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Catherine Baker

The First Bright Thing cover

No Alecto the Ninth yet, but still much to decipher. J. R. Dawson’s The First Bright Thing topped the bill on the ever-more-crowded speculative carnival Americana circuit with its compassionate characterization and inventive illusions, standing up directly to the twentieth century’s horrors in ways that many magical alternate histories have swerved. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Silver Nitrate questioned the esoteric pull that film, horror, and fascism might each have had in 1990s Mexico. I caught up late with Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota—where the Olympics turn out just as influential as Voltaire—and even later with Charles de Lint’s Jack of Kinrowan. No setting was more immersive than M. A. Carrick’s city of Nadežra, open for one last visit as Labyrinth’s Heart wrapped up their Rook and Rose trilogy with expected anthropological depth: here, a fantasy Venice for once has its Pannonian hinterland, symbolic systems and class structures are as intricate as foodways, subjugated peoples keep their hidden cultural transcripts out of empire’s sight, and morally ambiguous women tug at the strings of existence with their research skills. Vesna Kurilic’s Ranger Paraversum series imagined a different alternate Adriatic, with sapphic doppelganger romance to boot: I’ve waited for this long before I knew about it.

E. C. Barrett

The Gospel of Orla cover

I read Northern Irish poet Eoghan Walls’s debut novel, The Gospel of Orla, when it was published in March 2023b and all these months later it still regularly strolls through my head. On one level, the novel is a voice-driven, imaginative, and surprisingly funny story about a fourteen-year-old girl’s misadventures in grief. On another, it is a thoughtful meditation on outsiderness, constrained autonomy, and compassion.

In the aftermath of her mother’s illness and death, Orla McDevitt’s home life in England is a mess, literally and figuratively. Her father, swamped in his own mourning, too often falls into a bottle to soothe his pain while Orla tends to her baby sister and neighbors chip in where they can. Orla’s track record with school—as an amateur thief and budding hooligan—was spotty before her mother died, and now the local authorities might remove her from home for truancy. To top it all off, her best friend has been barred from seeing her after he gets in trouble for one of their hijinks. Orla is lost and lonely and terribly angry at everyone and everything.

She runs away, headed for Northern Ireland to live with her aunt near her mother’s gravesite, but her plans are waylaid when she encounters a man claiming to be Jesus, homeless and squatting in a barn. Spying under the cover of night, Orla witnesses Jesus restore a pile of small dead animals to life. Unsure if he is the second coming, or something akin to a vampire (his extreme photosensitivity necessitates a nocturnal existence), Orla enlists Jesus to travel with her to Northern Ireland to raise her mother from the dead. While this is not the kind of book in which dead mothers sit up in their graves, Orla’s journey is at turns scary, numinous, and weird enough to appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction unbounded by the demands of strict realism.

If this novel is any indication, Walls is a sensitive observer and the kind of writer who can grapple with the messiness and meanness of humanity without falling into cynicism. His impressive gift with language and imagery gives texture and depth to Orla’s narration of the novel’s events, and her voice remains as vivid in my mind as when I first read it nine months ago.

Orla is an original, as they say, and spending time in her angry, observant, and impulsive head was a real pleasure. As her misadventures ensue, there are deeply affecting scenes, themes and meditations on English racism and xenophobia, the necessity of pain and change in life, and the ease with which some adults and institutions write off troubled kids. The Gospel of Orla is a beautiful and accomplished debut novel that belongs alongside Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and deserves more attention than it got.

Tristan Beiter

Sacraments For The Unfit cover

This year I started a PhD in English, so while I’ve been doing lots of reading, I’ve been quite behind on reading for fun. All my favorite books this past year ended up being titles I was assigned for review, so I was even more glad than usual to have the opportunity to do so and keep reading exciting new books. My favorite book this year was Sarah Tolmie’s Sacraments for the Unfit, which I read this spring—my full review can be found in the 3 July 2023 issue. It was an incredible read and has me seeking out Tolmie’s other work, both fiction and poetry, so reading more of her will be the mission for next year. I’ve also been enjoying short work and poetry which explore domesticity, tenderness, and relationships of care and interdependence in all their many varied guises, such as Avra Margariti’s “Death Comes for the Sworn Virgins” (published here in Strange Horizons) and “Your Good Neighbor” by Taylor Curry (published in Small Wonders), and the “Fungi” and “Food and Feasting” issues of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s Eye to the Telescope. I’m looking forward to reading more long and short speculative fiction in the new year!

Rachel Cordasco

Assassin of Reality cover

2023 felt very, very long, for lots of reasons, but it was filled with some wonderful speculative fiction (books and shows). I thoroughly enjoyed the haunting dark fantasy Assassin of Reality by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey), in which grammar is magical and can transform reality; the surreal Everything is Ori by Paul Serge Forest (translated from the French by David Warriner), about a new color that can alter human consciousness; and The Kindness by John Ajvide Lindqvist (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy), which imagines a sludge that induces horror and dread in a small Swedish town. And while it was published over a decade ago, I’m in the middle of Sky City: New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, which is just as intriguing and wonderfully varied as any anthology I’ve read in a long time.

In terms of television shows, my husband and I watched a lot of different science fiction series in close succession: Silo, Foundation, For All Mankind, and Invasion. I have to say that, out of these four, Silo was my favorite because it has that mix of mystery and steampunk that really grabs my attention. Each of the main characters brings an interesting backstory and a desire to find out exactly what lies at the heart of the Silo in which they live. Their longing for a verdant Earth that they’ve only seen in a tattered old book is endearing and understandable.

Here’s to an even more exciting 2024!

Shinjini Dey

The Iron Cage coverI stayed with the backlists this year—and so there’s little I can say about what 2023 has wrought. When I’ve not been reading from the backlists, I’ve been reading news coverage from Manipur in summer, then news coverage from Gaza since October. I’d recommend following Makepeace Sitlhou’s journalism and her social media feed (especially considering she has been booked under the Indian Penal Code for her tweets). I would also recommend reading Jewish Currents (certainly this graphic coverage from Solomon Brager), Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage, and this piece in The Nation.

I did read some SFF amidst the backlists. I read Eugene Lim’s zany hypertexts (Fog and Car, The Strangers, Search History, and Dear Cyborgs) and Yuri Herrera’s fiction, translated by Lisa Dillman, as well as the other work Dillman has translated. I would be remiss if I didn’t hype Nona Fernandez’s Space Invaders for SH—it’s the sort of work that re-examines the “innocence” of genre lore and fandom. And of course, The Doloriad by Missouri Williams. If anyone’s going to read a single dystopian narrative this year, let it be this one.

Among the year’s books that wound up in my inbox, the anthology Adventures in Bodily Autonomy edited by Raven Belasco was a timely sledgehammer; The Box, the disorienting and interconnected novel by Mandy Suzanne-Wong, used run-on sentences beautifully and rewarded the attention it demanded; like everyone else in the SFF community, I, too, will sing praises of Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors and also recommend his delightful blog. I thought Sarah Rose Etter’s Ripe was impeccably paced (especially in representing the mundane world of the workplace as noir!). I’ll stop here with a final recommendation: The Spectres of Algeria by Hwang Yeo Jung (translated by Yewon Jung). Karl Marx wrote a play called The Spectres of Algeria, but it is lost—and so are the actors. If the premise doesn’t compel, let the lingering prose speak about art, censorship, and loss. Here’s to a better year for all of us, everywhere.

Shannon Fay

Things We Lost In The Fire cover

Two of my favourite things of 2023 were both pretty spooky. One of them was the short stories of Mariana Enriquez. Earlier in the year I read her collection Things We Lost in the Fire and fell in love. I simultaneously understood why the collection had gotten such widespread praise while also feeling like I’d discovered something secret and made just for me. That feeling continued when I read her other collection out in English, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. Her work takes place in South America (with the occasional foray to Spain) and features characters dealing both with real-life horrors like life under dictatorships and also supernatural terrors. One of my big regrets of the past year is that I haven’t had time to read her giant brick of a novel, Our Share of Night, but it’s on my list for 2024.

The other thing I really enjoyed in 2023 was a YouTube series from Japan called Fake Documentary Q. Each video from Fake Documentary Q is a stand-alone found footage horror story. They can be anywhere from six to thirty-seven minutes long and be anything from a news station segment to a series of enigmatic emails to dashcam footage. The creators behind the series are able to put fresh spins on even the oldest found footage trope. They even manage to do their own take on the idea of a cursed video tape, paying homage to The Ring while creating their own mythos. The shorts have a tense, slow-burn atmosphere and mange to be horrifying without ever being graphic (one of the most disturbing shorts, Plan C, is solely audio paired with benign stock images). All of the videos have English subtitles, making the series accessible to English as well as Japanese speakers (this is one YouTube series where reading the comments is actually a pleasant experience, as people from all over the world trade opinions and theorize and point out nuances others might have missed).

There is one other thing that really defined 2023 for me: pro wrestling. I’ve never been a sports person, let alone a sports entertainment person. But then I watched YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf’s video about a WWE storyline that has been going on for over a decade (let this be a warning to all of you who consume longform YouTube videos about topics that you don’t care about: one day one of those videos will grab hold of your brain you will become obsessed with the thing). When the video ended, I was on the edge of my seat asking, “But what happens next?” This video came out five months ago, and since then I have watched hours of wrestling, been to both indie shows and a televised wrestling show, and made friends with other fans all over the world. Pro wrestling is silly and exciting and one of the best forms of serialized storytelling in the modern age. As far as wrestling companies go I’m a big fan of All Elite Wrestling, and if you are intrigued, AEW has several videos on their YouTube channel that recap current storylines. (You like enemies to lovers? Check out Better Than You Bay Bay. Want to see a plucky young student turn on her mentor? Check out Athena and Billie Starks. Join us.)

Debbie Gascoyne

Fragile Threads of Power coverMuch of 2023 found me once again re-reading old favourites: Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, Barbara Hambly (why isn’t she better known?), and the Tiger and Del series by Jennifer Roberson, which stood up quite well. Of recent fiction, I confess I found several strongly hyped novels rather disappointing (I won’t name names). On the other hand, I have not yet had a chance to read Martha Wells’s latest Murderbot and am greatly looking forward to it. As I write this, I’m in the middle of V. E. Schwab’s latest—The Fragile Threads of Power—and am really enjoying it. I love me some character-driven fantasy, and I’ve found Schwab to be one of the most reliable writers in recent years.

The biggest highlight of my reading year was my discovery of the works of Victoria Goddard. I spent a good part of two months reading my way through three interconnected series, or at least as much of some of them as have so far been published. Several people whose opinions I trust recommended The Hands of the Emperor, a long, very much character-driven novel about friendship and identity. If you liked The Goblin Emperor, this has something of the same quality: likeable characters working hard to be their best selves and to do good for their people. Its sequel, At the Feet of the Sun, is even longer and not quite as good, but I still kept reading because I loved the characters so much. My personal favourite was another series: the exploits of Greenwing and Dart, starting with Stargazy Pie. Where the Lays of the Hearth-Fire duology focusses on a vaguely Polynesian culture and setting, the latter series has more conventional European analogues, but Goddard knows her tropes and isn’t afraid to upset them. These two series interconnect (along with at least one other evolving series and a collection of novellas); many of the characters are revealed to have alternate, secret identities, and part of the pleasure is uncovering them. Each of the novels in the Greenwing and Dart series is light and fun, but the characters are terrific and the world is a well-drawn, cozy(ish) place you feel you’d like to visit. Stargazy Pie gave me serious Diana Wynne Jones vibes (which is a Good Thing); the last (so far) of the series, Plum Duff, which takes place during a winter solstice festival, reminded me strongly of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Not to say in either case that they are derivative, only that Goddard has absorbed the classics and created something distinctly new and fun. Highly recommended.

Jenny Hamilton

The Bruising of Qilwa cover

LaToya Jordan’s To the Woman in the Pink Hat is a horrifying, and horrifyingly plausible, story in which structural reforms are an inadequate patch for white liberals’ enduring, all-consuming sense of entitlement over Black people’s minds and bodies. Another novella, Naseem Jamnia’s The Bruising of Qilwaconsiders a similar problem the other way around: its characters are good and well-intentioned, but the dehumanization that inevitably accompanies the work of empire cannot so easily be set aside.

In the always-thriving subgenre “two weird little guys do an activity,” I finally read the Tumblr-facing The Hands of the Emperor, by Victoria Goddard. It promised—and delivered—seven hundred small-print pages of two dudes slooooooooooooowly becoming friends over the shared work of making the world a better place. Shorter and sweeter was Sacha Lamb’s Good Omens–esque When the Angels Left the Old Countrya wonderfully gentle Jewish fantasy in which an angel and a demon come to New York, solve some human problems, and get involved in labor organizing.

I was also fortunate to stumble across some genuinely good yarns this year. Set in a fairy tale–inspired world, T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone follows the characters who never get their own story in a real fairy tale, and the resulting novel is (typically for Kingfisher) heartfelt, funny, and insightful. People who know me are probably tired of hearing me shriek about Paz Pardo’s wickedly fun The Shamshine Blinda noirish murder mystery set in an alternate America where colors can induce emotion. And Victor Manibo’s debut novel, The Sleepless, dodges the trap of the high-concept story and delivers a satisfying story that travels far beyond its (admittedly wonderful) starting premise.

All that said, and despite my enduring love for SFF, the book that has stayed with me the most in 2023 was literary fiction debut. Set during the Sri Lankan civil war, V. V. Ganeshananthan’s Brotherless Night follows a young Tamil woman, Sashi Kulenthiren, as she strives to hold her life together in a world where, suddenly, there are no good choices. Ganeshananthan walks a tightrope between honesty and mercy, neither letting her characters off the hook nor demonizing them for the decisions they make. It’s such a good book that I struggle to find words that feel adequate to describe it; suffice to say that I will be thinking about Brotherless Night for a long, long time.

Dan Hartland

The Saint of Bright Doors cover

2023 might well have been the year in which readers of SFF reached the point at which mere “genre” was self-evidently—not as a point of argument, not by way of provocation, not from one angle but not the other, but on the very face of it—no longer the most useful lens through which to read their texts. Genre has not ceased to have value as a signifier, a signpost, a gatherer-togetherer of like texts or shared effects; but SFF has been—is being—so thoroughly retooled of late that it is hard to see, Ship of Theseus-like, that much of the most interesting work taking place within it is at all the same thing as that which would once have been (and might still be) considered canonical.

I glanced at this argument in an essay I wrote for Ancillary Review of Books that was in part about what was for me the year’s most exciting SFFnal text, Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors: “In Chandrasekera’s novel,” I wrote (and heaven forfend I should have to find different words to express a like thought), “genre is entirely exploded. The Saint of Bright Doors comes to bury SFF, not to praise it.” What’s so brilliant about this book is the boldness with which it circumvents, undermines, athletically back-flips on almost all of the expectations it cues the reader initially to have. Genre is often spoken of as a reading protocol, but it can sometimes be difficult to see the difference between the assumptions—prejudices, almost—we should bring to bear when reading SFF and its stalest clichés (or its most abiding harms). The Saint of Bright Doors rejects them all, and points to all the ways in which SFF has been, is being, will be deconstructed in the course of the 2020s.

The roots of this process are in part traced by Niall Harrison’s reviews retrospective, All These Worlds, another of this year’s most notable books (and which I also consider in that ARB essay). Other volumes, too, have not just suggested but demonstrated that SFF has slipped loose of its moorings: Nina Allan’s Conquest is perhaps her best novel to date, in part because it is her most unbound. I’m of the view that even her most genre-based books have been transformational—but the creative journey she is on really has taken her writing, and the SFFnal, to startling places. Perhaps not coincidentally, Allan is quoted on the cover of another of this year’s genre-busters, Martin MacInnes’s remarkable In Ascension. This is undoubtedly a story of science fiction—astronauts, alien life, spaceships, the works—but it is written with the codes of “literary” fiction, with a psychological depth—and yet also an almost sacral cosmic profundity—that I’m not sure we have previously seen, and which may well only be possible in a mode untethered.

Books like these have shown us in 2023 that it isn’t merely that “the genre” is wider and more capacious than it once was; it’s that it has been thoroughly transformed, its oars and beams and planks replaced so many times that it is no longer the same vessel—indeed, is now many ships asail on several seas. We will need new critical vocabulary, and this is a good sign indeed for the books we’ll be reading in future.

Aaron Heil

The Quiet Room cover

The speculative book of my year had to be The Quiet Room by Terry Miles. I’m shocked by how much mileage one premise can have. The Quiet Room is a sequel (but we don’t say that out loud) to Rabbits, which is a spinoff of the Rabbits podcast. Emily, a supporting character in Rabbits-the-novel, finds herself the protagonist battling a mysterious Engineer who wants to silence our favorite game forever. Of course, whenever there’s a new Rabbits book, I re-listen to both podcast seasons, as well as both seasons of The Last Movie, and all five Tanis seasons for the fourth time. The plot involves a scavenger hunt across a multiverse, but the essence of the story reveals the surreal truth that consuming pop culture helps one better consume pop culture.

Speaking of surrealism, I watched Severance from Apple TV+ this year and couldn’t stop thinking about what I couldn’t stop laughing about. The tone is absolutely perfect for its deadpan delivery. Apple TV+ has had a great year. Silo is a fascinating new series and the novels it’s adapted from top my to-read list. Slow Horses surprisingly gets better with age—season three gets both funnier and more thrilling than the last two. Best of all, the improbably awesome Tetris, starring Taron Egerton as video game salesman Henk Rogers, vacillates between sunny optimism and the grim reality of a corrupt Soviet state, while somehow remaining family friendly. Oh sure, there’s a whole wave of movies about products, but to my palate, this one’s a classic.

SF classics have taken up the rest of my reading year, thanks to the continuously growing popularity of audiobooks. The Hunter by Donald Westlake in all its sleazy glory is on Audible. So is Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star, weirdly prescient in that classic Heinlein way, and relevant in the age of movie star activism. Also, the Strugatsky Brothers’s Monday Starts on Saturday brings me full circle to both surrealism and the speculative fiction workplace. However, the best audiobook I listened to goes to Tom Hollander reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Why, why, why did I wait so long to read A Clockwork Orange? This book lives right up to the hype, never mind what Burgess thought about it.

But, to finish, and speaking of Slavic languages, my most obscure read was my introduction to the Bulgarian SF maestro, Lyuben Dilov. I read this one as an ebook. Andy Erbschloe put up a “pay what you want” translation of Unfinished Novel of a Student early this year. I can’t speak Bulgarian, but I’m thankful that I’m aware of this writer. Dilov has fun with time travel and humor in a style that places nova and fantasy in the midst of mundane concerns. I loved reading about a more down to earth and pragmatic application than the cosmic drama usually associated with SF. Next year, I’ll be looking for further Dilov translations.



Strange Horizons has a rotating roster of more than a hundred reviewers, who live in many different countries and on several continents.
Current Issue
22 Jul 2024

By: Mónika Rusvai
Translated by: Vivien Urban
Jadwiga is the city. Her body dissolves in the walls, her consciousness seeps into the cracks, her memory merges with the memories of buildings.
Jadwiga a város. Teste felszívódik a falakban, tudata behálózza a repedéseket, emlékezete összekeveredik az épületek emlékezetével.
By: H. Pueyo
Translated by: H. Pueyo
Here lies the queen, giant and still, each of her six arms sprawled, open, curved, twitching like she forgot she no longer breathed.
Aqui jaz a rainha, gigante e imóvel, cada um de seus seis braços caídos e abertos, curvados, tomados de leves espasmos, como se esquecesse de que não estava mais viva.
By: Sourav Roy
Translated by: Carol D'Souza
I said sky/ and with a stainless-steel plate covered/ the rotis going stale 
मैंने कहा आकाश/ और स्टेनलेस स्टील की थाली से ढक दिया/ बासी पड़ रही रोटियों को
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