We were blessed to get not one but two new Kate Elliott books: her contemporary fantasy novella The Keeper’s Six and Furious Heaven, the second of her “female Alexander the Great in space” space opera trilogy, which is the best series you’re not reading. I’m shocked more people aren’t talking about Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, a fantasy romp about a female pirate in the medieval Indian Ocean, which is a thrilling read and a lot of fun. I devoured the first two books of Margaret Owen’s early modern YA con artist fantasy, Little Thieves and Painted Devils, and M. A. Carrick finished their Rook and Rose trilogy in high swashbuckling fashion with Labyrinth’s Heart. I also greatly enjoyed Helen MacDonald and Sin Blaché’s Prophet, a gay romance sci-fi thriller that’s a hair’s breadth from fanfic in an excellent way. Terry Bisson’s slim Fire on the Mountain rose from the TBR depths to be one of the most affecting novels I read this year, an alternate history Civil War novel that turns the genre on its head and punches you in the heart with a vision of a better world.
I also went through a bumper crop of excellent novellas: Rebecca Fraimow’s “robot nuns and cyborg soldiers” story The Iron Children, Sarah Monette’s new (and my favorite yet) Kyle Murchison Booth tale, A Theory of Haunting, Nghi Vo’s Mammoths at the Gates. Garth Nix’s Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz finally collected all his stories of the witch-knight and puppet sorcerer, and they were all excellent; his sequel novel The Sinister Booksellers of Bath also continued to hit the Susan Cooper/alternate ‘80s fantasy spot. Ann Leckie’s Translation State and Martha Wells’s System Collapse returned us to beloved sci-fi universes, and Leigh Bardugo’s Hell Bent built excellently and creepily on Ninth House. I finished the excellent horror podcast The Magnus Archives and eagerly await The Magnus Protocol (soon!).
My reading fell off a cliff at the end of the year, but we got some great films and TV. Ahsoka and the second season of Loki held things down for their respective franchises in compelling fashion, and Our Flag Means Death and Good Omens turned in great, queer second seasons. Babylon 5: The Road Home was a fun, universe-crossing surprise. Though criminally underappreciated, The Marvels was great fun, and Across the Spider-Verse is a worthy sequel. Suzume is another moving, beautiful film from Shinkai Makoto, and while I don’t actually believe that The Boy and the Heron is Miyazaki’s final movie, it’s a good note to end on. Star Trek: Lower Decks continues to be the best current show in the franchise, and Star Trek: Prodigy has been saved by Netflix, so you can catch up on Season One—and then join the rest of us who know it’s the other best current show in the franchise and are eagerly awaiting Season Two in 2024. LLAP.
One older novel stood out for me personally in 2023. I fell headlong into Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, a book that begins with terrible endings. In its first pages, the teenage protagonist Janet is discovered murdered in the stairwell of her Scottish family’s underfunded castle-turned-“progressive”-school. She is mourned by her pet jackdaw, Claws, and few living creatures else.
Foreknowledge of the murder stopped me from cracking the book for a while. But having read it now, I’m convinced O Caledonia is an assertion of life. Barker’s Janet blazes across the changeable northern sky of the novel so intelligently, so strangely, that by the time the joyless war waged by family and (imperial) locality against nonconforming adolescents claims her, you feel she’s lived perhaps for centuries. And never gave up, not once: always beginning in her own way again from desolation, or even because of it.
Fetter, the unpredictably terrifying and vulnerable protagonist of Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors, is also immersed in the rise and fall of empires along with different ages and layers of his own complex identity. This book, too, begins with an ending: in this case, a declaration of self-sufficient adulthood that O Caledonia’s Janet didn’t survive long enough to issue, or to revisit and question. “He has put away childish things. His mad, violent childhood; the indoctrination … He has grown up. He is making a new life for himself, all his own” (p. 13). I loved the way this novel patiently fractures away from its starting premise. Chandrasekera risks conjuring Fetter’s experience as a blend of experiential confusion and sharp observation that the reader rarely feels fully “inside” of, and I thought this technique paid off tremendously. I also loved the way The Saint of Bright Doors seems to be structured around a deliberately observed, evolving traumatic return, as Fetter revisits and studies sites of past harm both personal and political. At cost, and together with his colleagues in power and damage, he pursues a strange, still shapeable future.
In TV terms, having pitched my flag by the hull of Our Flag Means Death season one last year, I retreated in disarray and incomprehension from Our Flag Means Death Season Two. Maybe I wanted it to be something it wasn’t: or something it couldn’t become due to industry conditions. The two-season Marvel Loki miniseries, however, provided a lot of productive discomfort (I hated the dim Bauhaus/early-‘90s-gilt visual environment of the Time Variance Authority, but came to admit that was probably what the designers were trying to get me to feel) and some useful meditations on what’s current in apocalyptic thinking. Some seeds live because of fire. Sometimes you must end, to begin again.
Last year, I remarked that, unusually, my response to being asked what was memorable about the year was to turn to TV rather than books. This year seems much the same, minus the TV. Although I have read by no means all the nominations, there was little in either the Clarke or Hugo shortlists for 2023 that have so far stayed in the memory, and most of my reading for pleasure has been at that interesting interface between Archaeology and the Weird Tale, including more Handheld Press anthologies on the theme—and beginning to explore those produced by the British Library. These expertly curated collections focus upon early work but have a very encouraging balance between the “big names” and less well-known individuals. Henry Bartholomew’s The Living Stone: Stories of Uncanny Sculpture, 1858-1943, for instance, focuses upon the uncanny relationship between sculptor and sculpted, and does interesting things with the metaphor of dedicated artists “putting themselves into their work.” Even the clumsiest stories—one example might be Hazel Heald’s “The Man of Stone” (one of a number of her stories famously “heavily revised” by H. P. Lovecraft)—have unsettling implications. Living beings are transformed into statues when a potion produces a kind of “petrification infinitely speeded up.” The way the villain gets his come-uppance is horrifically effective and may, the author suggests, be Heald’s voice rather than Lovecraft’s coming through.
2023 was the year of exhibitions. At the beginning of the year, it was the Science Museum’s Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of the Imagination and toward the end there was the British Library’s Fantasy: Realms of the Imagination. The subtitles offer a teasing way to explore the differences and resonances between SF and fantasy—but I shall resist the temptation, save to say that in very different ways the exhibitions embraced and challenged our understanding of these fields. Both came accompanied with useful exploratory books rather than “catalogues,” and had me taking down notes of things to investigate, such as the Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s carefully realised, almost dream-like short film, Pumzi, and Bernard Sleigh’s 1918 “Map of Fairyland,” a geography of the fantastic whose detail and wit pulls sharply away from whimsy. A definite high point of the year must be the conversation between Roz Kaveney and Neil Gaiman, which was part of the BL’s associated programme of talks and events. A model for such “in conversation” pieces, it was less an “interview with a star” and more a relaxed conversation between two people who had known each other for years and had a deep and loving appreciation of the literary field they were talking about. It can (at time of writing) be seen here.
But yes, some books from this year will stick in the memory. Coming to mind are Christopher Priest’s Airside for its haunting picture of airports as ambiguous liminal spaces, Richard Gadz’s The Burn Street Haunting for its shifting patterns of genre and its sidelong glances at the semi-Bohemian London I knew in 1973, Rob Wilkins’s biography of Terry Pratchett, which gave a much more detailed picture of Pratchett than I thought it might. But possibly the most welcome read of the year arose from research into Dorothy Scarborough, author of 1917’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, whose final chapter, “Supernatural Science,” is one of the earliest examinations of something that was eventually to be called “science fiction.” Scarborough’s interest in ghost stories and supernatural fiction, and the folklorish approach which was perhaps her main academic focus, led to a novel, 1925’s The Wind. In it, Letty, an orphaned, inexperienced young woman travels out to the Texas plains to start a new life with her cousin and his wife. Haunted by the harsh winds of the plains howling around the fragile settlements like “seven devils sometimes,” she comes to personify the wind as a supernatural entity, “a will, a force, a pitiless intelligence,” determined to break her spirit. While its “supernatural” status is deliberately ambiguous—it reminds me very forcibly as something akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this—that ambiguity adds to its power. The 1928 film adapted from the novel, starring Lillian Gish as Letty, shows a terrified Letty at a pivotal part of the story (clips are available on YouTube), and the eerie final scene (or rather the penultimate—the film changes the ending of the novel) is said by Rotten Tomatoes to be “one of Lillian Gish’s greatest achievements in a powerfully dramatic silent film.”
How one welcomes the unexpected discovery! It’s pleasing that unexpected discoveries can still be made.
Safia H. Senhaji
Writing my piece for the 2023 Year in Review was a bit different than last year’s, since I wasn’t immediately certain what to focus on specifically—despite having read many amazing SFF books. Upon reflection, this speaks to the eclectic nature of what I’ve read and watched, and to the fact that many of the books I read this year were stretched out; starting a book, coming back to it a few months later, and trusting my mood in deciding which books I was or wasn’t ready to start or finish. 2023 was also my year of audiobooks, in which I fully immersed myself in this new-to-me medium.
I continued reading The Rivers of London series; I’ve enjoyed seeing Peter grow and evolve, and I’ve continued to appreciate the worldbuilding as well as the distinct but interconnected themes of each book. The only one I found weird and unpleasant was Tales from the Folly, where the writing was awkward and strangely worded. Other series I continued reading were the Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Temeraire series, by Marie Brennan and Naomi Novik respectively. I loved The Tropic of Serpents even more, where Isabella gets to be more in charge of her own life, forge lasting friendships, and is able to properly pursue her goals. I also thoroughly enjoyed Throne of Jade; seeing both Temeraire and Captain Laurence strengthen their bond, grow in their perspectives and abilities, and explore this alternate version of China was very rewarding and fulfilling.
At long last I read the brilliant and compelling Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. I continued my foray into the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, and found my enjoyment and appreciation of the books increase with each one I read; I absolutely loved the plot’s resolution in An Artificial Night. I also finished Magic’s Pawn—emotional and rewarding—and continued the Collegium Chronicles series, both by Mercedes Lackey.
Victoria Goddard continued to release amazing books in her Nine Worlds universe, with Derring-Do for Beginners, Clary Sage, and A Game of Courts all standing out through the relatable yet distinct characters, the themes of hope and friendship and change, and the beautifully lyrical sentences and turns of phrase. I was also able to convince one of my friends to read The Hands of the Emperor, which he absolutely loved. I was also lucky to start some amazing new series, reading the first books of the Red Rising saga, which was unexpectedly hopeful and emotional, though brutal at parts, the compelling Mercy Thompson series, and the Tiffany Aching series.
Other highlights include my first Becky Chambers book, To Be Taught, if Fortunate, which rekindled my love of space and space exploration and touched my heart in so many ways, and starting the Wayfarers series (which I’m enjoying very much). In the spirit of Halloween, I vastly enjoyed A House with Good Bones by T. Kingfisher and tore through most of Mike Flanagan’s oeuvre on Netflix—The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass. Through many amazing sci-fi novellas, such as Sisters of the Vast Black and The Mimicking of Known Successes, I realized how much I’d been craving that type of character-driven story with inspiring and very clever worldbuilding.
Finally, standouts that I adored and fundamentally changed me in the best way possible include: The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj, Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh, The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi; the Tea Princess Chronicles by Casey Blair, Gallant by V. E. Schwab, Outlaw Mage by K. S. Villoso, Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, and Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey.
I spent a lot of 2023 feeling scared. For several days this past year, in the part of the US where I live, the air was too full of smoke for me to go outside. I spent a not insignificant part of the year dealing with COVID infections, which continued to affect me and my family even as precautionary measures and work adjustments increasingly disappeared. There are active campaigns in my town to get books dealing with LGBT themes removed from school libraries, and I’m worried that they’ll come for the public library next. So yeah, it was a difficult time, but one which only deepened my commitment to the strange, the confrontational, the “improper” in literature. If it didn’t matter, why would they be so desperate to take it away from us?
2023 saw Alison Rumfitt make her debut in the US, with the republication of her 2021 novel Tell Me I’m Worthless by Tor Nightfire and the equally brilliant Brainwyrms appearing later in the year. Both books deserve all the acclaim they’ve received. Funny, incisive, despairing, and invigorating, they both walk a deliberate tightrope between the harrowing and the ridiculous (as all the best horror does). They also contain some of the most memorable sequences I’ve ever read; the climactic scene of Brainwyrms, with its perfectly pitched celebrity cameo, and the reveal of Hannah’s fate in Tell Me I’m Worthless are both burned into my brain, and if you read them they’ll be burned into yours too. I’m currently working on a longer piece about Rumfitt’s work, and it feels like a sensible investment. Here is a writer whose stock will rise and rise.
I was also impressed by OKPsyche by Anya Johanna DeNiro. A rich, densely packed, and delightfully weird modernist novel about trans parenthood, Romanticism, and living through the apocalypse, this book struck me with its compassion and its wonderful, oddball humour. Plus it has the most moving use of Minecraft I have yet come across in literature.
This year also saw plenty of great short fiction. I especially liked Lost Places by Sarah Pinsker, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons. To cut a long review short, Pinsker continues to provide weird, slippery, and compulsively readable stories about the struggle to persevere through the ephemerality of art and the transience of memory. Similarly touching was White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link, which ably demonstrated that even after all these years, Link can still surprise and delight. I can’t wait to read her new novel this year.
So yes, 2023 was a scary year. And 2024 will probably be scarier. But while literature certainly won’t save us from pollution or disease or censorship, it can provide the joy, catharsis, and inspiration needed to help us keep pushing along. Here’s to the future.
Anyone looking to this three-part list for reading recommendations is already very aware of Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors. I don’t really have anything to add to what other readers have said above. It’s great; it’s ambitious, it’s smart, it made me want to take copious notes and go for very energetic walks at the same time.
The 2023 release I was most excited about was Yuri Herrera’s collection of short science fictional stories, Ten Planets, translated by Lisa Dillman. I’ve loved Herrera’s work for a few years now, and this did not disappoint. Like Shinjini Dey in her review, I read it partly in conjunction with his (nonfictional) A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire; reading his most explicitly "genre" work (at least, of what’s available so far in English translation) alongside his least speculative I felt enhanced both—the depth and richness and horror of each grounded in the other. There’s a new Herrera book out later this year, and I’m excited all over again.
And yet probably the most memorable piece of speculative fiction I read this year was Unknown Language, a 2020 hybrid text written by Huw Lemmey around the work of Hildegard von Bingen (credited as co-author), which also contains a purely science-fictional section by Bhanu Kapil and an academic lecture by Alice Sprawls. It’s gloriously written, made the world stranger as I read it, and is the sort of weird, interstitial experiment that I’d love to see more of.
The year in SFF, for me, comes down to three cinematic pleasures, and full recognition is due here to the Fantasy Filmfest (in multiple cities in Germany) where I got to see the first two. Firstly, Jérémie Périn’s animated feature Mars Express: what a ride! A tale of space detectives and colonies on Mars and robots maybe gaining sentience, it’s fair to say the film doesn’t exactly break new ground in SFF. But it’s so well made! The animation is smooth and well-directed, the characters bounce delightfully off each other, and the worldbuilding is just fantastic. What this really felt like was one of those turn-of-the-millennium anime that a much younger me would binge late at night, totally engrossed, both exciting and comforting at once.
More unexpected in its pleasures was Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes, a Malaysian girlhood-horror-spectacular that again takes a relatively generic premise—puberty as body horror as social critique—but twists it into a peculiar and unique shape. There are teenage were-tigers, yes, with some deliciously gnarly prosthetic effects, and that alone is worth the price of admission; but also deadpan satire of school routines, infectious TikTok dances and an outrageously dodgy modern-day exorcist-as-social-media-influencer. Eu has made her name with feminist reimaginings of Malay myths and this, her feature-length debut—and a prize-winner at Cannes, too!—should establish her as a filmmaker to watch out for.
Finally, there was Giacomo Abbruzzese’s Disco Boy, for me without doubt the standout film of the year. It’s not self-consciously genre like the other two, its fantastic elements—a kind of ghost story, an intimation of blood magic or a curse—working as allegories in its ambitious and tragic treatment of the themes of migration and neo-imperialism. It is the story of Aleksei, a Belarussian looking for a new life in the French Foreign Legion, and Jomo, a guerilla leader in the Niger Delta, and of the unexpected consequences of their fateful meeting. The sheer quality of the filmmaking is incredible, as Abbruzzese makes lavish use of all the tools in a director’s postmodern toolbox—and then some—without ever stepping over into the realm of gimmick, somehow always maintaining a sense of restrained minimalism. Much of that is thanks to the spell-binding presence of actors Franz Rogowski and Morr Ndiaye, which grounds the film’s many flights of fancy. And it’s such an important work, too, with much to say about Europe and its internal and external relationships, and about people. And the final scene is just beautiful.
An unexpected side effect of launching my debut story collection, Here in the Night, into the world is that I scoured a ton of this year’s most-anticipated book lists. As a result, a huge portion of my reading was 2023 releases, and I’m happy to report that it was a fantastic year for literary SFF and horror!
My favorite read was Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel Chain Gang All Stars, which absolutely gutted me. I’m always floored when novels that offer astute cultural criticism are also filled with heart and narrative drive. This book had a gripping storyline, characters I won’t soon forget, a surprising and creative manner of telling, and an incisive critique of the American carceral system.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Megan Kamalei Kakimoto’s rollicking, immersive, feminist story collection Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare. Kakimoto’s lush prose pulled me in immediately, and I loved every one of her complicated, brash, fierce, and often misguided heroines. You can read my favorite story, “Madwomen,” in Electric Literature.
I’m an avid fan of Victor LaValle’s writing, but Lone Women, his newest novel, eclipsed even my highest hopes for it. I fell completely into the world of this historical horror story about a woman trying to make a life as a homesteader in Montana’s windswept and unforgiving terrain in the early twentieth century.
Some other 2023 standouts were The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins (a hopeful climate disaster novel), Linghun by Ai Jiang (a fabulous ghost story in which it’s the living that haunt the dead), Jackal, Jackal by Tobi Ogundiran (a delightfully dark collection of short horror stories), and She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran (an atmospheric YA haunted house novel). The one 2022 book I’ll spotlight here is H. Pueyo’s alluring, original, and disorienting speculative fiction collection, A Study in Ugliness & Outras Histórias, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons.
Tina S. Zhu
When it comes to movies and TV, Netflix’s live adaptation of One Piece managed to capture the spirit of adventure and bring this long-running manga to a new audience. Iñaki Godoy is brilliant as our protagonist, the Straw Hat Pirate Luffy, and the love this adaptation was made with is palpable. Sneaking in at the tail end of this year, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest effort, The Boy and the Heron, is a strange and surreal meditation on grief that is definitely worth a watch for any fans of Studio Ghibli.
My favorite short story collection of the year was Kelly Link’s White Cat, Black Dog, which is chock-full of fairy tale retellings that bend reality in delightful ways. The title story of this collection is a gem involving a marijuana farm run by magical cats, and my personal favorite story of the collection had to be “Prince Hat Underground,” a story based on the Norwegian fairytale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” whose original plot concerns a girl who goes on a journey to retrieve a prince she falls in love with from the clutches of a witch. Link turns this fairytale into a tale full of unexpected twists about a middle-aged gay couple and the secrets people keep from each other in old relationships.
A pleasant surprise of 2023 was Henry Hoke’s Open Throat. Marketed as a novel but technically novella length, Open Throat puts the reader into the mind of a queer mountain lion living in the hills above Los Angeles. The mountain lion observes the lives of the people of “ellay” and ends up unexpectedly adopted by a celebrity comedian’s daughter. Open Throat is almost more of a long prose poem than a work of prose, formatted with line breaks like a poem. I will definitely be looking into Hoke’s other work, once I get over the haunting descriptions of LA and its surrounding hills.