2023, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 166 books in 2023. For those of you keeping track, that's easily twice what I read in most years. I have no explanation. There are no major lifestyle changes that suddenly freed up my time, no trick to easy reading that I've discovered. Sometimes you just find yourself in a reading zone for a while, and for me this has lasted an entire year. Maybe it will continue into next year, and maybe not.

It's traditional, when disclosing such a gargantuan reading accomplishment, to offer a bit of false modesty: oh, but I don't think I enjoyed them as much as I would if I'd read fewer books. I'm here to say that this is not the case. I enjoyed my reading this year a great deal, and I feel like I got a lot out of the books I read, even if not every one has proven to be very memorable (spoiler: this is true of most books in most years). Another way of putting is that I didn't read 166 books this year because I was trying to break a record. I did it because it was fun. If it had stopped being fun, I would have stopped reading. There's no more reason to be proud of reading a lot of books in a single year than there would have been shame in reading a small number. The real question to ask is whether you're enjoying it.

And for the most part, I did enjoy it. I've been using NetGalley and Edelweiss more extensively this year, and as a result I feel like I have a real grasp on the state of contemporary writing, both in and out of genre. I was able to read the entire Hugo shortlist (mostly dire) and most of the Clarke nominees (mixed but with some very strong points) and even take a peek at the Kitschies (which directed me towards books I might never have picked up). I read more nonfiction than I tend to, and more fiction in translation than I usually do. The thing about being a voracious reader is that there are always more books you want to read than you have time for, so being able to get to more of them this year was a treat. Maybe I won't be able to pull it off again, but I hope I do.

Appropriately for a mega-year of reading, this post is also quite extensive. And for the first time in several years, I've added a couple of special awards at the end. As usual, books are arranged in order of the author's surname, with no division by genre or year or publication. No matter how many books you read in 2023—and again, this isn't a contest; you should read as many as is fun for you—I'm sure you can find some worthy recommendations below.

Best Books of the Year:

All's Well by Mona Awad

In her three most recent novels, Awad has perfected a formula that combines the everyday horror of life as woman, the supernatural horror of witchcraft and vampires, and a tight first person narration that carries the reader down into the depths of madness before finding some sliver of light and sanity to grab onto. What distinguishes All's Well from its predecessor Bunny and follow-up Rouge, however, is that in it Awad marries this formula with a bracing discussion of life with chronic pain that puts to shame every other form of horror she's ever written about. The novel's heroine, who is granted the power to transfer her pain to others—abusive caretakers, indifferent employers, friends who secretly think she's making it all up—is aware that she's doing something monstrous. But she also knows firsthand how cruel the world is to someone who can't embody health. How insistently it conveys, without ever coming out and saying so, that it would rather such people not exist. It's a tension that creates a delicious ambiguity, making it impossible to know where to place one's sympathy, and what ending to root for. (review)

When I'm Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry

The one book I missed out on writing about over the course of the year, but happily I'm able to correct the oversight now. Barry's follow-up to the delightful We Ride Upon Sticks is something completely different, but no less distinctive and compelling. On the windswept Mongolian steppes, a novice monk is dispatched to find the reincarnated spirit of a deceased lama. Along for the ride is his twin brother, himself supposedly a reincarnated saint who has renounced his calling. Told in short, lyrical chapters that slide effortlessly between concrete reality and the realm of spirits and reincarnated souls, the novel gives readers a panoramic view of the history of Buddhism in Mongolia, its intersections with local and regional politics, and the various tribes and ethnic groups that people the steppes, still keeping to traditional ways of life in the face of creeping modernity. Ultimately, however, this is a deeply personal novel, about one young man's relationship to the spiritual and to his religion, as he ponders the question of whether he wants to dedicate his life to the unseen.

Half-Life of a Stolen Sister by Rachel Cantor

The lives of the brilliant, doomed Brontë family have always been ripe for fictionalization, but perhaps no previous attempt has been as original, or as heartbreaking, as Cantor's deliberately unhistorical historical novel. Situating the Brontës in a kind of no-time, half 19th century and half-modernity, she captures the claustrophobic bonds between people who can only ever really be understood by each other. Through letters, diary entries, emails, and dating profiles, she follows the family over the decades as first the Brontë matriarch, and then, one by one, all of the children, succumb to disease; as the surviving children build fantasy worlds with which to entertain each other and hold off the real world; as the adult sisters make their forays into the world of letters, disdaining its judgment and desiring its approval in equal measure; and as brother Branwell sinks into addiction and curdled entitlement. The anachronistic approach not only gives the novel a flavor all its own, but helps to cut through our familiarity with the material. It's shocking and heartbreaking when each of the Brontës fall by the wayside, and when the ones left behind try to reform their family and keep doing their work, until they too can't. (review)

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera

Hands-down the most remarkable and exciting genre novel of 2023, Chandrasekera's debut follows Fetter, the son of a prophet who has been raised by his vengeful mother to assassinate his father. Now an adult living in the city of Luriat, having renounced his destiny, Fetter is at loose ends until he is roped into an investigation of the titular bright doors, a poorly-understood magical phenomenon, at the same time that his father announces a visit to the city. And yet even that description doesn't do justice to the novel's wonders and accomplishments. Saint is not a story of one magical young person's empowerment. Nor is it a city novel in which the setting is its own character. It is, instead, the tale of a world in the grips of long-standing, interlocking, breathtakingly violent sectarian disputes, and of the people who are caught within them. It's a novel that repeatedly refuses simple or straightforward plot forms, constantly zigging when you expect it to zag, and yet in the end it is entirely satisfying, and exactly what it should have been. (review)

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez

Jimenez's second novel breaks open the epic fantasy genre in the same way that his first novel, 2020's The Vanished Birds, did for far future science fiction. At heart a very simple story about two young men trying to defeat an evil emperor and save their land, it is a novel that is constantly playing with modes of storytelling, constantly exploring what each shift in teller and audience does to the story, and constantly pushing against the capacity of the written word to convey meaning. The story it tells is gripping and wide-ranging, full of breathtaking detail and intense action. But what the novel is really about is the act of telling, and more than that, of performance. By its end, the reader feels less as if they are reading a book, and more as if, like the "you" to which the story is being told, they are sitting in a darkened theater, watching a dance come together—again, and as if for the first time. (review)

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Last year's Booker winner was a delightful surprise not only for being a rare case of that storied award dipping its toes in genre, but for being a genuinely thrilling read, for all the gruesomeness of its subject matter. Dissipated, nihilistic war photographer Maali Almeida is murdered, and ends up in a bureaucratized afterlife. He has seven nights to set aside his earthly ties and get ready to enter the light, but instead he chooses to spend them trying to track down his murderer, along the way introducing readers to the various factions in the bloody disputes that rocked Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s. Part post-life coming of age story, part an aching elegy for a country steeped in blood and still reeling from violence, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. (review)

The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr

Told in a hallucinatory stream of consciousness over the course of a single, coast to coast train journey, The Sleeping Car Porter follows Baxter, a black, gay man in the 1920s, as he attends to passengers, cleans up their messes, counts the money he's saved from tips, dreams about an intimate connection with his fellow porters or even a passenger, and worries that a racist complaint could cost him his job. As the journey progresses and sleep deprivation (the porters are expected to be on call at all times) takes its toll, the boundaries between dream and reality start to blur, Baxter becomes more and more involved in his passengers' small dramas, and reminiscences of the past begin to intrude on the present. The result is both a portrait of a historical moment, when jobs like train porter gave black men the chance to enter the middle class, and a character portrait of a man caught between mundane reality and dreams of a tantalizing future. (review)

Walking Practice by Dolki Min, translated by Victoria Caudle

The narrator of Min's startling novella is an alien stranded on earth, who in order to supply themselves with the human flesh they need to survive, goes on dating sites and sets up hookups, sleeping with and then consuming their conquests. It's Under the Skin for the 21st century, but somehow even more irreverent and shocking. Anxiously rushing between appointments, thrusting their squishy, malleable body into a form that won't attract attention but will attract potential mates-slash-victims, constantly worrying about the logistics of disposing of their victims' remains in a way that won't alert the authorities, and obsessing about their looks, the narrator sometimes reads like a Chick Lit heroine taken to deranged extremes, and sometimes like a deeply sad, lonely creature, who can never fully understand humanity, even as they desire us both as sexual partners and as food. For all its violence and sadness, Walking Practice is a strangely exuberant book, full of pride in its narrator's ability to make it on earth. By its end, you can't help but root for this strange creature to survive another day. (review)

Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi

Criminally unacknowledged by this year's genre award juries and voters, Onyebuchi's first novel for adults is nevertheless one of the most essential works of science fiction of the last few years. It takes the well-worn adage that the future is never evenly distributed and imagines a world in which some portions of humanity leave for the stars, while others—who are overwhelmingly poor and racialized—are left behind, earning a meager living by taking apart their world for scrap. This is not an easy read—it shifts without warning from one point of view to another and from past to present, and often delivers lengthy, circuitous narratives before coming to the point of contact between them and the story we've come to know. But for those who stick with it, there are tremendous rewards both in the skill with which the story is told, and the trenchant way it explores the persistence of injustice and inequality, even into the supposedly modern future. (review and roundtable discussion)

Why Don't You Love Me? by Paul B. Rainey

Rainey's brilliant but deceptive graphic novel initially presents itself as a collection of newspaper comic strips about the crushing mundanity of suburban life. A middle class couple are unhappy in their marriage, overwhelmed by responsibility for their children, grasping towards and yet also terrified by any opportunity to change their lives. Slowly, however, hints begin to accumulate that things are not as they seem, and then a gargantuan twist emerges that changes the meaning—and the genre—of the story. In its second half, Why Don't You Love Me? emerges as a complex, thought-provoking science fiction story, while at the same time deepening the characters and relationships we had come to think of as merely broad caricatures. It's a magnificent achievement of storytelling that plays expertly with our genre expectations and with the comic form, delivering one of the most shocking and affecting stories I read this year. (review)

City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The extremely prolific Tchaikovsky has something in his bibliography to suit just about every taste, and this standalone fantasy novel (albeit with a companion volume published earlier this month) hits mine with deadly precision. A throwback to the New Weird city novels of the early 00s, City of Last Chances takes readers to the city of Ilmar, currently under occupation by the fascistic Palleseen, where multiple resistance factions vie against each other as much as they do the occupiers, where ethnic minorities already made refugees by previous Pal incursions struggle to survive local hostility, where the workers in the factories are on the cusp of violent labor action, and where ancient, perilous magic is always on the brink of overpowering the city's rational institutions. A single event throws this web of relationships and enmities into chaos, setting off a Rube Goldberg machine of a plot that progresses through the points of view of a dozen engaging characters. The result is one of the most satisfying and engrossing fantasy stories I've read this year. (review)

Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

From fairly shopworn materials—a child soldier raised to fight to the death; a legacy of planetary destruction; an all-knowing AI making unconscionable decisions in the name of the greater good—Tesh constructs a rollicking, thrilling adventure that barrels through a whole trilogy's worth of material in a single volume without ever feeling rushed or shortchanging its characters and themes. Along the way, we get the main character's journey of unlearning hatred and ingrained supremacy, strange yet compelling aliens, and reality-bending games with time and space. Some Desperate Glory is so satisfying in its own right that it's easy not to notice how completely it shows up whole tranches of the space opera genre, which will now have to scramble to catch up. (review)

Honorable Mentions:

Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman - This year's Clarke winner is a darkly humorous parody of the environmental-industrial complex, a sort of rebuttal to utopian visions like The Ministry for the Future that reminds us that even in the face of extinction, capitalism will always seek to extract profit.

Small Game by Blair Braverman - There's a long tradition of novels about survival in the wilderness, and if done well they can be utterly gripping. Braverman not only does this, but inflects the story with a reality TV premise, which allows her to deepen her characters in unexpected ways. A meaty, satisfying read. (review)

Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan - The book that should have won this year's best related work Hugo. As much love as you think you have for Mad Max: Fury Road, when you finish reading this account, you will be even more awed by the accomplishment it represents, and even more grateful that talented, creative people were allowed to go nuts trying to make it.

Orbital by Samantha Harvey - This prose poem of a novel documents one day aboard the international space station, lingering on the mechanics and logistics of life in zero gravity, peering into the astronauts' minds as they consider the sacrifices they've made and the meaning of what they've accomplished, and following the station as it orbits above the earth. It's a meditation on an objectively absurd, and yet deeply resonant, human endeavor.

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz - Red Mars for the 21st century. This wide-ranging novel about the politics, economics, and social science of remaking a barren rock into a world suitable for human habitation gets into a million different ideas and topics, delivering a deeply thought-provoking read. (review)

Most Welcome 2023 Trend: Collected Reviews by 21st Century SFF Critics

Well, maybe two books isn't exactly a trend, but as the third decade of the 21st century progresses, it's gratifying to have the opportunity to look back on the previous two decades of online SFF criticism and recognize it for the vibrant, essential, boundary-pushing critical scene it was (and still could be). This year saw the publication of Niall Harrison's All These World: Reviews and Essays, a masterful journey through both Niall's career as a reviewer and the growth of science fiction over more than a decade. I'm obviously biased, as Niall is a friend, but seeing his reviews collected in a well-organized and handsome volume is not only a worthy tribute, but a reminder of what a trenchant, necessary critic he is. Less joyful but no less essential is A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller. It's a memorial collection assembled by Nina Allan, with assistance from Maureen's widower Paul Kincaid, and as such it is as much a tribute to the woman as to her work. For those of us who treasured our friendship with Maureen, it's wonderful to encounter her voice again, and remember the pieces that made us whoop with delight. But for readers unfamiliar with her, this collection is an opportunity to become acquainted with a knowledgeable, opinionated, endlessly curious and enthusiastic critic. Add to these two books the Strange Horizons special issue on SFF criticism, and it really feels as if the field is having a moment, one that will hopefully continue to expand.

Most Unexpected Surprise: The Scholomance trilogy by Naomi Novik

I admit that when I first heard the plot description for this series, I sighed. "What if Hogwarts, but evil" is a pretty tired concept, much less in 2020, when the first volume in the trilogy, A Deadly Education, was published. And with a heroine whose description seemed to suggest a genderbent Kylo Ren, the whole thing seemed very aggressively Not For Me. It was a lucky break, then, that Novik included the entire trilogy in this year's Hugo voter packet, because this series turns out be both delightful and clever. The setting—a self-sustaining, self-contained school for wizards designed to protect them from the perils of the outside world, but which becomes its own death trap which only a small percentage of students manage to survive—is elaborately worked through, and the psychological cost of attending this school, in which students scramble for survival, make desperate alliances, and weigh the consequences of surrendering to the dark side for some extra power, are explored with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Also refreshing is the series's heroine, who resists the pull of the dark less out of an innate desire to to do good as out of a furiously annoyed sense of ethics. By the time we get to the third volume, the elaborate worldbuilding has revealed a society that has locked itself, through technological choices made centuries ago, into a series of increasingly bad options, which makes for both a powerful environmental metaphor, and a satisfying villain for the heroine and her friends to tilt against. 

Author I'm Happiest to Have Discovered: Sarah Caudwell

Caudwell, a British lawyer specializing in tax and company law, published four detective novels before her untimely death in 2000: Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981), The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989), and The Sybil in Her Grave (2000). I've read all four over the last two years, and they are among the most distinctive, and most delightful, mystery fiction I've encountered. In each novel, our narrator, Oxford professor Hilary Tamar, visits with former students Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Michael Cantrip, and Desmond Ragwort, all lawyers specializing in tax and finance, and invariably hears from them about a death related to their clients—the trustee of a Jersey tax shelter is mysteriously found dead; a young woman in line for an inheritance falls off a roof. The core conceit of Caudwell's novels, however, is their arch, deeply ironic tone, which is part Dorothy L. Sayers and part P.G. Wodehouse, while still being set in what is broadly recognizable as the late twentieth century (or perhaps another way of putting is that the twentieth century is slow to arrive in the lawyers' chambers of Lincoln's Inn). In long-winded, impossibly detailed letters, which often seem more upset about a missed dinner reservation or a stalled office renovation than a murder, the four lawyers and their clients lay out of the facts of the case to Tamar, who works out how the intricacies of the law have somehow combined to enable a murder. It's not exactly cozy mystery, and not modern, gritty mystery either, but something almost timeless that is pitched perfectly between the two. It's a great shame that we only have four novels from Caudwell, but the ones we got are an absolute treat.

Author Who Most Effectively Straddles Genre and LitFic: Colson Whitehead

After a long and eclectic career that mostly stayed in the literary end of the pool, albeit with occasional forays into slipstream, Whitehead shot to the stratosphere of the publishing world with The Underground Railroad, a bracing, quasi-fantastical novel about slavery and the convolutions of American racism. He followed it with the no less harrowing, but purely mimetic The Nickel Boys, which seemed to establish him as a chronicler of African-American suffering. And then he veered unexpectedly into crime fiction with the delightful, fleet-footed Harlem Shuffle, the pitch-perfect tale of furniture salesman by day, illegal fence by night Ray Carney, who observes with studied cynicism the transformations of his neighborhood in the late 50s and early 60s. The novel was a delight while also having plenty of nutritional value, but still I don't think anyone could have anticipated Whitehead coming back for a sequel. And yet, this year's Crook Manifesto, which rejoins Carney in the 70s, is no less exhilarating, and no less substantial, than its prequel. Like Harlem Shuffle, it is full of indelible characters, minute and searching descriptions of the class stratification of New York's black community, and baleful analysis of the way that New York's prosperity always seems to be kept out of the hands of that same community. I don't know what Whitehead's plans going forward are, but for my money, he can keep writing these novels forever. I want to know what Ray Carney thinks about the crime bill, 9/11, Obama, and IKEA, and I very much hope to find out.

Comments

Adam Roberts said…
An excellent set of lists. I share your puzzlement that "Goliath" didn't register more widely, or indeed at all, om awards lists. And I agree this has been a great year for "Collected Reviews by 21st Century SFF Critics" -- a collection of your select essays would have added to the garland.

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