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A collage image of covers featured in this list: Terraformers, Lone Women, Our Share of Night, The Ferryman, The Lies of the Ajungo, Chain Gang All-Stars, and Children of Memory. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: Various

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The best sci-fi and fantasy books of 2023

It’s been a stellar year in speculative fiction

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It’s been another banner year for science fiction and fantasy books. Many of our favorites once again blur the line between sci-fi and fantasy, but this year was a particular standout for books blurring the line between SFF and other genres. This includes everything from historical fiction — both speculative histories and Westerns — to fable retellings to intergenerational sagas in translation.

Though we seem to have crested the wave of pandemic novels, that sense of dread and discoloration has lingered, written into novels of new forms. There’s a preponderance of post-post-apocalyptic science fiction unpacking lofty ideas like sentience and humanity, often set on different planets or among the stars. It has also been a standout year for supernatural horrors and thrillers, particularly ones that mix queer longing with a dose of body horror. Last but not least, it’s been a great year for kissing books set in fantastical worlds.

So jump in and take your pick. Whichever direction you head in, it will be sure to grip you — and make you think. This list is in reverse chronological order, so the newest releases are listed first. We updated this list throughout 2023, sometimes retroactively adding in entries that we missed from earlier in the year. We’ve also included our favorite runners-up.

Cover image for Ed Park’s Same Bed Different Dreams, a split image between what looks like Earth and Mars. Image: Random House

Same Bed Different Dreams by Ed Park

Same Bed Different Dreams is a remarkable achievement, and not for the faint of heart. Through three storylines, the book creates a kind of speculative history of Korea, with an emphasis on World War II and Japan’s colonial rule and aftermath (and, crucially, the United States’ involvement). One story thread builds out a hefty alternative history of the Korean Provisional Government’s role and reach. Another story thread focuses on a Black Korean War vet who wrote a sci-fi epic series called 2333, which is later adapted into a video game. And yet another story thread has a more futuristic flavor, focusing on a has-been writer who now works for a tech company called GLOAT. These threads periodically intersect — for example, GLOAT ends up owning the rights to 2333, and turns it into a kind of edutainment.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, it’s because there is. And it’s made even denser by the author’s Pynchonian sense of humor. Some of its best moments are utterly weird or feel like the writer was smirking — like a character’s dog who can’t stop “archiving” by burying found manuscript pages, the fact that GLOAT employees truly don’t know what the acronym stands for, or the idea that Marilyn Monroe is a member of the Korean Provisional Government. These absurd bits only make it harder to comb apart what’s real and what’s Ed Park’s “alternate history” in sections with realistic-sounding combinations of fact and fiction.

It’s got the same ambitious patchwork as Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. Critics have compared it to everything from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There’s also, of course, books within the book. It’s a fever dream of a thing, and one I’d heartily recommend, but perhaps with a notebook in hand or some sticky notes to help track the references. (Or perhaps, as I did, just letting the wave of information roll over you, until you’re left with a vast impression and a desire to reread.) —Nicole Clark

Cover image for Kylie Lee Baker’s The Scarlet Alchemist, featuring a woman in a red outfit with a large crown set against a dark skyline. Image: Inkyard Press

The Scarlet Alchemist (The Scarlet Alchemist #1) by Kylie Lee Baker

Do not go into The Scarlet Alchemist expecting typical YA fare. What Kylie Lee Baker delivers is a story of visceral brutality, interlaced with elements of Chinese history and thoughtful meditations on family, race, and belonging. It’s a book that can turn your stomach as easily as it can break your heart.

Set in an alternate Tang dynasty, the novel follows Zilan, a profoundly talented young alchemist who travels to the capital in hopes of landing a coveted position in the royal service. But being a poor, half Scotian girl means the odds are stacked inordinately high against her in the imperial service exams — and that’s before her skills with the illegal art of resurrection catch the prince’s attention and pull her into a dangerous political game. While the premise seems familiar (underdog competes in trials, falls into star-crossed romance), Baker’s skills with immersive world-building, knotty characters, and genuinely gruesome horror make The Scarlet Alchemist a dazzling and singular tale that left me rushing to read her back catalog. —Sadie Gennis

Cover image of C Pam Zhang’s Land of Milk and Honey, featuring rollicking hills of white, blue, and yellow. Image: Riverhead

Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang

After I read How Much of These Hills is Gold in 2020, C Pam Zhang became an instant must-read author in my household. Land of Milk and Honey is entirely unlike her debut — where her debut’s language was sparse and pointed, this book is florid and indulgent — though similar in the extent to which it transported me somewhere entirely new, and more than a little threatening.

In Land of Milk and Honey the climate apocalypse has rendered fresh produce, at scale, a thing of the past — which is to say a provision of the extremely rich. The protagonist, listless and hungry, applies for a job as a private chef for a mysterious family in the Italian Alps (those who live around it call it “​​la terra di latte e miele”). While there, she unravels the family’s true intentions, while making them delicious meals from rare ingredients.

Zhang sensuously describes all pleasures of the tongue, moving from descriptions of lapping of culinary delicacies to the folds of the flesh. Food feels hyperreal, with an emphasis on the texture and taste of every ingredient — and sometimes the cruelty of that ingredient’s procurement. The same can be said of its scenes depicting queer intimacy; that texture and taste take precedent, and the cruelties of human emotion, too. Even after I finished, I was hungry for more. —N. Clark

Cover image for Megan Kamalei Kakimoto’s Every Drop is a Man’s Nightmare, featuring a red and yellow flower against a painted backdrop. Image: Bloomsbury

Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto

This short story collection initially caught my attention with its cover, which depicts a woman springing up from the center of a corpse flower, like a stalk standing against the wind. Each story weaves together Hawaiian mythology and the everyday lives of the Hawaiian and mixed-race Japanese women who live there.

These stories range from fabulism to science fiction, all speculative fiction in their own way. In one story, a woman’s encounter with a wild pig ends up foreshadowing a complicated pregnancy later in her life. In another story, a Brazilian waxing company allows people to pay for hairless skin by giving up personality traits. In another story, the narrator falls for a woman who lives with her family — in one of numerous queer stories in the collection — but has to cope with that woman’s decision to return to “what remains of Kaua’i” and join their protests.

The author’s own words, published in The Guardian, sum it up best: “There is a mythical idealisation of the islands of Hawaii as paradise, peace in the tropics; some even call it a modern utopia. Yet this flattening of Hawaii to a postcard image divests our homeland of its culture and colour, reducing us to a place and history that is easily digestible. But we are not easily digestible, and our stories are not meant to be easy for you.” —N. Clark

Cover image for Shelley Parker-Chan’s He Who Drowned the World, a painted image of ships on a yellow sea, with the moon looming over them. Image: Tor

He Who Drowned the World (The Radiant Emperor #2) by Shelley Parker-Chan

An alternate history of the founding of the Ming dynasty, He Who Drowned the World shifts between four tragically ambitious figures willing to pay any price to materialize their destiny, whether that’s revenge on the empire or crowning themselves the ruler of it. They pursue these goals with unshakeable inertia, doing endlessly cruel and sadistic actions with only the occasional doubts as to whether happiness could be possible if they chose a different path.

This is a relentlessly brutal sequel, and there’s a hopelessness that weighs heavy throughout the book. But Parker-Chan’s penetrating ability to bring empathy and nuance into even the darkest corners of humanity sparks an undeniable connection with these characters, whose self-destructive natures would otherwise be too hard to bear witness to. He Who Drowned the World is a dark and difficult read, yet Parker-Chan’s prose is so brilliant, her character work so complex, that I still found myself sad to leave this world behind. —SG

Cover image for M.A. Carricks’s Labyrinth’s Heart, featuring a mask-wearing figure with purple wings sprouting out of the top of the mask. Image: Orbit

Labyrinth’s Heart (Rook & Rose #3) by M.A. Carrick

One of my favorite fantasy series of the past five years, Rook & Rose is an intricately layered trilogy where there are so many secrets, schemes, and conspiracies that at times it’s admittedly difficult to keep track of them all. Because of that, there were a lot of loose ends to tie up in the anticipated conclusion, Labyrinth’s Heart. (Ren alone was juggling four different identities at the novel’s start.) So imagine my surprise when I discovered M.A. Carrick not only managed to leave no question unanswered by the series’ end, but wrapped up even the most complicated storylines in big, bright bows.

There are elements of Labyrinth’s Heart that feel like they were precisely crafted to cater to fans, but here’s the thing: I don’t really care. Carrick created such a lush world populated by lovable characters, an interesting magic system, and a lived-in cultural history that I was just happy to be back in Nadežra after a two-year wait. While things may have been tied up a bit too neatly for my usual tastes, that didn’t stop me from whipping through pages and smiling the whole way through. Sometimes it’s nice to simply soak in a happy ending rather than bathe in the bittersweet. —SG

Cover art for Kiersten White’s Mister Magic, which features a melting television against a pink background. Image: Del Rey Books

Mister Magic by Kiersten White

The latest fantasy-with-an-irresistible-pop-premise from the author of Hide, Mister Magic revolves around a children’s TV show no viewer can forget … or prove it ever existed in the first place. There are no official records of it, no YouTube videos or merchandise or passed-around VHS tapes, and any discussion of it on the internet rapidly disappears. But the people who remember seeing it are convinced the special effects were remarkably vivid and realistic. They agree the central concept is unnerving: a creepy magician-figure leading a group of children in imagination-games aimed at teaching some decidedly non-standard lessons about embracing conformity and meekness. And they’re all sure that something horrible happened while they were watching, though they can’t agree on what.

A reunion between five of the former child cast members, taking place 30 years after the show ended, slowly unravels its mysteries, which are even weirder than the description above suggests. Mister Magic is a startling dark fantasy with a lot of foreboding, foreshadowing, and eerie twists. At heart, though, it’s also an incisive story about the kinds of people who revel in control over other people’s lives, and about what an act of rebellion imagination can be. —Tasha Robinson

Cover image for Rebekah Bergman’s The Museum of Human History, featuring a painted image of a naked figure with a red cloud over the top of their head. Image: Tin House

The Museum of Human History by Rebekah Bergman

A poetic reflection on memory, loss, and connection, The Museum of Human History is a stunning debut reminiscent of the work of Emily St. John Mandel. Slipping backward and forward in time, this introspective mosaic weaves between an identical twin whose sister fell asleep at age 8 and has never aged in the 25 years since, a museum director who questions his place within the family legacy, a widower who lost his most cherished memories as a result of an anti-aging treatment, and others equally struggling with the passage of time. There is a lyrical detachment in Bergman’s prose that leaves you feeling like you’re watching events unfold through a pane of thick glass, never fully able to connect with the characters, yet you remain helplessly transfixed by the haunting cycle they’re caught in. It’s an incredibly melancholy book, but the kind of aching sadness you’re happy to sink into. —SG

Cover image for Sara Hashem’s The Jasad Heir, featuring what looks like statues of a snake,, a bull, and a griffin. Image: Orbit Books

The Jasad Heir (The Scorched Throne #1) by Sara Hashem

“Arin of Nizahl was maddeningly elegant. I wanted to cut him open and compare our bones to understand why his gave him grace and mine gave me back pain.” This was the line that absolutely sold me on The Jasad Heir, an irresistible enemies-to-lovers fantasy that reminded me why I’ll never quit this genre.

Headstrong Sylvia is the presumed dead heir of Jasad, a kingdom that was destroyed by the neighboring Nizahl and saw its citizens’ innate magic outlawed. Sylvia managed to carve out a relatively normal life for herself as a chemist’s apprentice, but everything falls apart after she accidentally reveals her magic to the heir of Nizahl. Using her life as leverage, the calculating Arin strikes a deal with Sylvia to help him capture a group of Jasadi rebels and act as his champion in a series of deadly trials. It’s a familiar setup, but one impeccably done by Hashem, who delivers sharp political intrigue, sparkling banter, and touching friendships on top of Sylvia and Arin’s simmering romance. —SG

Cover image for Kritika H. Rao’s The Surviving Sky, featuring a floating island overgrowing with buildings and plant life, above a stormy planet. Image: Titan Books

The Surviving Sky (The Rages Trilogy #1) by Kritika H. Rao

After I finished The Surviving Sky, I wouldn’t shut up about it and tried (not always successfully) to get everyone I know to read it. So let me try once more, and maybe with less yelling this time:

With the planet’s surface made unlivable by catastrophic storms, the remains of humanity survive on floating cities constructed of and powered by plants that only a select group of people, known as architects, can control. An archeologist without the ability to traject plants, Ahilya has dedicated her life to finding a way to unshackle humanity’s survival from the architects’ powers and return to the surface. It’s not hard to see why this mission causes friction in her marriage to Iravan, one of the most powerful architects in their city, and one with an arrogance to match his revered status. Though estranged, Ahilya and Iravan come together to help clear his name after he’s accused of pushing his powers dangerously far, an accusation, which if proved true, carries dire consequences for the architect.

But the deeper they look into trajection and its risks, the more Ahilya and Iravan realize they don’t actually know much about where their people – and their powers – came from. And as the floating cities begin to sink toward the earthrages below, the race to save their civilization may also be the end of society as it stands, as Ahilya and Iravan uncover long-buried truths that previous generations worked hard to keep hidden.

So did I do it? Did I convince you to read this Hindu philosophy-inspired debut with some of the most inventive world-building and one of the most complex romances I’ve read in years? Please say yes. You’ll be doing us both a favor. —SG

Cover image for Alexander Darwin’s The Combat Codes, which features a metallic dragon against a black background. Image: Orbit

The Combat Codes and Grievar’s Blood (The Combat Codes Saga #1-2) by Alexander Darwin

In the world of The Combat Codes, war no longer exists as it used to. Neither does justice — both concepts have been replaced by proxies who fight on behalf of nations or individuals, solving disputes with their fists.

Alexander Darwin’s debut novel effectively builds a world around this core concept, bringing it to life with compelling characters and locations (including a classic “magical school for gifted youngsters” situation). The Combat Codes follows Cego, a young abandoned boy skilled at fighting, and Murray, a washed-up former fighter now tasked with scouting the next generation of combatants, whose discovery of Cego changes his entire world.

Darwin is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and teacher, and uses that experience in the books’ excellent fight sequences. His evocative and visceral descriptions not only deliver excitement and suspense in this underdog story; they build your understanding of the characters through how they fight. The Combat Codes and its equally fun sequel, Grievar’s Blood, which adds new exciting characters and points-of-view, are the first two parts of a planned trilogy, and I can’t wait for the conclusion next year. —Pete Volk

Cover image for Katie Williams’ My Murder, showing a woman’s face peering outside of red vertical lines. Image: Riverhead Books

My Murder by Katie Williams

Fans of Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife won’t want to miss My Murder, which shares some key elements and themes with Gailey’s novel while also taking them in a unique direction. In a near-future with only a few light sci-fi elements, Lou has been resurrected along with a handful of other women murdered by a single serial killer. The politics of resurrection in her world are complicated, and few people qualify. That leaves her and her fellow victims (whose therapy circle recalls Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group) a bit at sea as they try to come to terms with their deaths, which none of them can recall, and their new lives as celebrities for all the wrong reasons.

Like The Echo Wife, My Murder ends up thoughtfully exploring issues around women subjected to violent men — not just the personal and internal response, but the society that shapes that violence, and responds to it in ways that raise endless questions. The victims all respond to their deaths differently, questioning their culpability and the possible failures that might have made them targets, and navigating their families’ unpredictable responses to their revival. There’s one big mystery at the heart of My Murder, and a whole lot of abrupt and compelling surprises. But at the core, it’s a sci-fi twist on the survivor story, letting some very different people explore what it means to be victimized, and how to reclaim the lives that have been abruptly handed back to them. —TR

Cover image for Ann Leckie’s Translation State, a minimalist drawing with red, orange, and green, a silhouette of a person, and circular lines. Image: Orbit

Translation State by Ann Leckie

Set in the same universe as Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, Translation State follows Enae, who leaves hir long-standing isolation for what was supposed to be an interstellar goose chase. After hir demanding grandmaman dies, Enae is given a diplomat title and assigned to investigate a missing Presgr translator no one expects to be found (but that the government still wants the goodwill for pretending to look for). Only, Enae doesn’t just pretend to look; sie discovers sie has quite the knack for investigating the 200-year-old cold case.

This is how hir path crosses that of Reet, an adopted maintenance worker whose mysterious origins and unsettling impulses might be explained by being the child of the fugitive translator, if you ask Enae, or the last descendant of a lost sovereign line, if you ask one particularly zealous diaspora social group. Rounding out the POV characters is Qven, a young Presgr terrified of their species’ ritual of merging with an elder, a rite of passage which will see Qven’s selfhood entirely dissolved. Enae, Reet, and Qven’s explorations of their own identities wind up having interplanetary consequences, but it’s the way Leckie gives weight to the small moments, both personal and shared, that make this book sing.

Though I’m sure there are layers that only those familiar with the Imperial Radch trilogy will notice and appreciate, the standalone Translation State and its rich exploration of self-identification and personhood serve as a fantastic introduction to Leckie’s world. So don’t hesitate to jump into Translation State if you’re – like me – new to Radch and simply drawn to a thrilling mystery where the most intimate emotions can fuel a universal upheaval. —SG

Cover image for Rita Chang-Eppig’s Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, with facial features set against a crashing wave. Image: Bloomsbury Publishing

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig

I still remember standing in my local bookstore, struck by the cover of this book, and reading the summary. It had me at “Chinese pirate queen.”

In Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, Chang-Eppig writes a historical fantasy about Shek Yeung, a fearsome Chinese pirate who must navigate her fleet after the death of her powerful husband. She marries her late husband’s second-in-command, with the promise of bearing an heir, in order to retain power over the fleet — and stay a major player as the Chinese Emperor seeks to rid the waters of piracy.

The book isn’t paced like a thriller, so don’t make the mistake of assuming so when you start it. It’s equal parts historical exposition, strategy, and warfare — and it especially excels in its characterization of a complicated woman forced to make difficult decisions and sacrifices in order to protect her power. Fantasy can put its villains and heroes on pedestals, but Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea never errs in its very human portrayal of Shek Yeung, and how deftly she must play this game of political chess for survival. I was riveted. —N. Clark

Cover art for Emma Törzs’ Ink Blood Sister Scribe, featuring a dripping pen growing out of the bottom of a tree against a purple background. Image: William Morrow

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs

There’s nothing cozier than a magical book about the magic of books — though this tale bends a little darker, and tells a story about witchcraft and complicated family dynamics. In Ink Blood Sister Scribe, two estranged sisters come together to solve the mystery of their family, and prevent further tragedies. In this world, blood can be concocted into ink — wielded by scribes for the creation of books with arcane powers — though the creation of such books drains a scribe’s health. When others read these books, they create magic; willing flowers to bloom, or making magical carpets that can fly in the air.

Ink Blood Sister Scribe is the perfect sister thriller to read in one sitting. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t need to — it simply delivers on a wonderfully entertaining premise. —N. Clark

Cover art for Martha Wells’ Witch King, featuring a person running across the cover while wearing a cloak and dress fitting for a fantasy setting. Image: Tor

Witch King by Martha Wells

In an era where a lot of fantasy fans value quick or cozy reads, Martha Wells’ Witch King feels like a gauntlet thrown at readers’ feet. It’s a complex, meaty fantasy that opens well into what a more linear book would consider the third act, as Kai, the witch king of the title, is exhumed from a watery grave and starts exploring who betrayed him and trapped him there. Readers have to learn everything about Kai’s world as his story unfolds in multiple intertwined timelines. That includes figuring out what a “witch king” is, unwrapping the layers of what Kai actually is and why it matters. It also means being introduced to a wide variety of allies and enemies while alternately flashing back to how he met them, and slowly coming to understand the dense political machinations that shaped all their lives in the past and present.

As with Wells’ Murderbot books and her Books of the Raksura series in particular, part of the draw here is a powerful, skilled protagonist whose biggest struggles are often internal. Kai has a lot of intense emotional responses to the world, but lacks the tools to understand what to do with those feelings, or who to trust with them. Wells packs Witch King with a lot of audacious, expansive world-building for a standalone novel (albeit one that could easily invite sequels or prequels), but what makes Witch King an enjoyable read instead of a frustrating one is the way all the book’s complications and surprises are filtered through Kai’s vivid inner life, giving readers something to hold onto as they’re untangling the puzzlebox aspects of this cleverly structured novel. —TR

Cover image for Justin Lee Anderson’s The Lost War, featuring five figures walking through white grass after emerging from a dark green forest. Three of the figures wear green cloaks, while two wear white. Image: Orbit

The Lost War (The Eidyn Saga #1) by Justin Lee Anderson

Originally self-published in 2019, The Lost War is a traditional fantasy adventure that follows a rag-tag group of strangers on a mission across a war-torn country, fighting monsters and uncovering mysteries along the way. Despite the strong buzz leading up to the novel’s expanded publication by Orbit this year, I found myself hesitant to pick it up since it seemed so similar to many books I’ve read before. But while it’s true The Lost War doesn’t rewrite the genre – it’s filled with well-worn tropes and classic adventurer archetypes – Anderson’s skillful execution left me completely charmed. There is a real Dungeons and Dragons feel to The Lost War, and though the characters are familiar (the honorable paladin, the hard-drinking haunted soldier), Anderson does a fantastic job developing unique dynamics between the party members that vault the book beyond the sum of its parts. And it all builds up to a massive twist at the end that completely upends your understanding of what you’ve read and any previous expectations for where the second book will go. The delightfully unexpected ending once again has the fantasy community buzzing ahead of Anderson’s next release – only this time I’m right there with them. —SG

Cover image for Moniquill Blackgoose’s To Shape a Dragon’s Breath, a red cover with flowers and a dragon’s head/mask on it. Image: Del Rey

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath (Nampeshiweisit #1) by Moniquill Blackgoose

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath’s description hooked me immediately: It’s got dragons, a magic school, and a strong teenage main character. Moniquill Blackgoose has taken several different fantasy tropes and created a fantasy novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read; To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is set in an evolving steampunk world as Anglish settlers push the Indigenous Masquapaug people out of their land and onto a remote island. Dragons had long been important cultural touchstones to the Indigenous people, but colonization has, too, pushed them away. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath begins as 15-year-old Anequs finds a dragon egg — the first to be spotted in the area in generations. Anequs is named a Nampeshiweisit, or a dragon rider, as the community helps raise and hatch the dragon’s egg.

The colonizing nation quickly finds out and forces Anequs and her dragon into the Anglish dragon school; if she resists, the dragon will be eliminated. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is about the growing relationship between her and her dragon Kasaqua, but also about her resistance to the Anglish traditions relating to dragons. The Anglish treat dragons as something to be conquered — they use them as tools and weapons, whereas the Indigenous people have historically partnered with dragons for a relationship built on both tradition and respect.

That partnership means Anequs now has the power to take on colonialism and racism in a new way. Where To Shape a Dragon’s Breath really shines is in that growing relationship between Anequs and Kasaqua; the partnership — and power for both that comes with it — is in stark contrast to the Anglish ways. Bonus: To Shape a Dragon’s Breath has well-written, complex bisexual and neurodivergent characters, too. —Nicole Carpenter

Cover image for Melvin Burgess’s Loki, a black cover with a black snake wrapped around gold letters with the title. Image: Pegasus

Loki by Melvin Burgess

Melvin Burgess has spent a career writing confrontationally frank children’s literature like Junk, his 1990s book about heroin-addicted teenagers. His first adult book, published at age 69, is a blistering, transgressive, and hugely entertaining reframing of the Norse myths, as told by the most unreliable narrator imaginable: Loki himself, the god of tricks, inventions, and political intrigue. But what does reliable mean, anyway, in the mutable world of myth? Burgess paints Loki (or rather, has him paint himself, as he addresses the reader directly in first person) as an eternal outsider, shaking his head sagely at the follies of the gods, and challenging their might-is-right order. But of course, that’s what he’d want us to think. Burgess’ best trick, though, is the way he rolls together the deeply weird, muddy, shape-shifting mystery of the tales themselves with a bracing modernity in characterization and language, somehow without one clashing with the other. In doing so he brings the wild, ancient power of the Norse myths to vivid life. —Oli Welsh

Cover image for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Chain-Gang All-Stars, featuring a scythe chopping through the words with a bright yellow background. Image: Pantheon Books

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

In Chain-Gang All-Stars, prison inmates fight to the death in a series of gladiatorial matches — and all of it is televised to a hungry audience. It’s a program called CAPE, the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, which promises freedom to inmates who survive three years of its brutality. The average life expectancy for anyone who enters is three months. Within this system, Loretta Thurwar and Hammara Stacker (called Hurricane Staxxx by her fans) emerge as two frontrunners.

This National Book Award finalist takes on the viciousness of the carceral system, with more than a bit of The Hunger Games’ DNA sprinkled in. “Hard action” fans salivate over matches, a self-obsessed announcer resents the fact that contestants don’t offer more banter, and the women who top the leaderboards become sex symbols in pop culture. But where other fight-to-the-death dystopias — among the greats, like Battle Royale or Lord of the Flies — spin a more fantastical yarn, Chain-Gang All-Stars is aimed right at the heart of the all-too-real cruelties of our existing for-profit penal system.

Early in the book, Thurwar kills a 16-year-old boy in a gladiator match. Fans in the stands lament not the death of the boy, but the idea that the fight wasn’t entertaining because it wasn’t a fair matchup. In a footnote, Adjei-Brenyah writes of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old Black boy who was convicted for murder and executed in 1944. Chain-Gang All-Stars also illustrates the ways in which imprisonment is simply “slavery by another name,” showing all manner of menial labor the contestants are forced to perform. In 2022, the ACLU reported that inmates made between 13 and 52 cents an hour, and sometimes nothing.

Critics have said this book is an “act of protest” but that it doesn’t “straightforwardly preach,” or that it’s more entertaining than “an attempt to convince its readers of the case for prison abolition has any right to be.” I understand why you’d want to say this book is “fun” despite an abolitionist message, especially in a political climate where radical writing is often appreciated only as a teaching tool. But I think that kind of delineation undercuts Adjei-Brenyah’s talent as a novelist, and his skill in heightening the real as a form of storytelling. I’d call it thrilling, over calling it fun. And the fact that it is thrilling is inextricable from its openly abolitionist values — it’s the very knowledge of real life that Adjei-Brenyah wields to craft suspense. —N. Clark

Cover image for Rebecca Yarros’ Fourth Wing, which features a circle image behind black text, with clouds and some flying creatures. Image: Entangled

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

This action-packed, fantasy romance feels like a grown up version of all of my favorite young adult books. It’s got all of the fun nostalgic tropes — a magical school, deadly trials, dragon riding, and a love triangle between the main character, a golden retriever love interest, and a misunderstood emo rival — but it’s also extremely horny, as all fun fantasy romance must be.

Violet Sorrengail is thrown into a series of trials in order to prove whether she can be a dragon rider. There are a few problems with this: she trained as a scribe, never thought she’d be thrust into danger, and she also must deal with Xaden Riorson, her sworn enemy (wink). She also manages a joint condition, which leaves her in chronic pain — a fact the book handles gracefully. In one of my favorite climactic moments of the book, Violet is given a mobility device to help her with her trials; those close to her remind her that it doesn’t diminish her power, but is a tool like any other, and one that allows her to flourish. I’m thrilled to read the next installment, when it comes out in November. —N. Clark

Cover art for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Lords of Uncreation, which shows a spaceship approaching what looks like a space battle next to a planet, with exploding orbs in space and a lot of spaceships in the distance. Image: Orbit

Lords of Uncreation (The Final Architecture #3) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Reading the Final Architecture series, I had to accept long ago that I would never fully grasp the nuances of some of its central concepts, even if I understood them on an instinctual level.

This acceptance set me up well for Lords of Uncreation, which revolves around concepts that even the characters find impossible to understand, and whose minds may literally break if they try to. Like looking directly into the sun, confronting the blurred space between the real and unreal (as well as the eldritch terrors that lurk within) poses a grave threat to those doing so head-on – at least to anyone other than weary intermediary Idris Tellemier, whose risk is merely reduced rather than eliminated. But the characters Adrian Tchaikovsky has populated this world with are so grounded, so emotionally rich, and so vibrant that the details of the brain-bending threats lurking within unspace become secondary to their impact on the lives of and relationships between the Vulture God’s crew.

This is not to say that Tchaikovsky does not deliver an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the mysteries of unspace (he does!). But what I’ll remember most is how he crafted the perfect emotional resolution to this intellectually intricate tale that left me in tears and has stayed with me since. —SG

Lead art for Justin Cronin’s The Ferryman, which pictures a cloudy sky over the horizon, as a single sail boat sits on the water. Image: Ballantine Books

The Ferryman by Justin Cronin

Proctor Bennett is a ferryman, whose duty is to guide unhappy citizens from the utopian Propersa to the Nursery, where they retire their old selves before returning in younger bodies with no memories of their former lives. But when Proctor is assigned to retire his own father, the troubling encounter sends him careening off the path of conformity. He begins questioning prescribed truths and confronting the darker side of Prospera, which runs off the work of a disenfranchised support staff whose discontent is building towards a revolution that pulls Proctor into its orbit.

Though this premise may feel familiar, The Ferryman is anything but. This tightly-wound, atmospheric thriller weaves together layers of knotted mystery with Proctor’s haunting POV as he grapples with his relationship to grief, happiness, family, and identity. It’s a sharply complex mystery with a cinematic quality to it. Throughout reading, I couldn’t help but fan-cast who would star in a Christopher Nolan adaptation of it. But even if you aren’t an Inception fan, it’ll be easy to become immersed in The Ferryman’s distinct dystopian world. —SG

Cover image for Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory, featuring a woman walking confidently in front of a wall opening to reveal a planetary body. Image: Tor

Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

Around September, as the pile of unpainted plastic miniatures here in my home office began to get particularly deep, I suddenly ran out of Warhammer 40,000 Black Library audiobooks by Games Workshop that I was the least bit interested in listening to. That’s when I stumbled upon Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh. Billed as a space opera told from the perspective of one of humanity’s last genetically engineered super soldiers, I fell for the premise hook, line, and sinker. Then, about 50 pages in, I let it sucker-punch me right in the gut.

With Some Desperate Glory, Tesh has envisioned a deeply affecting reality where the children of a subjugated, war-torn race slowly come to realize that they have been lied to — manipulated into an amoral war of vengeance without end. Tesh shows incredible restraint throughout, reeling out a thick and binding thread of painful realizations from deep within the main character, Kyr. After grappling with my personal love for the grim darkness of the far future for quite a few years now, this book helped me come to terms with how much I despise those tropes even as I find myself drawn toward them time and time again.

Some Desperate Glory is, in my opinion, required reading for anyone who has ever painted a Space Marine in earnest – and a new fixture in the canon of queer science fiction. —Charlie Hall

Cover image for Jade Song’s Chlorine, featuring a large fin in the ocean waves. Image: William Morrow & Company

Chlorine by Jade Song

I think I have been waiting my whole life for this book — for someone to write adolescence like the body horror it is, with all of the cultural specificity of being a Chinese American girl, simply bursting at the seams with sapphic longing. Chlorine stars Ren Yu, a swimmer who believes that she is a mermaid. But she is tethered to land by her human ambition: By the parents who constantly push her to achieve, and by a swim coach who pays inappropriate attention to her — pushing her to swim faster times, while also making her feel uncomfortable in her skin.

Ren’s steadfast belief in being a mermaid feels both like a flight of fancy, and increasingly like a means of dissociating from the horrors of everyday life. Being a young girl is hard enough without having to contend with the high expectations of parents, the predation of adult men, and the casual racism of peers. Jade Song’s writing is gruesomely lyrical, contrasting the sublime with the deeply disturbing. There were several points where this book almost made me throw up, and I mean that as a high compliment. —N. Clark

A Black woman stands alone in a field, her face covered by shadow, in the cover art for Lone Women by Victor LaValle. Image: One World

Lone Women by Victor LaValle

Adelaide Henry is traveling to Montana, where she plans on making a new life as a homesteader — leaving the flames of her California home, and the bodies of her parents, behind. But she has a heavy weight to carry. She lugs an enormous steam trunk wherever she goes; whenever the trunk opens, people around her die. In 1915, Montana is in the middle of a homestead boom, and though Adelaide aims to make a new start, not everyone is welcoming to a Black woman traveling alone.

Victor LaValle mixes horror and fantasy in this expertly paced tale. It’s satisfyingly bloody, while making incisive commentary on the price of being an outsider. The Western genre has long fixated on the white imagination, perhaps occasionally making space for the early struggle of the suffragettes. But LaValle’s vision of history emphasizes just how powerful white women are in upholding the interests of their white husbands, and how far these women will go to protect the societal structures that put them in proximity to power. Lone Women also examines how shame, and the family unit, ultimately uphold these unspoken rules — ostracizing those who might otherwise find community support.

This book was so good that I am now reading my way through every interview LaValle has given on the Lone Women press circuit, too, and then reading every book he references. What a gift! —N. Clark

Cover image of Nathan Ballingrud’s The Strange, depicting a diner on Mars. Image: Gallery/Saga Press

The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud’s debut novel was added to my TBR pile after seeing it marketed as a blend of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Charles Portis’ True Grit. I’m always dubious about marketing comparisons, but was thrilled when The Strange delivered on this high promise.

In an alternate history where humanity colonized Mars in the early 1900s, the red planet has lost all communication with Earth, leaving the fate of 14-year-old Annabelle Crisp’s mother unknown. When a thief steals Annabelle’s sole voice recording of her mom, she and her beloved Kitchen Engine, Watson, set off into the desert to retrieve what’s hers and see justice served. The longer Annabelle’s adventure goes on, the more she loses perspective and drifts away from righteousness in dogged pursuit of her own selfish desires. Struggling to comprehend that the world can’t be divided into binaries like right or wrong and black or white, Annabelle converts her fear into anger, lashing out and harming those around her, including those providing aid.

Annabelle can be vengeful and cruel, and though I often disagreed with her choices, Ballingrud makes it impossible not to understand and empathize with her. Annabelle Crisp isn’t a hero and she isn’t a villain, but she is an outstanding protagonist in a wonderfully original sci-fi tale. —SG

Cover image for Moses Ose Utomi’s The Lies of the Ajungo, featuring a figure walking upside down on mounds of sand as a castle lurks in front. Image: Tor

The Lies of the Ajungo (The Forever Desert #1) by Moses Ose Utomi

In his debut novella, Moses Ose Utomi wields his precise prose to tell a dark, visceral fable about a young boy from the City of Lies, a metropolis reliant on the brutal Ajungo Empire for their supply of water. But the cost of this trade is high: At 13, every child of the City of Lies has their tongue cut out and sent to the Ajungo.

Even with this gruesome tithe, the Ajungo send barely enough water for the population to survive, and far from what they’d need to do so comfortably, let alone thrive. Shortly before his thirteenth birthday, the brave Tutu sets out on a dangerous journey to save his mother and the city by finding their own water supply. As Tutu explores the outside world for the first time, his perception of truth and history is challenged, and he comes to understand how the decisions and deceptions of those in power rewrite the past and shape the future to uphold those with privilege and foster compliance in those who don’t. —SG

Cover image for Edward Ashton’s Antimatter Blues, A Mickey7 Novel. It features an astronaut from behind on a rocky planet, looking out at another planet in the distance. Image: St. Martin’s Press

Antimatter Blues by Edward Ashton

Edward Ashton’s sequel to Mickey 7, the 2022 novel Parasite director Bong Joon-ho is adapting as a movie starring Robert Pattinson, takes up two years after the first book left off, with “Expendable”-status planetary colonist Mickey still on the outs with the leadership of his struggling colony after a gutsy bluff he made to ensure his own survival. The sixth clone of the original Mickey, who accepted life as a disposable body for suicide missions in exchange for a ticket to space, Mickey 7 has walked off that job. His ongoing draw on the colony’s resources is only tolerated because he’s exaggerated his diplomatic connections with the local aliens. Then the base commander orders him to do something impossible, or the entire colony will die.

Antimatter Blues is knottier than the first book in the series, with more to take in about the ethics of survival and humanity’s predisposition toward xenophobia and selfish, self-serving behavior. It sure isn’t a pleasant book to read: A lot of Mickey’s co-colonists are bigots, most of them are indifferent to anyone else’s suffering, and at times, the book reads as though Earth deliberately sent all the worst people into space, the better to be free of them. Even Mickey himself is, at absolute minimum, generally more focused on his own safety and comfort than on the horrific results of some of his choices. But as soon as he’s placed in what seems like an unsurvivable situation, that dynamic leads to high drama, and Antimatter Blues becomes a breathless book rocketing to a surprising conclusion. Prepare to feel sorry for various alien races who have to deal with icky humanity. —TR

Cover image for Samantha Shannon’s A Day of Fallen Night, a colorful image with a a dragon swirling around it Image: Bloomsbury

A Day of Fallen Night (The Roots of Chaos #0) by Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon’s A Day of Fallen Night is her second book in the Roots of Chaos series, but a prequel to The Priory of the Orange Tree. Like The Priory of the Orange Tree, A Day of Fallen Night is an epic, far-flung fantasy novel set in a world of magic and dragons. A Day of Fallen Night is set hundreds of years before The Priory of the Orange Tree, and follows several of the original book’s ancestors as the world fears the return of an evil wyrm, the Nameless One. You don’t have to have read The Priory of the Orange Tree to enjoy A Day of Fallen Night; in fact, it’s likely a good place to start if you’ve been interested in reading Shannon’s original, massive fantasy book. Of course, this is a slow-burn 800-page book that precedes another 800-page book, so it’s definitely a time investment regardless of the path.

Though A Day of Fallen Night deals with a world-shaping, cataclysmic threat and widespread political machinations, the book is rooted within four characters from around the book’s world: Sabran, Glorian, Dumai, and Tunuva Melim. The stories of these characters intertwine as their regional beliefs tied to wyrms and dragons conflict, muddying up the necessary collaboration in fighting off the looming threat. In between all that catastrophe, Shannon gives the women of the book rich stories of personal relationships, sacrifice, and conflicting feelings. Motherhood and bodily autonomy are also strong themes throughout the book; both Sabran and Glorian (mother and daughter) have their bodily autonomy tied to the fate of their region.

It’s not easy to describe A Day of Fallen Night in a short blurb — it does so many things and goes so many places. Shannon’s created a series that has the scale of The Lord of the Rings, wrapped up in a world of queer, female power. The Roots of Chaos, as a whole, is one of my favorite fantasy series ever. —N. Carpenter

Cover image for Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night, featuring a red hand with long yellow fingernails. Image: Hogarth Press

Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez

This literary tome defies categorization, so I’ll paint a scene instead: A father (Juan) whisks his son (Gaspar) away on a trip. Juan is mercurial; at turns terrifying and violent, at turns bewilderingly tender, nearly infinite in love. But he is a closed book. And if you think you’ve seen his hands elongate, spindly fingers yielding to piercing claws — well no, you didn’t.

Slow, dreadful, and razor-sharp, Our Share of Night charts a family’s desperate attempt at escaping the clutches of a death cult in Argentina. Its members seek the secrets of immortality, and many are willing to pay any price to obtain it. Set in 1981, the novel’s supernatural terrors intertwine with those of the Dirty War, the authoritarian violence offering cover for the cult to operate uninhibited.

I will read anything Mariana Enríquez writes next, it’s an absolute joy to experience her work. —N. Clark

Cover image for Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers, which features a futuristic cityscape with lush greenery. Image: Tor Books

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

The Terraformers concerns itself with one question: As a species evolves, what behaviors stick around? Set more than 50,000 years in the future (yes, you read that number right), The Terraformers details the process of terraforming and developing a privatized planet into a tourism joint for the super rich. Technology has advanced in barely fathomable ways, allowing, for instance, the extension of human-level intelligence to animals and robots. But some aspects of society might seem familiar: Real estate developers who jack up rent with no warning? Local governments that abhor public transit? That every video call still has one person who can’t get the camera to work?

Equal parts prescient and absurd, The Terraformers splits its story over three novellas, each 700 years apart. One of those stars a sentient train who teams up with an investigative journalist ... who also happens to be a cat ... who’s also trying to prove this ostensibly privatized planet is in fact public land. Written by a leading science journalist of our era (author Annalee Newitz is the founder of io9 and has written for basically every major science publication under our sun), The Terraformers is unexpectedly one of the most accurate representations of the journalistic process I’ve ever read. And it all culminates in an undeniable stance: That capitalistic power must still be held in check by the truth. Even 50,000 years in the future, a free press is among society’s most essential facets. The more things change... —Ari Notis

The cover image of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory, which depicts a spaceship approaching a large orange planet. Image: Orbit

Children of Memory (Children of Time #3) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s highly anticipated third book in the Children of Time trilogy once again delves into some of science fiction’s headiest topics. There are parallels to earlier installments — Tchaikovsky once again uses another hyper-intelligent animal species to examine the idea of what being “alive” really means. But he also takes readers somewhere completely and utterly new, outside the scope of the previous titles, and incredibly difficult to describe without spoiling the premise entirely.

All I can say is hold on for the ride. This is an author who dives head first into Asimov-esque ideas, and who is willing to take the plot in fanciful directions. I still can’t believe that I have recommended a book about sentient spider colonies to so many friends, but here we are. This finale is worth your time. —N. Clark