I didn’t get around to doing any end-of-year wrap-up on 2002, and I know many of you are still feeling a vague sense of incompleteness; fortunately, you’ll have no such lack of closure on 2003. Herewith, a randomly categorized list of bests and worsts from 2003. As always (for values of “always” that don’t require me to have done this before), I’m talking about the books I read in 2003, not the ones that were actually published in 2003.

But first, a bit of summary data. I read 61 books last year, which is fairly typical for me — I generally read about one book a week, though not anything like evenly. The biggest illusory trend of the year was the increasing prominence of graphic novels — “illusory” because, while it felt like they made up a huge amount of my reading, I only actually read eight graphic novels in 2003, down from ten a year earlier. Go figure. Now, then, the awards:

Best Series: A basic requirement for this one is that I must have read most of the series in 2003, so (for instance) Discworld is ineligible. Despite that narrowing, this is still a tough category. I read about a billion of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Ethshar books in 2003, and very much liked them all, so they’d appear to have the early edge. But I’m going for quality over quantity, so instead the winner is Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman novels, which are actively superb (Trent’s mild dissent notwithstanding).

Best Book: If you read only one of the books I read last year, you should make it this one. This is a surprisingly easy decision, with little competition. Jack Vance’s Demon Princes books are out, because you should read The Dying Earth instead; Jonathan Carroll is likewise bested by his own other work; Brust is out, because they’re all series books, and reading just one won’t give you the standalone impact I’m looking for here; and Kirstein already got her award. In fact, the runner-up for this category isn’t even fiction, it’s Andrew Tobias’s The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need. But while that probably wins if your finances are in disarray, it’s much less necessary otherwise. And besides, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is just plain great. There’s been a significant backlash against Quicksilver lately — apparently some people are bothered that it doesn’t appear to have an actual plot, as such — but I don’t care. It still wins.

Worst Book: The competition here is between two lousy books. On the one hand, we have Tad Williams’ Caliban’s Hour , which manages to make 200 large-print pages feel more padded and sloggy than should be physically possible. On the other is Eric Frank Russell’s Next of Kin , which takes painful non-humor to depths of sucking surpassed only by Craig Shaw Gardner. It’s a difficult decision, so I’ll abdicate and declare it a tie. Avoid them both.

Most Disappointing Book: Hands down, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Endless Nights . This looked so fucking cool, and it was actually so incredibly mediocre. The nice thing is, if you haven’t read it yet, you can’t possibly experience the same disappointment I did, because reading this will enable you to properly manage your expectations.

Best Graphic Novel: Well, if I’m going to have an illusory trend, I’d better dedicate a category to it. But there’s only one problem: None of the comic books I read in 2003 were outstanding enough that I’d really hurl them at someone. So, having arbitrarily created this category, I’ll arbitrarily give the trophy to No Award. An illusory award befits an illusory trend, I suppose.

Best Publishing Trend: The trend toward free books started by Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is hard to beat; but beat it is, by the rise of small publishers, and the near-elimination of out of print books. Small publishers are what allowed me to read the Ethshar books, R.A. Lafferty, and (to cheat a little bit) Shadow. Just as importantly, it lets me recommend books to people that would otherwise be unavailable (like Dave Duncan’s A Man of His Word series).


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