"2004: SF Novels Summary" by Richard Horton

This year I decided not to bother listing chapbooks and suchlike. This includes only SF or Fantasy novels first published in 2004. (I even omit non-SF novels by SF writers, such as The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler -- but I suggest you go ahead and read it! I do include, on possibly tenuous grounds, Bruce Sterling's The Zenith Angle.) Two of these books, Recursion and River of Gods, have not had US publication. I should mention a couple of novels from 2003 that first appeared in the US in 2004: Light, by M. John Harrison and The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde.

The list below includes 50 novels. At the end I will discuss Hugo and Locus votes.

Tony Ballantyne, Recursion. Decent first novel by a promising British writer, about AI's and Von Neumann Machines, virtual reality, and a battle for control of space. My SF Site review is here. 122,000 words.

John Barnes, Gaudeamus. Rather a romp, and quite a good one. A writer named John Barnes, teaching at a Colorado university, meets an old friend from college who tells him a wild story about a secret lab building a teleportation machine, a beautiful physicist-prostitute, a telepathy drug, and various aliens buying the Earth. 100,000 words.

Neal Barrett, Jr. Prince of Christler-Coke. Rather fun novel in which Asel Iacola, the Prince of the Christler-Coke corporation, is exiled and forced to travel across a much changed America in search of revenge. My SF Site review is here. 82,000 words.

Michael Cisco, The Golem. A short novel, sequel to Cisco's much praised earlier short novel The Divinity Student. (The two were published together by Prime as The San Venefico Canon.) The reanimated divinity student controls a golem in visiting a sort of mirror city under San Venefico. Cisco is known for his prose -- I thought it at times striking but also at times overblown, or simply off. Similarly, the novel is at time boring, at other times (especially the end) intriguing. I covered it briefly for the Internet Review of Science Fiction. 51,000 words.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. My favorite novel of 2004. Set in an alternate historical England where magic is real. (As indeed are two other novels from 2004: both of Caroline Stevermer's (one with Patricia Wrede). This one is set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Mr Norrell is an older man trying to revive magic in England, and Jonathan Strange is first his pupil and then his rival. The slow-developing plot concerns the unfortunate results of Mr Norrell's dealings with a Fairy, and especially the way this affects Strange's wife. 333,000 words.

Charles de Lint, Medicine Road. Sweet story about two musician sisters from Kentucky who come to Arizona on tour. There they meet a couple of odd folks who turn out to be animals in human form -- and one of them falls for one of the sister. It's light fare, fun but perhaps a bit ephemeral -- a nice mixture of music, gentle humor, Native American mythology, and a couple of sweet love stories. Nicely illustrated by Charles Vess. I reviewed this (briefly) at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. 68,000 words.

Cory Doctorow, Eastern Standard Tribe. I was somewhat disappointed in this, Doctorow's second novel. Still, it's interesting enough to be worth reading. As I said originally, "fun and breezy" -- but also the characters are unlikable. It's set in the near future, when techy folks apparently divide into "tribes" based on the time zones they work. Eh? Makes no sense at all. The plot concerns the lead character falling for a woman in London, trying to push a new techy idea, and ending up in an asylum. 52,000 words.

Marcos Donnelly, Letters from the Flesh. Pretty neat novel which suggest that Paul, the writer of the Epistles, was actually possessed by alien energy beings. It pairs the story of Paul/Energy being, back in the first century, with a contemporary account of a science teacher dealing with anti-evolutionists. I reviewed this for Locus. 59,000 words.

Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten. The fourth of his Thursday Next books. Thursday, back in the "real" world, faces an attempt by Yorrick Kaine to take over England. Her only hope is to captain the local croquet team to victory in the Superhoop. Oh, and Hamlet, Lady Hamilton, a 13th Century Saint, etc. etc. are involved. Good fun -- perhaps not quite as good as the best novels of the series. The overall plot arc comes to an acceptable conclusion -- there may be more Thursday Next books, but there need not be. My SF Site review is here. 125,000 words.

James Alan Gardner, Radiant. Another Festina Ramos novel. Probably Gardner's weakest. An Expendable named Youn Suu, a Buddhist, with a blemish meant to be the mirror image of Festina's, travels with Festina and a couple more to a planet where two different groups of colonists have disappeared. Pure and simple, it didn't work for me -- much less funny than Gardner's previous novels, and the SFnal gimmicks didn't interest me as much. My SF Site review is here. 140,000 words.

Joe Haldeman, Camouflage. I read the Analog serial version -- I'm not sure if it differs from the book version. Very enjoyable if not terribly ambitious novel of two alien shapeshifters come to Earth. About 73,000 words in the serial.

Robert A. Heinlein, For Us the Living. Heinlein's first novel, written in about 1939 and rejected. Not much of a novel, but an interesting look at Heinlein's thought and themes. The plot is simple: a guy from our time (that is, 1938) is projected forward into the future, and people talk to him at great length describing the future world and the intervening history. 80,000 words.

Matthew Hughes, Black Brillion. A novel of the Archonate, set in the Age of Earth just prior to that depicted in Jack Vance's Dying Earth. As with Hughes's other novels and stories, it's good stuff, quite Vancean in character but "Hughesean" as well. A young security agent is sent with a reformed (?) criminal to investigate what seems to be a scam involving using "black brillion" to cure a mysterious new disease called the Lassitude. 85,000 words.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Balance of Trade. Pretty enjoyable Liaden novel, about a Terran apprenticed to a Liaden trader. Hopefully sets up sequels. 150,000 words.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Gifts. Strong YA novel about two children growing up together and struggling to deal with their magical "gifts". My SF Site review is here. 55,000 words.

Ken MacLeod, Newton's Wake. Decent novel, not MacLeod at his best. Post-Singularity, the non-uplifted humans have spread across the Galaxy. One group ended up on a planet called Eurydice, believing they were the only survivors. Then they are encountered by the rest of humanity. 122,000 words.

Nick Mamatas, Move Under Ground. Another first novel. In about 1962 Jack Kerouac is enlisted to wage against the denizens of R'lyeh, newly risen in the Pacific. So he and Neal Cassady, and eventually William S. Burroughs, travel from San Francisco to New York. Interesting, not perfect. I covered it briefly for the Internet Review of Science Fiction. 48,000 words.

Wil McCarthy, Lost in Transmission. Third in McCarthy's series about the Queendom of Sol, and the technology of faxing (matter transmission) and programmable matter. The frustrated youth (frustrated because of their elders' immortality) are sent to Barnard's Star. Their colonization attempt runs into problems -- high technology they have, but they are resource starved -- and there are character conflicts. My SF Site review is at here.113,000 words.

Ian McDonald, River of Gods. My second favorite among last year's Hugo nominees. The story is set in a fractured India in 2047. It follows several characters in a braided narrative. The novel is full of fascinating extrapolation about AI, and the changing environment, and Indian and world politics, and gender. The characters are also rich and compelling -- and though they are on different sides, and some seem right and others wrong, they are all sincere by their lights, and sympathetic, and we somehow hope they will all come out OK. This is a wonderful novel, at once tragic and hopeful, depressing and uplifting, above all lush with idea, incident, and character. 194,000 words.

Patricia A. McKillip, Alphabet of Thorn. A pretty fine fantasy in which a mysterious young woman discovers an old book telling of the life of the founding king of this land and the woman he loved. 77,000 words.

Sean McMullen, Glass Dragons. A long novel, a sequel to Voyage of the Shadowmoon, with a similar premise. A group of magicians creates a very dangerous object, Dragonwall, and a group of diverse people wanders across the world with the eventual goal of destroying it. On the whole, an enjoyable book, though also a rambling one. 192,000 words.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. A Nebula nominee, and also shortlisted for the Booker -- it was the favorite but lost. (Possibly because of its SFnal aspects.) It's told in 6 narratives, starting in the 19th Century and going forward to a post-Apocalyptic future. Cunningly constructed, setting up links between each narrative, and nicely unreeling them at the end. The first six go forward in time, then back in time to the beginning as each is finished. I think it teeters on the edge of greatness and just falls short, partly due to some implausibilities of plot. Still, my second or third favorite novel of the year. 174,000 words.

Elizabeth Moon, Marque and Reprisal. Sequel to last year's Trading in Danger. Ky Vatta's merchant family is attacked, the bulk of them killed. Ky is off on her maiden trading journey so escaped the initial attack but soon finds herself in danger. With the eventual help of a couple further survivors, she deals with a slimy former Vatta employee who may be in the pay of their enemies. Pretty fun stuff -- I'm sure at least a couple more Vatta novels are coming. 135,000 words.

David Ohle, The Age of Sinatra. A strange novel set in a future dominated by periodic "Forgettings". A rambling mess that reveals an impressive imagination but that is otherwise very frustrating to read. In a word -- self-indulgent in the worst way. 52,000 words.

Alastair Reynolds, Century Rain. A pretty good novel, set in a future where the remnants of humanity survive in space after the "Nanocaust" destroyed life on Earth. War threatens to break out between pro-nanotech and anti-nanotech sides. Verity Auger is sent via wormhole to 20th Century Paris -- an alternate 20th Century, where WWII didn't happen -- and there she meets Wendell Floyd, who is investigating the death of an ally of Verity's. 220,000 words.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain. Good trilogy opener about global warming and the coming catastrophe -- in this case more specifically about scientific and political wonkery. Think what you will of his politics, he's a fascinating writer and tells gripping stories. 113,000 words.

R. Garcia y Robertson, White Rose. The third in a Gabaldonesque series about Robyn Stafford, former Miss Rodeo Montana and minor Hollywood executive, who is sent by witches back to the Wars of the Roses, where she falls in love with Edward March, the elder brother of Richard III and father of "the Princes in the Tower". It's taking a bit too long -- perhaps a lot too long -- for this series to reach a resolution. This book is mostly some more traipsing across England and Wales, and a fair amount of sex and witchcraft. 128,000 words.

Madeleine E. Robins, Petty Treason. Second in a series of novels about Sarah Tolerance, a private investigator in an alternate Regency. Sarah is engaged by the brother of a naive country woman accused of murdering her sadistic husband. She learns a variety of secrets about French emigrés, the nastier aspects of the sex trade, and English royalty. And she finally understands the original case -- though the ramifications in the end are broader than she expected. Good novel -- though its main appeal will be to mystery readers and Regency fans, as opposed to SF readers. For myself, I'll keep reading about Sarah Tolerance. 88,000 words.

Rudy Rucker, Frek and the Elixir. One of the better novels of 2004. Set in about 3000, after the world's genetic variety has been suppressed, replaced by a limited set of species owned by NuBioCom. 12 year old Frek encounters a a strange alien, and before long is flying around the universe, eventually to have an opportunity to restore Earth's lost natural species. My SF Site review is at here. 182,000 words.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Consequences. The third "Retrieval Artist" novel. In this one, the fallout from a civil war on a colonized planet reaches Earth's Moon, as a pardoned war criminal and her Lunar parents are all found murdered -- and the repercussions include a threat to Armstrong City itself. A very uneven novel. 109,000 words.

Lucius Shepard, Trujillo. Published as part of Shepard's collection of the same title. then published as a standalone book in 2005. Extremely typical Shepard -- set in Trujillo, Honduras, where a young, rich, American, apparently possessed by an ancient god of sorts, gets involved with a local beauty, while his doctor, a mayoral candidate, also deals with woman problems, and eventually with the problem of the god possessing the American. I reviewed this (along with the rest of the collection) for Locus. 50,000 words.

Lemony Snicket, The Grim Grotto. The 11th in the Series of Unfortunate Events. The children find themselves underwater, searching for a key sugar bowl in a submarine. Something of a disappointment relative to the rest of the series. 50,000 words.

Allen M. Steele, Coyote Rising. I read this in quasi-serialization, as a series of novellas and novelettes in Asimov's. Presumably Steele revised it a bit for book publication. It's a fairly routine story of the original colonists on Coyote resisting the later arrivals, collectivists from a later period on Earth. Predictable throughout, but still a brisk and fun read. I don't have a good estimate for word count -- a quick and dirty guess from looking through a bookstore copy is 125,000.

Bruce Sterling, The Zenith Angle. Arguably this novel, set in the recent past, is not actually SF, but it does have a very SFnal feel. After 9/11, Derek Vandeveer, a brilliant computer scientist working for a dotcom company, is recruited to help the US government with computing security. It's funny and very "knowing" in pretty typical Sterling fashion -- a good, not great, book. 93,000 words.

Sean Stewart, Perfect Circle. One of the best novels of the year. Will Kennedy, a Texan in a dead end job with a divorced wife he hasn't got over and a daughter he loves and exasperates, can see ghosts. Lots of the ghosts he can see are in his family, and the novel is ultimately about him dealing with his family ghosts. I reviewed this at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. 74,000 words.

Jennifer Stevenson, Trash, Sex, Magic. Very fine first novel, an urban fantasy set in suburban Chicago (not far from my home town). A construction project disrupts the lives of some trailer dwellers, and elemental forces are raised up. I reviewed this at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. 105,000 words.

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics. Good loose sequel to A College of Magic. An American sharpshooter, Samuel Lambert, is recruited to Glasscastle, an Oxbridgish college, to help with a magical project. He is seduced by the wonder of English magic, and also falls for Jane Brailsford, who has come to Glasscastle to convince another scholar, Nicholas Fell, to take on his responsibilities as Warden of the West. When Fell disappears, Jane and Lambert try to find him. I liked it a lot. 128,000 words.

Charles Stross, Iron Sunrise. Another good, loose, sequel: to Singularity Sky. The husband and wife from the previous novel get involved in the repercussions of an artificially novaed sun, and the automatic revenge system. All turns out to involve the creepy Remastered, implacable foes of the Eschaton. 153,000 words.

Charles Stross, The Family Trade. Presented as fantasy, though I read it as parallel universe SF. Still, I suppose the most obvious comparison is with Amber. Pretty good stuff, about a contemporary woman who discovers she is actually part of a powerful family from a parellel world, and that her existence has serious political consequences -- that could end up getting her killed. 153,000 words.

Steph Swainston, The Year of Our War. A very highly praised first novel. I am however one of a very few skeptics: I thought it terribly overrated. Some good imaginative ideas, but structurally a mess, and not really that well written. My review is at here. 124,000 words.

Mark W. Tiedemann, Of Stars and Shadows. Published back to back with Jeffrey Turner's This Instance of Me as a "Double Dog" from Yard Dog press. A rebel finally overthrows the despotic Galactic Emperor, but in dealing with the chaos left by the end of the Empire he finds that he is taking on Imperial characteristics. Decent enough, nothing brilliant. 40,000 words.

Jeffrey Turner. This Instance of Me. Published back to back with Mark W. Tiedemann's Of Stars and Shadows as a "Double Dog" from Yard Dog press. A policeman and his girlfriend (another cop) discover what seems to be an assassination attempt on an orbital habitat, possibly tied to a new technology that may lead to a space drive. Shows some promise, but doesn't really work. 49,000 words.

Mary A. Turzillo, An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl. I read this in the Analog serialization (I haven't seen a book yet). Kind of a weird story about a girl on Mars who ends up, sort of by accident, involved with religious nuts and a starship project. Lots of interesting stuff, but the whole thing goes way off the rails towards the end. About 102,000 words in the serial.

Jack Vance, Lurulu. This is the sequel, or perhaps better said, completion, of Vance's previous novel, Ports of Call. Following on from the story of Myron Cany introduced in that book, several further planets are visited. A variety of plot threads are introduced, and vaguely resolved, the most obvious being the ship Captain's quest for the man who appears to have murdered his father and seduced his mother. Myron eventually finds his Aunt, and he also eventually resolves a love affair begun in Ports of Call. All are in pursuit of lurulu, an ideal condition of satisfaction with life or something of the sort. The conclusion is, this being Vance, mildly ironic, mildly misogynistic, and worldly-wise. Not by any means Vance at his best, but pretty good, and very characteristic. 70,000 words.

David Weber, Web of Deception. This was published in the anthology Masters of Fantasy, and actually it is an extract from Weber's 2004 novel Windrider's Oath. It is, however, fully novel length at 55,000 words. I thought it fairly good -- probably somewhat too long but there is a decent story there.

Leslie What, Olympic Games. Another fine first novel. A nymph seduced by Zeus and imprisoned in a tree ends up freed by an artist in upstate New York. Then both Zeus and Hera converge on the place -- while the artist and the nymph are falling in love. I reviewed this for Locus. 92,000 words.

Sean Williams, The Crooked Letter. Published in 2004 in Australia, in 2006 in the US. It won both the Aurealis and Ditmar awards on its 2004 Australian publication. And the back cover includes praise from Fiona McIntosh, Sara Douglass, and Jack Dann. Hmmmph. I guess some people liked it, but I thought it dreadful -- at least the half I finished. I would say that the praise from Douglass, at least, may be appropriate. (I haven't been impressed by her work either!) Apparently this story is heavily Kabbalah-influenced, which is at least potentially interesting, though I must confess that I personally think Kabbalah one of the less fascinating mythologies. At any rate -- the story concerns twins -- "mirror twins", not identical or fraternal -- who end up on two sides of the life/death border at the end of the world. One of my problems was a real sense that pretty much whatever the author felt like might happen at any old time. I was very bored. 160,000 words.

Gene Wolfe, The Knight. See entry for The Wizard below. 175,000 words.

Gene Wolfe, The Wizard. In reality, The Knight and The Wizard are one long novel, The Wizard Knight. An American boy is transported to a somewhat Norse-based fantasy world, where he takes on the body of a powerful young man, falls in love with an Aelfqueen, and becomes a knight. As a knight he must battle giants (the Angrborn) and dragons and Osterlings, also he tries to act decently and teach his squires the same, while hoping to earn his Aelfqueen's love, and while remaining loyal to the king also urging him to treat his subjects better. Such a capsule description barely describes the novel, which is mostly brilliant -- perhaps slightly disappointing towards the end, but that only relative to Wolfe's very high standards. 216,000 words (so the combined novel is just under 400,000 words).

Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, The Grand Tour. Sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia. Enjoyable Regency Fantasy about two friends, now both married and on their honeymoon trip across Europe. They chase a mystery involving an apparent attempt to gather various symbols of royalty for some presumably nefarious purpose. I have a review here at SF Site. 108,000 words.

Timothy Zahn, Dragon and Soldier. YA novel, sequel to Dragon and Thief. Jack and his alien companion Draycos join a mercenary group, and end up involved in injustice on another world. Not as good as the first novel, and doesn't do enough to advance the overall plot arc. 72,000 words.

So: my Hugo nominees first, as I made them. 1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. 2. The Knight, by Gene Wolfe. 3. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. 4. Lost in Transmission, by Wil McCarthy. 5. Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart. Had I read River of Gods, by Ian McDonald, before making my nomination list, it would have been on the list, probably in second place. Other top candidates: The Wizard, by Gene Wolfe, and Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross. Followed by the novels by Rucker, Sterling, Hughes, and Barnes. The eventual shortlist was famously all-British: the Clarke book, the Stross book, the McDonald book, as well as Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist and China Miéville's Iron Council. The eventual winner was Clarke.

For Locus, there are four lists: SF, Fantasy, First Novel, and YA.

SF: 1. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. 2. Lost in Transmission, by Wil McCarthy. 3. Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross. 4. Frek and the Elixir, by Rudy Rucker. 5. The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling. (River of Gods would probably have been first had I read it in time.)

Fantasy: 1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. 2. The Wizard Knight, by Gene Wolfe. (For Locus, combining the novels is allowed). 3. Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart. 4. Alphabet of Thorn, by Patricia McKillip. 5. A Scholar of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer. With Letters from the Flesh, by Marcos Donnelly, also in play.

First Novel: 1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. (Obviously!) 2. Trash Sex Magic by Jennifer Stevenson. 2 (tie). Olympic Games, by Leslie What. 4. Recursion, by Tony Ballantyne. 5. Move Under Ground, by Nick Mamatas.

YA Book (includes anthologies): 1. The Faery Reel, ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. 2. Gifts, by Ursula K. Le Guin. 3. New Magics, ed. by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. 4. Unexpected Magic, by Diana Wynne Jones. 5. The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.