Julia Armfield’s strange and lyrical Our Wives Under the Sea tells the story of married couple Leah and Miri, and the unreal events surrounding Leah’s six-month disappearance. A marine biologist scheduled on a two-week deep ocean dive, Leah has returned changed in ways Miri cannot understand, and Leah refuses to explain. Confronted by silence and bizarre behavior, Miri is left to care for her wife while trying to unravel the mystery of what happened, and why.
The book is structured using the sea’s zones from Sunlight to Hadal, from daylight to utter darkness, and is told from both points of view: Miri in the present and Leah during her confinement on the ocean’s floor. Both women initially confront the puzzle of the dive and its aftermath with rational solutions: fix the submarine and surface; reach the Center that sponsored the dive for answers. The inadequacy of ordinary explanations forces Miri and Leah to contend with the limits of what they know and understand, compelling them to submit to the mystery that has consumed their lives.
A constant, nagging field of frustration in the form of almost-heard sounds plagues both narrators, reinforcing the sense that something lurks just past comprehension. The asynchronous narratives underline the failure of the two women to connect except on the most rudimentary level of caretaking.
Armfield captures the resentment and erosion of compassion that attending to a partner who seems to refuse care generates. For readers who spent lockdown as caregivers, Our Wives captures the experience: “The way that anyone who sneezes more than four times abruptly loses the sympathy of an audience, so it was with me and Leah.”
Quiet and meandering, Armfield is more invested in depicting the sweetness and humor that sustains a years-long romance than explaining Leah’s encounter with the fantastic. As Miri surrenders to the irreversibility of Leah’s changes, the strength of her love guides her to the only possible outcome. Not a story about heroics, Our Wives Under the Sea is a moving reminder that love’s triumph takes many forms, not all of them happily ever after.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been saying that the science fiction, fantasy, and horror communities are enjoying a golden age of content. Whether talking about movies, television, podcasting, or fiction, 2022 was an excellent year for SFF and horror.
Being a new father, I spent 2022 streaming more than ever before. Luckily, Netflix dropped The Sandman, Wednesday, and Enola Holmes 2. My wife and I loved watching She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Avenue 5 on HBO continues to be an amazing, depressing look at the commodification of space travel. Finally, The Boys Season 3 creeped me out with its accurate depiction of corporations normalizing fascism in the US
Publishing in 2022 saw releases from big-name authors with excellent books, but I preferred the ones that flew under a lot of radars. Kerstin Hall released Second Spear, the second novella in her Mkalis cycle. The warrior Tyn takes readers through Hall’s expansive creativity in this realm-hopping adventure. It reminded me of how expansive fantasy settings can be while balancing character and plot. Speaking of second books in a series, T. L. Huchu’s Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments is number two in the Edinburgh Nights series. Ghostalking Ropa Moyo continues to delight in this underrated urban fantasy. Her job as a ghostalker now works around her studies with the Society of Sceptical Enquirers (Scottish magicians). Huchu depicts a character forcing her way into elite halls and all the associated costs that come with trying to seek the best education.
Taran Hunt’s The Immortality Thief is science-fiction horror that surprised and delighted. After coercion from the government, Sean Wren explores an abandoned ship that has been lost to time. Racing against him are the Ministers, aliens that rule over half of humanity with an iron fist. It’s fast-paced, tense, and excellent. The Immortality Thief would make an excellent video game. The First Binding by R. R. Virdi starts a series worth following. This book based in South Asian stories is huge, a chonky boi, but it reads like a much smaller book. It’s engaging, entertaining, and balances tension and relief excellently. However, it’s a book worth reading slowly and picking out Virdi’s craft. There’s unexpected poetry; there’s beautiful scenery. It’s a tale to savor.
Rachel Swirsky’s January Fifteenth cements her as a must-read author. This short book is an extended character study following four women on the day their Universal Basic Income (UBI) payments disburse. Spousal abuse, affluenza, parenting a sibling, and Mormon sister wives all show up in Swirksy’s rumination on the consequences of UBI. This novel might be the UBI movement’s best argument. Finally, though it’s not SFF, On Critical Race Theory by Victor Ray was the best nonfiction book I read all year. It’s short, to the point, and packed with information on what exactly CRT is from the pen of a scholar in the field.
2022 was a fantastic year, and 2023 will see the release of some excellent SFF and horror.
As it is, Nona the Ninth is probably the best book I’ve read this year, a novel that is ultimately as much about love as it is about necromancy, liberally salted with meme jokes to make the sincerity go down. Frances Hardinge’s new novel Unraveller, not yet published in the States, is also probably her best yet, with a complexity of plot and motivation mirrored by her tale’s two co-protagonists. Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden is another standout, a first contact novel of precariously mitigated climate change which insists on the values of cooperation, family, and networks rather than individualism and corporate greed. Another, better world is possible, and A Half-Built Garden shows a vision of what it could be if we take steps to get there. Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters was also great, asking tough questions about motherhood and monsters with an interesting horror-tinged concept. John M. Ford’s final, unfinished novel Aspects is still a masterpiece, and I hope it drives more readers to his other works.
On the novella front, Nicola Griffith’s Spear and Ursula Vernon’s What Moves the Dead both queered old stories (Arthuriana and ”The Fall of the House of Usher”, respectively) and are highly recommended. Highly anticipated by me, Kelly Robson’s stoner lesbian Brexit fairy comedy High Times in the Low Parliament was a lot of fun. I’m also halfway through Kate Elliott’s epic late-antiquity-turning-early-medieval fantasy Crown of Stars series, which unambiguously holds up. Her politically sophisticated novella Servant Mage was another highlight, and I’m looking forward to more books from her in 2023.
I hope I don’t have to tell you that Andor is the best Star War in a long time, with relevance far beyond a galaxy far, far away, and Tales of the Jedi was another tour de force by Dave Filoni and company. Star Trek: Lower Decks continues to shine, and Star Trek: Prodigy is one of the best current Treks too, regardless of its being aimed at kids. Ms. Marvel did right by the character and by New Jersey and taught a lot of people about Partition, and I hope to see Kamala Khan again soon. Everything Everywhere All at Once is the movie of the year as far as I’m concerned, though Wakanda Forever gets an honorable mention for tackling grief (and monumentally reinventing Namor!) in a way that no other superhero movie could do. I finally started listening to The Magnus Archives, which is indeed great, even if you’re a horror wimp like me. Last but not least, if you like anime, giant robots, or Utena, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury is a must-watch.
I make no resolutions for 2023. It is the circumstances’ turn to improve.
My reading in 2022 was all over the place, so it’s a bit of a struggle to find a through line or clear recommendations. The picture in media, for me, is easier to summarize. I spent several months of the year glued to reviews, analyses, blogs, and excited online yelling about the HBO Max serial pirate dramedy Our Flag Means Death—which of course I recommend! while also wanting to note that several thoughtful acquaintances were less satisfied by the first season of the show.
Movie-going has been scarce, but I did make it (masked) into the theaters for Everything Everywhere All at Once and for Nope. EEAAO yielded the pleasure of watching the great Michelle Yeoh get to act as if she were stepping for the first time—with wild, disbelieving enjoyment—into her own martial-arts ability. I may not recover from that scene. Part of me is still on the floor. Jordan Peele’s Nope asks what happens when death comes from the sky and calls out barely concealed murderous impulses in a local biosphere and an entire industry. It’s magnificent. I recommend watching the movie both for itself, and for how it will make you evaluate what you watch thereafter.
In graphic novels, my read of the year was Kate Beaton’s Ducks. This extensive and consequential but stylistically quiet work reads like a huge return (for us) on a devastating loan taken out by the author against her own life, during the two years she spent working off college debt in the oil sands of Alberta. That loan would be bad enough in itself, but the damage and cost of the time Beaton spent in what amounted to debt-indenture was a kind of sub-loan partitioned out of the unrepayable environmental damage done by petrocorps to local wildlife (hence the graphic novel’s title) and the world at large. Ducks is in total a furious, grieving statement of this fact and an unsparing revelation of the evils present in the field-and-office culture of petrochemical extraction: of the corrupting pall the work itself cast, and still casts, and the necessity of opposing its continuance. A powerful book, very much worth reading in 2023 if it hasn’t yet been part of this year, for you.
My favorite books of the year all dealt with the nature of truth and intimacy, which was unintentional; I only realized as much just now. Caítlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl helped me accept that it’s maybe all right to leave experiences contradictory and unreconciled. Imp figures out not what actually happened to her, but what holds the most meaning for her, and what and who she loves. Richard Swan’s The Justice of Kings is about a man coming to grips with the destruction of his worldview, told by the student who’s there to learn from him. C. S. E. Cooney’s collection Dark Breakers plays with silk gowns and opulence and mystique, and deep terrible hard things, and also the delicate intricacies of human relationships, which is a sort of truth that helps to navigate the others.
The SFFnal thing I spent the most time in this year, both by inclination and by the force of my subconscious will, belongs to Fire Emblem (Three Houses, Path of Radiance, and Awakening, with more to follow I hope.) Its characters have made me cry; the game’s treatments of them have made me rage and then made me write a bunch of fan fiction. I can track my year according to how I was thinking about Fire Emblem at any given time, and what particular feelings it was giving me about gender and war and intimacy and abstraction. It’ll be with me for a long time.
Unusually, it is televised SFF which comes to mind. I took out a temporary Netflix subscription to watch Sandman, hoping that it would not be the mess that Amazon’s The Rings of Power proved to be.
It was, in fact, an object lesson in how you can re-cast a set of characters and have the faces in the TV adaptation as vividly “true” as those in the original comic book. While Rings of Power strained to keep script, acting, and special effects working together rather than competing, in Sandman they chimed like a well-played chord. While nearly all comic-book adaptations I have seen have never worked as simple human drama, Sandman contained imaginative concepts and people you could feel for, perhaps because one of its strengths was in the asides and minor characters.
Because I don’t usually subscribe to Netflix, I came late to Stranger Things, and binge-watched this in fascination before my subscription ran out. My initial thought was Lovecraft meets The X-Files as scripted by Stephen King (which some might see as criticism: it emphatically isn’t in this case). As the series went on, it went over the top in a way which kept it just this side of barkingly loopy, though as the children of the first series became older, it became less like King’s Stand by Me, which was much of its appeal to me. But I can see why it attracted so much attention, and it was a delight to see Kate Bush back in the charts because of it.
Other than that, this has been the year of reading revivals from a number of excellent small presses. Two that stood out were The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle (MIT Press) and Helen de Guerry Simpson’s The Outcast and the Rite (Handheld Press). Odle, for many years, edited the British magazine Argosy (not associated with the American magazine of the same name), and was an associate of Virginia Woolf. His uncanny “Clockwork Man” is an enhanced human from the far future who has fallen through time to the present and whose own confusion mirrors that of those who encounter him. The beginning is comic, but echoing uncomfortable laughter arising from an encounter with something so strange that we cannot fully understand how we should react. The Clockwork Man’s physical and verbal ticks reflect his own dislocation in a world confined by five senses, space and time, and the certainty of death. There is a hint that the alien “makers,” who have invented and inserted the “clocks” with which men of the future have been fitted, have done so at the behest of the more “real” women. That reading is certainly one which makes this 1923 novel worth exploring a century later, but there is more. The last few pages are both chilling and poignant and, I think on rereading them, something of a masterpiece.
Helen Simpson was one of a number of extraordinary women in the interwar literary scene, collaborating on novels with Clemence Dane (later editor of the postwar SF line from Michael Joseph) and a friend of crime-writer Gladys Mitchell with whom she shared lifelong interests in witchcraft and demonology. The Outcast and the Rite, subtitled “Stories of Landscape and Fear”, brings together outstanding stories of the effects of place on character, with marvellous turns of viewpoint between the mundane concerns of her characters and the “invisible realm” which transforms and defines those concerns. In “Good Company,” for example, a woman travelling alone in Italy becomes possessed by the mind of a Catholic saint. After being robbed, she is stranded penniless in a village. Simpson’s power is that she makes Elizabeth’s physical uncertainty (her landlady’s husband edges closer and closer to taking brutal advantage of her situation) as vivid as her psychic experience without allowing it to become entirely the point of the story. The volume is more evidence that Handheld are among the most interesting and eclectic of presses specialising in reviving supernatural fiction.
Safia H. Senhaji
I was lucky enough to read some really amazing books in 2022, most of which were SFF. While there were some great individual books (such as Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor and all of the books I was lucky enough to review for Strange Horizons, including Saint Death’s Daughter, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, The City of Dusk, and The Stardust Thief), one of the highlights was finally getting into new-to-me series.
The first I want to mention was the Greenwing and Dart series by Victoria Goddard, which starts with Stargazy Pie; there are currently six books, with more on the way. While I discovered Victoria Goddard in 2021 with the amazing The Hands of the Emperor (everyone should read this book), it was this year that I truly fell in love with Jemis Greenwing, Mr. Dart, the Honourable Rag, Mrs. Etaris, and rest of the colourful cast of Greenwing and Dart. These books, full of shenanigans and adventures in fantasy Regency England—but also full of healing, grief, friendships, family, poetry, criticisms of empire—came at a time where I needed them. Jemis is truly the best boy, and it is a joy to watch him grow and heal throughout the series.
I also discovered, to my chagrin (not), that everyone who talked about how amazing The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells are were not, in fact, exaggerating. In fact, they were even better than I had initially been expecting. While I am still making my way through the books, it has just been a joy to read them. Murderbot is truly the most relatable, and I love the narration, the worldbuilding, the social commentary, and the themes of personhood and friendship.
I don’t quite remember the context, but I believe it was an author panel I watched on YouTube in which someone mentioned that they had just discovered Lois McMaster Bujold—and that one of the best things about that was discovering a writer with such an extensive catalogue. It took me a bit of time after watching that video to start reading her books, but I completely agree. While I started with the Penric and Desdemona series, which has been such a delight, I also decided to dip my toes into the Vorkosigan saga. I am tremendously enjoying each and every book of both series, who are different yet quite similar in many aspects. I simply love how Bujold creates her worlds, characters, and how she delivers the core themes that echo in each and every book. I just recently finished up The Orphans of Raspay and Komarr, and I cannot wait to read more.
I also started the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which became an unexpected favourite with its dry and sarcastic (and kind) narrator and its clever worldbuilding and character work. I was also able to continue my (slow) read of each Mo Xiang Tong Xiu book, now that the official English translations are coming out (her work is truly masterful). I read the eagerly-anticipated The Grief of Stones, was able to finish up a beloved series with the final instalment that came out this year (The Fallen King’s Penitent Soldier by Megan Derr), read The Tarot Sequence by K. D. Edwards, discovered Some by Virtue Fall and The Lights of Ystrac’s Wood by Alexandra Rowland (from the Seven Gods series), read the first Crescent City book by Sarah J. Maas (and sobbed my heart out toward the end), started the Plated Prisoner series by Raven Kennedy, and also fully got into Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Era 2 and The Stormlight Archive specifically).
I look forward to delving deeper into these many book series I’ve started, and I am very lucky to have discovered so many new favourite series and authors.
Most of my favourites this year dealt head-on with the pressing and contentious politics of 2022. From trans rights to internalised racism, there was plenty of brilliant, uncomfortable speculative fiction published this past year. It feels important that SFF deal with these topics as they become more and more urgent in the world around it.
My favourite SFF novel of 2022 was January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky. A series of canny and well-observed character portraits set in a post-UBI United States, this is a book long on introspection and filled with wintery atmosphere. But it’s most remarkable for presenting a range of different perspectives on UBI as a policy, depicting it as something with potential to do genuine good while also avoiding the idea of it as a panacea. It’s a thoughtful, astute piece of science fiction.
I also liked Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin. A brutal riposte to the subgenre I like to call chromosomepunk (think The Power or Y: The Last Man), Felker-Martin presents a postapocalyptic world where trans survivors are caught between slavering hordes of male zombies and a rising army of fascist TERFs. Another politically pointed work, Manhunt also won me over with its well-realised characters and wicked sense of humour.
In the short fiction realm, I really enjoyed Ling Ma’s collection Bliss Montage. My favourite of the stories, “Peking Duck,” got a plum slot in The New Yorker, which was richly deserved. But I should also shout out “G,” which takes the classic science fiction trope of the invisibility drug to new and heartbreaking places.
Another justly acclaimed collection was Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu. Every story in here was good, but I especially loved “Twenty Hours” for its eloquent and literary execution of a schlocky horror premise, and “Time Cubes” for its central image of an entire society living in a giant shopping centre. Fu’s prose is consistently gorgeous, and many of these stories still haunt me months after reading.
I should also mention a couple of individual stories. Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The King of Bread” caught me completely offguard when I first heard it on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast. From the description I expected a solid coming-of-age tale, but what I got was a deep, nuanced, and confrontational story about growing up in an immigrant family. A tremendous piece.
Lastly, there’s “In Parallel” by Adrienne Maree Brown, from the anthology Don’t Touch That! A provocative subversion of SFF’s many “racism allegory in space” stories, Brown imagines a scenario in which aliens come to Earth and forcibly separate black from white until we all learn to get along. It’s a troubling premise, but Brown’s attentiveness to character and willingness to disturb the reader help make for one of the most powerful stories of 2022.
Ian J. Simpson
In times like these we need hope. Around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is still affecting millions. Global corporations are hoarding and using our data for who-knows-what while making billions in profits. War and fighting continue in Palestine, Ukraine, Iran, and elsewhere. Women are still, still, being oppressed globally. People are finding it hard to make ends meet. In times like these it is hopeful to reimagine the world as a better place. Which is why The Actual Star by Monica Byrne is my highlight of 2022.
The novel centres around Mayan culture and Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. It takes place over three time periods, one thousand years apart. In the year 1012, descendants of the founding Hero Twins are about to be crowned King and Queen. In 2012, a time when Western eyes believed Mayan predictions about the end of the world, Leah travels to Belize to visit a sacred cave, and meets twins who work for rival tourist companies. In 3012, humanity’s population is greatly reduced, and most people wander around the globe following a religion inspired by Leah and the events in both earlier stories. It is a world remade. Despite the collapse of our modern world, people are, for the most part, content. They don’t own land or property, only what they can carry. Family is everyone and everyone looks after each other depending on their needs. It is not a world based on current Westernised values. Byrne has created a new world, with reimagined priorities. It is, perhaps, a better world; one based on ancient and mystical philosophies, enhanced with AI and fugeetech (invented by refugees).
Worldbuilding alone isn’t enough to make a great novel, but Byrne’s characters are engaging, thoughtful, different. It is rare to read about a free-thinking character such as the modern-day Leah, or the devoted Mayan twins from 1012, in the same novel. In the future, everyone is born with both male and female reproductive organs, and everybody is referred to by the gender pronoun “she.” Niloux and Tanaaj are at odds: the former is a progressive and the latter a traditionalist, although I guess they are both looking for the same thing in Xibalba. It’s all a matter of interpretation; I was kinda rooting for both!
It is a book, from what I’ve read online, which seems to have upset a proportion of its readership with its gender politics and graphic focus on sex (mostly queer/nonmonogamous in 3012 and incestuous in 1012). This is another reason to stand with Byrne’s story—upsetting people. An immensely engaging and satisfying read, which is perfect for times like these.
Like most of us, my reading over the last few years has revolved around how we imagine our way out of the current situation, and that continued into 2022. Early in the year I reread Joan Aiken’s Is Underground and Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass (shoutout to Ali Baker’s excellent podcast for letting me put those two books together), two stories of stubborn girls fomenting literal underground revolutions that brought me much joy.
I’ve been a fan of the PM Press Outspoken Authors series, with their clubbing together of fiction, nonfiction and interviews, for a while now. This year they brought out a Vandana Singh volume, Utopias of the Third Kind, and the titular essay was easily one of the most important things I read this year. I was reading it in tandem with Gail Omvedt’s Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals (to which I’m several years late), and these accounts of utopias big and small, and the kinds of relations we might imagine between/among us, continue to feel central to SFF (and to existing in the world, in general).
I enjoyed Juni Ba’s graphic novel Djeliya, a beautiful and thoroughly satisfying fantasy epic, and Sharanya Manivannan’s hugely ambitious mermaid story-of-stories, Incantations Over Water. I’m still not sure what I think of George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, the other major stories-within-stories work of this year, but I do know that I’m still thinking about it, several months later.
One story stands out among those I read in 2022: “The Clockmaker and His Daughter” by Tobi Ogundiran, published in Lightspeed Magazine. The opening is phenomenal. With extreme economy, Ogundiran sweeps us up into an epic tale and register before bringing us back down to the intimate world of mortals again. It may be one device, but it immediately let me know that I was reading the work of a master. I look forward to watching the development of this talented writer.
A promising start alone, however, is not enough to cement a story’s place on any list of year’s best. Ogundiran doesn’t break the spell even for an instant. There is not a single false note or break in pace. It is a well-orchestrated piece that flows from beat to beat. The author immerses the reader in a colonial society that is textured and rich, a feat for a short story. The characters live in the world the author has made for them, a world of ordinary people struggling under the oppression of an imperial colonizer’s occupation. There are those who willingly collaborate with the occupier, and those who try to keep their head down and endure as best they can. For this Palestinian reader, the reality of these characters could not be clearer.
The clockmaker and his daughter practice a kind of resistance which is the persistence to exist, to hold on to what existed before the occupation, but not just to preserve it. The daughter transforms the resource at the heart of the occupation: the coveted and magical tree which can cure any disease and sickness. She dares to reframe their native understanding of the tree, and discovers, perhaps, that it is not what it seems. This healing tree might in fact be a wish-granting tree. And ultimately, we end with the hubris of the empire tripping over this small act of resistance, of audacious hope and the voice of the colonized telling its own story. The potential, the hope of the clockmaker, rests literally in his hands. What will this one man, who has lost everything, do? What does he wish for?
With the pandemic still very much with us but many of society’s functions whirring back into gear, one of the great, if sometimes hesitant, cultural pleasures of the year has been the return to regular cinema-going – beats streaming films on your laptop, for sure. On the SFF front, three titles stood out for me. The year’s great revelation was Keishi Kondo’s society-as-existential-horror debut feature New Religion—a film I went into with no expectations at all and came out a believer. With incredible visuals and soundscapes, it sketches a map of the difficult terrain of life after personal and societal trauma, truly a work of art speaking to the moment we live in. Of equally urgent topicality was Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s Neptune Frost, a US-Rwandan science fiction musical that reframes your computer as a postcolonial conflict zone, cyberspace as a utopian dreamscape, and the gender binary as an outdated superstition. It’s the kind of film whose imperfections—the budget constraints are evident and the arc of the plot feels less than complete—are made irrelevant by the strength of its vision, its fierce, uncompromising politics carried and accentuated by some of Williams’s best music to date.
Sound is similarly crucial in the Singaporean auteur Royston Tan’s latest—you might call it a comeback—feature, 24, a film that otherwise lies at the exact opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It’s a gently surreal fantasy of present-day Singapore as aural experience, presented through the enigmatic figure of a lonely sound recordist wandering through a selection of scenes that appear random at first but come together satisfyingly by the end. Tan has a (deserved) reputation as the enfant terrible of Singapore cinema but he’s a romantic, really, and the meditative, slow-paced beauty of 24 has a restorative, calming effect that lingers. And to round up the year with a step outside the bounds of cinema: can music be science fiction? Well, yes, certainly—there’s David Bowie of course, or indeed Saul Williams, or the Singaporean songwriter/producer yeule, whose latest Glitch Princess is easily one of the albums of the year. Lyrically, it’s a thematic continuation of their earlier work, an exploration of depression and troubled mind-body relations in the human-machine nexus; but the sounds feel more mature than before, from the post-pop of the album’s core to the nearly five-hour stretch of ethereal ambient that closes off the album (only in its immaterial digital version, obviously, which just feels like the true format of the work). A sonic representation of the future to take you into 2023 and beyond.
For me, 2022 was a year of reading and loving books that refused to fit neatly into any one genre.
I was spellbound by Stephen Graham Jones’ 2016 novel, Mongrels, which is a remarkable reimagining of the werewolf mythos, and also a moving and empathic coming of age narrative. The narrator, an adolescent boy descended from a line of werewolves, hasn’t transformed yet, but he desperately wants to. The novel is as much about family, poverty, life as an outsider, and mythmaking as it is about monsters and monstrosity.
I also really enjoyed the atmospheric and deftly plotted Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver. Equal parts gothic thriller and well-researched historical fiction, the novel is set in Edwardian England at a remote manor house in the wild and lush Fens of Suffolk. Maud, a lonely and imaginative child, is ruled by the tyrannical whims of her oppressive and devoutly religious father. Alternating between Maud’s retelling of her unsettling childhood and the obsessive and feverish journal entries of Maud’s father, the story is deeply absorbing and deliciously creepy.
For Strange Horizons, I reviewed Adam McOmber’s phenomenal story collection, Fantasy Kit, which defies easy classification. Speculative flash? Literary horror? Experimental fiction? The thirty-five very short stories in this collection are spooky, cerebral, sensual, fantastical, and strange.
I also firmly believe that every single 2022 year-end list—regardless of purpose or genre—should include Everything Everywhere All at Once. This movie is so good that the whole time I was watching it, I was thinking, “You will remember the first time you saw this film for the rest of your life.” If, by chance, you don’t already know much about it: it’s a sci-fi, martial arts, absurdist, blackly comedic family drama that is centered around the concepts of parallel universes, existentialism, and nihilism. And I wish people talked more about how funny it is! Yes, it is heartbreaking and beautiful and energetic and tender and narratively ambitious, but it’s also just so silly. I am genuinely jealous of anyone who hasn’t seen this movie yet, because you still get to watch it for the first time. May I always remember 2022 as the year that a scene with hot dog fingers moved me to tears.
The Chosen and the Beautiful, which I reviewed for SH, was one of my most anticipated reads of 2022. It didn’t disappoint. A magical retelling of The Great Gatsby, TCAB peels back the gilded layers of the Jazz Age to give voice to the historically marginalized—women, people of color, and queer people. That is, people like Vo’s reimagined Jordan Baker, who is queer, adopted, and Vietnamese. At 260 pages, TCAB is a short novel, but it invites the reader to meditate on the consequences of loneliness and the longing for an unattainable someone or something. Yet, it leaves us with hope as Vo’s Jordan reaches a different outcome than Fitzgerald’s Nick.
Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang has gotten a lot of hype for good reason. Kuang explores the impact of British imperial expansion in a world where silver and foreign languages power the magic that serves the machine. And she wrestles with the difficult question of what it takes to effect change (and, frustratingly but lovingly, leaves the reader to stew on it). As a BIPOC/WOC graduate student, I felt the characters’ love for their studies and their frustration at their sense of nonbelonging in white/male-dominated academia. Babel was cathartic because it gives voice to the anger and, more importantly, to those shouting for change.
2022 was also a year of oldies-but-goodies. I love fairy-tale retellings because of their power to subvert our expectations by challenging societal conventions, and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik does just that. When Miryem boasts that she can turn silver into gold, she draws the attention of the Staryk king (think terrifying ice fey), and her story becomes intertwined with a peasant girl and the unhappy daughter of a local lord. Spinning Silver is about ambitious young women seizing power in a patriarchal society that views them as brides, chattel, and pawns in their fathers’ bids for power. Their stories touch on societal injustice, particularly against women and Jews. There is also magic, romance, and girl-boss power.
With the Disney+ show in the works, I reread American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Jin Wang wants to fit in; the Monkey King wants to be a god; Danny wants his cousin Chin-kee to stop ruining his life. Three seemingly unrelated tales come together with an unexpected twist, true to Yang’s style. American Born Chinese is the first book I read in which I felt seen as an ABC. The graphic novel captures the ABC experience of never fully belonging to either American or Chinese culture. While Yang addresses the problems of racism and assimilation, he does so with grace and humor.
My most treasured read from 2022 was The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar. Though not technically speculative itself, this memoir resonates with Samatar’s speculative fiction, with a story composed of a palimpsest of journeys, primary sources, and small personal moments against a backdrop of apocalyptic prophecy and fervent belief. Is that not also a description of A Stranger in Olondria, Samatar’s first novel? The book lived up to, and went beyond, my hopes.
R. F. Kuang’s Babel, Or The Necessity of Violence was my most devastating read of the year. I am still processing the experience of this claustrophobic depiction of the traps set by capitalism and colonialism. Kuang writes with brutal precision about the manufacture of academic knowledge for power, and the people consumed by that manufacture as fuel. I was undone from the cholera deaths in the first pages through to an ending that I anticipated and wished desperately to be different.
In a different direction, I read more graphic novels this year and really enjoyed how surreal they can be. Tillie Walden’s Are You Listening? from 2019 was a standout. The story begins as an emotionally complicated but otherwise straightforward road trip story, which then spins off into magic cats, disappearing towns, and ominous men in suits. The solidity of a Texas highway dissolves into billowing clouds.
Tina S. Zhu
A highlight of 2022 was the anime adaptation of Stone Ocean, the sixth part of Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Stone Ocean takes the “weird Florida” stereotype and extends it to the speculative by including all sorts of strange powers (called Stand abilities in the JoJo universe), including one minor villain with perhaps the oddest superstrength-related power I’ve seen: the ability to conjure up a talking dragon that tells him what direction to face while attacking to maximize feng shui. Watching the adaptation together with my brother was a highlight of the year, despite Netflix’s questionable strategy to release episodes in three big chunks instead of spreading them out and releasing one episode a week.
As for books, my favorite short story collection of 2022 has to be Boys, Beasts, and Men by Sam J. Miller. The stories in Boys, Beasts, and Men show off Miller’s ability to harness the speculative to talk about the real world. K-Ming Chang’s short story collection Gods of Want was also a delight, centering on the myths and stories passed down between generations and how they intertwine with the present for the young Asian-American women her stories feature.
A novel I’ve been promoting to everyone who has asked me for recs is Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. Build Your House Around My Body is marketed as literary fiction but has its share of strange happenings and vengeful ghosts. We follow Winnie, a Vietnamese-American English teacher in Vietnam who unexpectedly disappears, a corrupt Saigon policeman from a small town in the countryside, and an old fortune-teller with ghosts of his own. The chapter titles are marked relative to the date Winnie disappears like a countdown, and Kupersmith weaves together multiple timelines masterfully. By the time I had pieced together what exactly was happening and why, I was transfixed. I’m currently in the middle of a reread, and I expect that I’ll come back to this novel in future years as well.