Alfvaen's Top & Bottom Books of 2001

Hey, I got these done before the end of the next year this time! Now all I need to do is put away the Christmas ornaments. 11 good and 8 bad this year, so still a little bit ahead. Still categorizing series as single entries if I read them all during the year, and remember that these are books I read last year, not books that necessarily came out in 2001.

Alfvaen's Top Books of 2001

  1. Steven Brust:Issola. I must confess that while all of the Vlad Taltos books have been good, the ones with Vlad himself as narrator have always been the best. In the past few books, Brust tried a bit of variety, with Kiera the Thief as narrator in Orca, third-person in Athyra, and so on. Dragon was a flashback, still in Vlad's point of view but mostly lacking in urgency because we mostly knew what happened.

    So Issola came as a breath of fresh air. It was Vlad point of view, it was present timeline, and all the stops were out. We've got the Jenoine, we've got Morrolan and Aliera and Sethra and the whole bunch(including Morrolan's servitor, the Issola of the title, who comes to play a crucial part in the plot), we've got Great Weapons, and we've got the enigma of Spellbreaker finally resolved. It pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Welcome back, Vlad! Remember that there's supposed to be at least seventeen books in the series, probably eighteen because Taltos isn't one of the Dragaeran houses.

  2. Dan Simmons:Endymion/The Rise of Endymion. I liked the Hyperion books a lot, but I waited a while before starting into the sequel series. First of all, it could be really bad. Secondly, judging by Hyperion it would be a bad idea to read the first book before the second one was out. And thirdly, this is just what I normally do with series anyway. But eventually I relieved the suspense and dug in.

    It starts a bit slowly, but soon enough it's rip-roaring away. Lots of nice battle scenes, in which the Shrike is the good guy(sort of like the Terminator in T2), but doesn't always come out on top. A lot of what we were told in the Hyperion books turns out to be wrong, and not a few people we thought were dead aren't, and that gets a bit confusing, but it all works out in the end. A bit of a bittersweet ending, but it wraps things up nicely.

    Of course, that's what we thought the last time...

  3. Glen Cook:Soldiers Live. First there was the Black Company trilogy, and that tied up its plot threads but left things open for future volumes. Then Glen Cook started The Books of The South, but the third one, "Glittering Stone", kept getting delayed. Finally, after a long wait, it came out, not as a book, but as a three-book series. And then a four-book series. This was the fourth book.

    If you haven't read the rest of the Black Company series, then obviously you should start there. I'll wait. This web page will probably be up for a few years yet. There. Caught up? Okay then.

    It's probably not true that Glen Cook had the whole background of the world figured out when he wrote the first trilogy, or even when he did the first two Books of the South. I'm guessing that he had inklings, but that things just started to fall together to form a larger framework. Because I think otherwise some things would have been foreshadowed more, you know? But how it did all come together is staggering and ultimately very impressive.

    Like Issola, this also features the return of the original narrator after several books of absence--Croaker, after Murgen in Bleak Seasons and She Is The Darkness, and Sleepy in Water Sleeps. And he even shared with Lady in Dreams of Steel. So this is an extra-special treat.

    The mystery of Khatovar is revealed at long last, and it was almost totally unexpected for me. Major cosmic things happen, and I'm afraid that One-Eye and Goblin do not both make it out of the book unscathed. Neither does Croaker, really, but then he was probably in his eighties anyway. There could be a continuation, probably not from Croaker POV--that's been pretty securely closed off. It would be all new blood. But that was one of the things I always liked about the Black Company books, how they could always keep absorbing new members and yet maintain their continuity. So when he runs out of metals to use in Garrett book titles, maybe Cook will come back to the Company again.

  4. Philip Pullman:The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass. Or "His Dark Materials", the series title proper. This is not exactly obscure, I wouldn't say, but that doesn't mean it can't be good, right? Maybe it got caught on the Harry Potter wave, but it's good enough to be a success in its own right. Multiple worlds and all sorts of wondrous things, cosmic events resting on the acts of a few, all makes good stuff. And did you know that there really was supposed to be an angel named "Metatron"? Doesn't he sound like he should be in the Transformers or something? Odd.
  5. Matt Hughes:Fools Errant. A nice little book by a Canadian author in a far-far-future subgenre that seems to owe most of its debts to Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" books, with perhaps a few nods to Lin Carter's "End of Time". Chock full of weird isolated cultures with their bizarre idiosyncratic customs. Also a story of learning and coming of age, so it's socially redeeming as well! What more could you ask for?
  6. Jim Munroe:Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask. This barely feels like SF, but it is, technically. It really feels more like Douglas Coupland or somebody writing a Gen-X novel that just happens to involve people who have superpowers. They have feet of soft, mushy clay, and they still have to deal with roommates and single parenthood and stuff like that. A heartfelt story that I highly recommend whether you used to read X-Men comics or not.
  7. Spider Robinson:The Free Lunch. After umpteen Callahan's books(see below for my opinion on where that's gone)and other stuff, Spider comes out with something new and fresh, the result of his abortive collaboration with John Varley on a Disneyland novel. Varley told him to go ahead and do it on his own, so he did. It's got a lot of standard Spiderisms, the beneficient aliens from the future and all that, but at least its characters are not bulletproof.
  8. Will Ferguson:Generica. A lovely satire of the publishing world, and self-help in particular, from the authors of Why I Hate Canadians(though don't let that fool you, he is one--who else would know so much about them?). When the main character is powerless to stop a self-help book that really works from getting inflicted on the world, he has to try to track down the author to, well, kill him or something.
  9. David Gerrold:Bouncing Off The Moon. It's not the next Chtorr book, but the second in Gerrold's engaging series of the adventures of Chigger and his two brothers sets a new high-water mark for juvenile SF. Actually, I don't know if I'd let my kid read this until he's at least in high school, and it's certainly a great read for an adult as well. As the title implies, they made it to the moon in this book, and as the action moves fast, they probably don't spend that much time there before heading out again.
  10. Robert J. Sawyer:Calculating God. Sawyer's been hit-or-miss with me, but this one was a fairly palpable hit. Aliens come to earth and demand to speak to paleontologists? And they have tangible evidence of the existence of a supreme being? Highly thought-provoking and emotionally charged.
  11. J.K. Rowling:Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire. You can't resist the Harry Potter phenomenon, because let's face it, the books are great. And things are getting darker with every book, too--the kid gloves are coming off. I may not be lined up at midnight outside Chapters when The Order of The Phoenix comes out, but I will be much more likely to shell out for the hardcover this time.

On the non-fiction side of things, I would definitely have to say that Howe & Strauss's latest generational book, Millennials Rising, is worth a look. Generation X comes off as bad in that one as Boomers did in 13th Gen, which I guess is our comeuppance. One thing they claim in the book is that each generation comes of age trying to solve the problems created by the generation before it, or something. Anyway, it should give you a little bit of hope for the future if you think we're on a spiral into the decay of civilization as we know it. Somebody will be there to do the work of fixing it, and they probably all watched "American Pie".


Just when you thought it was safe to back to the library, it's...

Alfvaen's Bottom Books of 2001

  1. Spider Robinson:Callahan's Key. Okay. I liked Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. And several of the books that followed. Even if sometimes the dipper came up a little bit dry from the well, usually Spider could muster excitement, humour, and pathos.

    But this time it seems to be mostly a bunch of aging Boomers heading down to Florida and nothing happening. Oh, they have to save the world again, but by this point they are all bulletproof and have enough cosmic allies to save the universe standing on their head. Not to mention a talking baby with superpowers. Don't ask.

    If I'm lucky, this book will never find its way onto my shelves.

  2. John Clute:Appleseed. John Clute is mostly known as a critic, and the co-editor of various SFnal encyclopedias. This is, I believe, his first novel in umpteen years, and in some ways it really looks like it.

    Every paragraph, every sentence, every word, is so intensely overwritten as to be suffocating. You are thrown into the deep end right from the beginning without any chance to get your breath, too. It has its moments, but they are few, and sometimes you don't realize they were there until they're past.

    It also doesn't depict a future that I would ever want to live in. It approaches Paul Quarrington's Civilization in its sheer squalor, and includes the most unerotic love scene I've ever read in a book. I just wanted it to be over.

    This is what happens when longtime critics write books, you see. They have read so many books that they often try to write something different from everything they've read. Unfortunately, they have read a lot of good and readable and intelligible books as well as dreck, so often what they avoid doing are the things that would make their book good and readable and intelligible. It's a theory, anyway.

  3. Paul J. McAuley:Fairyland. This book just didn't gel for me. It's sort of cyberpunkish, and when I looked at it(just at the library, thank god), it struck me as maybe like Neal Stephenson. But it isn't. It's British, and sometimes I think that should be a warning label enough, because I just don't digest British SF that well. The whole "fairy" metaphor never really did it for me, either.
  4. Allen Steele:The Tranquillity Alternative. I liked A King of Infinite Space, so I grabbed this one on impulse off the rack at the library. It wasn't part of the same future, but it looked like an interesting alternate history. But it really wasn't. It was a slow-paced would-be thriller set on a moon-base, and in the end it didn't really thrill that much. Its plot twists were fairly predictable and so made you wonder at the stupidity of the characters rather than boggle at the cleverness of the author.

    No, the best thing about this book by far was their description of that reality's version of "Star Trek"--in a world where travel throught the solar system was more or less well-established, it wasn't even science fiction. So that little writeup is hilarious, and you can skip the rest.

  5. Roger Zelazny:Wizard World. Nothing much to this one, really. Just a couple of fantasy novels bound together in an omnibus, that didn't really age well. You could get away with this stuff fifteen, twenty years ago, but not today.
  6. Jack L. Chalker:Priam's Lens. I am only a few books away from giving up on Chalker altogether. If he can't even pull off a Well World book anymore...well, maybe he just needs more Nathan Brazil. This one isn't Well World, so it doesn't even have that much going for it. It's more of the same Chalkerisms, nothing new like the ventures into Dickism that made the Wonderland Gambit smell a bit fresher.
  7. Michael Bishop:No Enemy But Time. Ho hum, a guy from the near future goes back and spends a bunch of time living with neanderthals. Except that he's not really going into the past, but into his own vision of the past, or something. I never really did figure that out, especially when he came back with a child. Anyway, I've read better, even by Bishop.
  8. John M. Ford:The Scholars of Night. A straight spy thriller from Ford, who's done better writing in SF and fantasy, and even Star Trek novels. There are some tenuous ties to a lost Christopher Marlowe manuscript, but it isn't enough to make the plot that much more interesting.

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com