momentum, with a level of invention that represents a master at the top of his form. McDonald is an amazing stylist, yes, but here it’s all about motion. He does a wonderful job of including his trademark detailed and inventive description, but always as the plot unfolds. Nothing is static in this novel.

Territory by Emma Bull – A renovated Western with magic realism touches, Territory had a lucid and genuine quality that is hard enough to maintain in a normal work of fiction. When you consider that Bull is working largely with historical characters who have been portrayed time and again in the movies and literature, her achievement of making it all seem fresh and new is remarkable. Some of the exchanges between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others are genius-level for their sharpness and ingenuity.

The Traitor by Michael Cisco – Writing like some incendiary prophet of the grotesque, Cisco in this novel surpasses everything he accomplished with such works as the IHG Award-winning The Divinity Student. Soul burners, spirit eaters, and a conflict as epic as it is personal. Uncompromising, stark, beautiful, strange, The Traitor is the work of a true original.

Spaceman Blues: A Love Story by Brian Francis Slattery – Borrowing from gonzo SF but with a heart firmly in the here-and-now of New York City, Slattery’s first novel has a kind of musician’s sensibility to it: riffing on any number of ideas and characters, focused around one character’s search for another. Unique, of and in the moment, its greatest strength is the ease with which it transitions from humorous to serious and back again. Remarkable for a first novel.

Shelter by Susan Palwick - A great near-future novel that requires multiple readers to truly appreciate, Shelter is a book I changed my opinion on after reviewing it for the Washington Post Book World. In that review, I mentioned that although I liked the novel, I thought it was a little baggy and that the ending did not seem as eviscerating as the rest of the novel. However, I could not stop thinking about Shelter. Along with The Traitor and The Terror, it is the novel that most stayed with me throughout the year. The characterization and the extrapolation (near future extrapolation is the hardest to get right) are extraordinary.

Thirteen by Richard Morgan - As a huge fan of Altered Carbon, I found much to love about Thirteen, which is provocative, possibly controversial, and very much alive. It’s a complex future tale of genetic manipulation and intrigue–a thriller with a pulse-pounding heart, but a brain as well. I think Morgan gets too much attention for the sex and violence in his books, because there’s always so much more going on.

Tin House: Fantastic Women – For me, this collection of stories by Kelly Link Aimee Bender, Shelley Jackson, and others was one of the highlights of the year. It made me feel good to see such an uncommon display of talent, invention, and innovation. A must-read.

The Coyote Road edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling – As a total package, it would be hard to top this anthology, with its comprehensive introduction about trickster tales, its cover and decorative illustrations by Charles Vess, and its clever and excellent stories by Link, Klages, McKillip, and many others. If you want an example of a near-perfect anthology, this is it, because editing an anthology is not just about picking good stories. It’s also about putting them in the proper context and making sure that the look-and-feel match that context.

Other Worthy Books (in no particular order)

Acacia by Anthony Durham – An excellent and unique take on heroic fantasy.

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon – A unique SF-Fantasy novel, the first of a no-doubt fascinating series.

Ha’ Penny by Jo Walton – Another in Walton’s harrowing examinations of fascism.

The Imago Sequence by Laird Barron – A strong collection by Laird, but, as mentioned, I had decided not to consider collections.

Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages - Another strong collection.

In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan – A good but not great novel that felt slow to me but was still worthy.

Mainspring by Jay Lake – A good and inventive major publisher debut that was definitely in the mix.

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia - A fascinating European magic realist novel by someone I think has the potential to be a superstar in the field; the Slattery narrowly edged this one out for me, in terms of first novels.

In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Cat Valente - A concluding volume, to be sure, but also, in its wormholing of stories, independent of its predecessor to some degree. Sumptuously written.

One For Sorrow by Christopher Barzak - A great and often moving debut from a very talented writer. At times, though, it felt too familiar to me.

Vacation by Jeremy Shipp – A minor surrealist masterpiece about a guy going on a strange vacation. Shipp is definitely a writer to watch.

Ink by Hal Duncan – Against all odds, Duncan managed to bring closure to what he started with Vellum. However, I didn’t feel that it necessarily stood alone. I kept going back and forth on that, but given that my self-imposed restriction had left a lot of heroic fantasy off the list, I didn’t feel comfortable giving Ink a slot.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – A rough-and-tumble, bold entry to the heroic fantasy ranks that I found both compelling and ragged around the edges at the same time. I waffled back and forth on this, and can’t remember how it didn’t quite make the top ten, but I think it might’ve been published in the UK in 2006.

I’m sure there are other books I considered and am just forgetting at the moment. More importantly, I’m interested in your own comments on what you think were the best books of the year in SF/F/H.

Jeff

11 Responses to “My Amazon SF/F Picks, and Other Worthy Books”

  1. ChrisR says:

    Jeff,
    Great list. I pretty much concur on all points. As a sidenote, In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Cat Valente is not a middle book. There is only meant to be two books in the series.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ah–good point! I’ll correct that.
    Jeff

  3. Corey Redekop says:

    Good list. I’m glad to see Simmons on there, a writer so good at EVERYTHING that I hate his guts. Seriously, could you fail at one genre? Please?

    I don’t have much to contribute to this list (most of your entires are on my ‘to read when I’ve got the freakin’ time’ list), but I am reading Matthew Hughes THE COMMONS, and am enjoying it immensely.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I also meant to add Ben Peek’s Black Sheep.

    JeffV

  5. Eddie C says:

    Technically published right at the end of 2006, but no one seemed to read it until this year (actually no one seemed to read it full stop), The Last Green Tree by Jim Grimsley was really good. Typically well written, and fairly brutal compared to the way he usually writes.

  6. Allen says:

    Fatal Revenant was an astonishing return to form by Stephen R. Donaldson.

  7. Larry says:

    Very good list (as I thought when I originally saw the names a couple of weeks ago) and the criteria for inclusion made quite a bit of sense. One question, since this has to do with the timing of the list: Were the intended holiday releases left out because they hadn’t been published at the time of the list writings or were there other reasons as well? I’m thinking of this shortly after finishing Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom and wondering where it would rank with these others on your list.

    As for books that (tentatively) would make my personal Top 10 of 2007, many are the same as yours, but I have no order for arranging them yet (since I too am waiting to see which ones will stick most in my mind in late December):

    Simmons, Cisco, Bull, Morgan from your Top 9. Durham, Valente from your also considered list. Add to that the latest Gene Wolfe (it was very good, but in some ways, I felt that Wolfe repeated his modus operandi from The Wizard-Knight a bit too much in this tale), Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms. Would have added Nova Swing and The Arrival (which I bought off of your recommendation – thanks!) as well, but I’ll try to follow your criteria here and not include the middle volume works that worked for me, such as Sarah Monette’s The Mirador, which I thought was an excellent novel designed to deepen her two main characters without repeating what had transpired before.

    One non-genre book that I read this year that I hope will be translated into English soon is the 2007 Alfaguara Prize winner, Luis Leante’s mira si yo te querré (See if I Will Love You), which is a decades-long account, starting around the time of the Franco’s death and the takeover of Spanish Morocco and dealing with a doctor abandoning her native Barcelona in search for her first love. Despite the hokey sound of that brief description, I thought Leante did an excellent job of developing his characters and having their stormy relationship be set in a place (the western edge of the Sahara) that serves as a metaphor for what is transpiring. Read it back in June and it’s still in my mind 5 months later.

  8. Bob Lock says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Yes, I have to agree with what you’ve said about The Terror, it is a compelling story and extremely well-researched. It had me checking Wikipedia for information on the Franklin Expedition and it was enthralling seeing how much of the story was drawn from true events. A monumental book and one to read wrapped up cosily in bed through our long winter nights.
    I’m coming to the end of Brasyl as I write this and once again I’m gob-smacked by how Ian McDonald can get into the character type and environment of where his stories take place. With River of Gods I couldn’t help but start to mentally read some of his dialogue passages with an Indian accent, it was so well written, now I’m doing the same with Brasyl!

    If anyone’s looking for Christmas presents to give then they couldn’t go far wrong with these two books. The Terror crosses the boundries of historical/fantasy/horror and Brasyl is an atmospheric blending of myths and hard sf.
    Best,
    Bob

    ps Glad to see you’ve mentioned Joe Abercrombie, I reckon he’s one to watch. His first two books are very entertaining and the third promises to be even better.

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Larry–It’s entirely possible books will come out between now and the end of the year that I would’ve put on the list. It’s Amazon’s decision to post their lists this early. However, I do get advance galleys of just about everything that comes out, so I think I probably only missed two or three things. I hope!! But one of those is the Wolfe. Great suggestions, too, thanks.

    Bob–Glad you liked The Terror, too. Yeah, between The Terror and Brasyl, you can’t go wrong.
    Jeff

  10. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh–and Larry–I recommended The Arrival to the Amazon editors for their other lists. I hope it made it–haven’t had a chance to look yet. I just didn’t feel comfortable putting a graphic novel on a fiction list. Nova Express would’ve been on the list if it hadn’t come out in 2006 in the UK.
    Jeff

  11. Larry says:

    Glad you enjoyed the suggestions, Jeff. I just checked the Amazon Best of 2007 page and yes, The Arrival made the Teen List, at #1 even.

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