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Matt Holder

Lord of a Shattered Land coverFor me, 2023 was the year of consuming pounds and pounds of Black Library fiction. And you know what? It was great. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, crime/noir, pseudo-philosophical tracts on the nature of empire set against the grandeur and chaos of the best ancient tragedy: if there’s a genre that you love, chances are the Black Library writers have delved deep and emerged from those Games Workshop mines to deliver pure, uncut gems. Fans of monster-hunting with Witcher or Solomon Kane vibes should check out C. L. Werner’s Witch Hunter or Briardark; if you enjoy interrogations of fantasy-flavored crusading empires told from the POV of the displaced, then Noah Van Nguyen’s recent Godeater’s Son has you covered; if action-packed detective fiction gets you going, then may I introduce Dan Abnett’s Inquisitor Eisenhorn and his planet-hopping adventures, starting with Xenos. But this is Black Library. You’re here for big, for bombast, for epic tales soaring to Miltonian heights; you’re here for the conclusion of the Horus Heresy. Enter The End and the Death, volume one (of three!), and its 2.5-inch thick spine.

Commercial tie-in fiction is often derided for a host of things, critiques that hold in some cases and fail in others, but it’s rarely praised for experimentation, holding instead to formulas and tropes of established conventions. But The End and the Death might be one of the most experimental books I read this year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Abnett has long delivered some of the best writing in the genre, but his impact is often obscured by his dedication to Black Library fiction, works that are seldom reviewed seriously or read outside the built-in fanbase. The End and the Death deserves a wider audience, because it is that good, that experimental in its form and construction, that compelling, with some of the sharpest prose in any genre.

Some quick hits: Andor is as good as everyone says it is, to the point where I genuinely can’t believe Disney funded its creation; Howard Andrew Jones started a new series with two solid entries, Lord of a Shattered Land and The City of Marble and Blood, a perfect blend of sword-and-sorcery, historical fiction (not actual history, but inspired by Hannibal of Carthage), and heroic adventure; indie magazines Old Moon Quarterly, Whetstone, and New Edge Sword and Sorcery continue to publish great fiction in the subgenres of sword-and-sorcery and dark fantasy; Mona by Pola Oloixarac is a biting satire of literary culture that interrogates identity, trauma, and contemporary politics with guts and gusto, with an ending that genre fans will want to stick around for; and simply too many more. Keep reading, and here’s to 2024.

Adri Joy

Translation State cover2023 was a hard year on a personal level, and one which wrung most of the creativity out of me. For long periods of time, video games were the main thing that kept me going. In May, I got totally immersed in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, exploring the world on my own and through game streams and analysis on YouTube which took the game in far weirder directions than I could come up with on my own. Later in the year, I fell deeply in love with Baldur’s Gate 3, and spent many productive hours saving the world as Faerûn’s most charming Duergar Bard. In between those giant experiences, there was plenty of time for shorter, more experimental stuff, like the mind-bending Viewfinder, the fractal weirdness of Cocoon, and the delightful linguistic puzzle that is Chants of Sennaar. It’s been a great year for video games, and next year’s Hugo voters are going to be spoiled for choice in the new Best Video Game or Interactive Work category.

If I’d had more energy to talk about books this year, most of it would have gone to The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera, which succeeds in condensing a narrative-flipping twist into a single pronoun. Ann Leckie’s Translation State offered a window into one of the most intriguing corners of her space opera universe, and OKPsyche by Anya Johanna DeNiro was a brilliantly thoughtful short novel about transfemininity. I got to put shiny new collections by favourite short fiction authors Suzan Palumbo (Skin Thief) and Yah Yah Scholfield (Just A Little Snack) on my bookshelves. They are joined, of course, by Maureen Kincaid Speller’s non-fiction collection, A Traveller in Time. Maureen’s work as a critic and an editor will always shape my own reviewing, and while the circumstances of this collection are bittersweet, it’s a fantastic and well curated piece of work.

Paul Kincaid

Normal Rules Don’t Apply coverI have not been able to keep up with all the highly anticipated, highly acclaimed books that came out in 2023, but what I have read is enough to convince me that this has been a very good year. For a start, two of my favourite writers had short story collections out. Normal Rules Don’t Apply by Kate Atkinson begins with an apocalypse—on one otherwise normal day everyone out of doors died, a catastrophe that continues on a predictable schedule for some time thereafter. This is followed by a story in which a gambler wins at the races because a horse talks to him. Two weirdly disconnected events that slowly begin to intertwine as the collection continues.

And alongside that we get Disruptions by Steven Millhauser, one of the finest short story writers working today, who continues his dissection of the madness of small-town America. One town sets up a guillotine in the park; another contains within it an entire other town of people only inches high; elsewhere people buy higher and higher ladders until one person climbs into the clouds.

Meanwhile, among a wealth of excellent novels, we have what is possibly her finest work to date from Nina Allan, Conquest. Like all the works I find most appealing, it is a novel that challenges our assumptions about what actually is genre: a disappearance that isn’t, a conspiracy theory prompted by a trashy old science fiction novel, weird ideas excavated from (genuine) films and musical compositions. All could be perfectly real, and yet throughout the novel we are forced on every page to ask ourselves what reality is. In the months since I read it the book has just grown more vivid.

And then there’s Hopeland by Ian McDonald, a novel of climate catastrophe that is still, as the title implies, suffused with hope. Of course, hope comes with a cost (we wouldn’t need hope if everything was easy), and as the two mysterious families at the heart of this novel face an irrevocably changing world, their quest is not to defeat climate change but maybe find a way of living with the consequences. In a novel that ranges from London to Iceland to the South Pacific, McDonald is on top form in the way he shows how different cultures shape the world they inhabit.

If it has been a good year for fiction, it has been spectacular for non-fiction. There has been a wonderful collection of reviews and essays by Niall Harrison, All These Worlds, and there is the extraordinary “anti-memoir” by M. John Harrison, Wish I Was Here, but I hope I will be excused for favouring above all A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller edited by Nina Allan. I know, I know, I’m prejudiced, but the often funny, always humane, and always impeccably sharp essays collected here seem to me to be the model for what good critical writing should be.

Dean Leetal

Our Flag Means Death posterThis year, I sobbed over Good Omens, Our Flag Means Death, and the new Doctor Who, for various yet continuous reasons. This year, I missed reading new books from Akwaeke Emezi during their very well-deserved break. And this year, I read a lot of novels that nodded to fan fiction in ways that didn’t work for me. In my opinion, tropes often can’t be transferred to original work, unless the author takes the time to really build a meaningful, interesting, complex background. For example, the fake dating trope is one of my favorites in fan fiction, because it builds on an existing relationship. Faking changes the status quo and forces the characters into uncomfortable situations, which brings up hidden things. If the characters don’t know one another, all that delicious depth is gone. I hope next year brings more strategic trope use, or some interesting non-fic-trope stories!

Some books that stood out in glorious ways: 

  • Falling Back in Love with Being Human: Letters to Lost Souls by Kai Cheng Thom is a beautiful, affecting poetry book. It relishes in stories like Jesus being the speaker’s boyfriend, fond of being pegged, alongside painful and compassionate looks at trans survival.
  • Deephaven by Ethan M. Aldridge is great at creating an atmosphere of mystery and magic. Its nonbinary protagonist addresses issues of class and of surviving abuse, as they solve a fun whodunit at their magic school.
  • Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix by C.B. Lee is a sweet Sapphic pirate story that takes place in 1826 at the South China Sea. I really enjoyed the innocent love story, as well as the vivid setting.
  • Vivian Lantz’s Second Chances by Kathryn Ormsbee is a fun middle-grade novel about a girl who is having the worst day—over and over again. It’s like that episode of Supernatural, but without the excruciating pain.
  • Stars, Hide Your Fires by Jessica Best is your Sapphic heist at a ball on a spaceship, with a murder mystery and a secret rebellion. It is as fun as it seems. You know those TikToks about how to hide weapons in ballgowns? This seems like the same universe.
  • Monstrous Intent by Alice Winters—the audiobook came out this year, so I am squeezing it in. It is funny, fast-paced, and engaging. I’ll be honest with you, I fancy myself qualified to say things about social justice with some degree of skill. I don’t know what to tell you about this book. Put that all aside and enjoy the ride.
  • Sir Callie and the Dragon’s Roost by Esme Symes-Smith is the second instalment in the Sir Callie series, and better than the first. It takes on representing different ways people respond to trauma, with some classic good adventure.
  • The Untimely Undeath of Imogen Madrigal by Grayson Daly is one of my very favorites. It tells the story of two girls solving a murder mystery. One is part of an order that helps restless spirits pass, the other is a mysteriously revived murder victim. Somehow the wonderful writing makes their extraordinary investigation feel right, like a story from a friend. 

Archita Mittra 

Minor Detail coverEvery year since the pandemic seems more tumultuous than the last, or perhaps that’s just a function of adulthood and coming to terms with life’s tragedies—the great, the small, and the ongoing. One of the most affecting and relevant reads of the year was Minor Detail by Palestinian author Adania Shibli (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette). It explores how the horrors of wars are rewritten and manifested in “minor details”—be it in ecological symbols or in the oppressed bodies of the future—no matter how much the tools of the colonizer try to efface them. I also enjoyed The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano), which has a lot of Studio Ghibli vibes: although aimed at children, it’s a mature, gripping, and well-realized tale about humankind’s relationship with fantastical beasts, and the consequences of their deployment in war. Another (and much older) work of translated science fiction that astonished me was the utterly prescient The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem, which imagines a seemingly utopian future driven by hallucinogenic chemicals and their illusions, unsurprisingly revealed to be an overpopulated, decaying dystopia where “art” is consumed as a near-permanent escape from reality.

When it comes to Indian speculative fiction, it’s been, more or less, a glorious year. I had a lot of fun reading Samit Basu’s The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport, which is about a young girl and her monkey-bot brother trying to save their city from corruption, and also an Aladdin retelling, and also a meditation on self-determination and equal rights for marginalized groups, and also the best queer-platonic love story I’ve read in a while. The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar by Indra Das is an enchanting novella that I wished was a novel, about a boy called Ru who is caught between the mundane world of Calcutta and the magical reality that his nomadic, dragon-riding family hails from. Finally, The Mad Sisters of Esi by Tashan Mehta is a gloriously experimental, literary, and lyrical work of fantasy that unfolds inside the cavernous chambers of a mythic whale and across sentient islands, about sisterhood and separation.

On the movies front, I made a very conscious choice to stay away from Marvel’s formulaic assembly-line products, and was pleasantly rewarded with good cinema. In preparation for Asteroid City, I rewatched some of Wes Anderson’s older films, and especially adored The Grand Budapest Hotel. I enjoyed both Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (particularly Cillian Murphy’s searing performance) and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (in its meme-ification of the patriarchy and musical set-pieces galore). I also caught up on my A24 backlog and liked Past Lives, which seemed to me a leisurely meditation on the enduring power of childhood friendships and the bittersweetness of reconnecting with someone at the wrong place and time, complicated by the bridges and barriers of immigration—and particularly relatable now that I have fewer friends in my city and more folks that I love, cherish, and deeply miss scattered all over the globe. I also liked how the latest Mission Impossible film, despite being one of those “part one” blockbusters, actually felt like a self-contained, satisfying action film—unlike the new (albeit gorgeously animated) Spider-Man adventure that concluded on an annoying cliff-hanger. If I had to pick just one movie that stayed with me, it would have to be Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume—a beautiful, breathtaking road-trip film that follows the adventures of a young girl and a portal keeper (who is turned into a chair for the most part) into a delicate conclusion, accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack.

Clearly, I have a soft spot for narratives that blend magic with the mundane, so I’ll end this piece with a couple more recommendations on similar themes. A Space for the Unbound (developed by Mojiken Studio and published by Toge Productions) is the best indie game I’ve played this year. It’s a slice-of-life adventure game set in suburban Indonesia in the 1990s, ostensibly about two high school sweethearts with some supernatural elements and lovely pixel art, but it’s a fascinating, multi-layered narrative that delves into writer’s block and depression and utterly messes with one’s sense of reality in a very emotional and cathartic way. And lastly, Angela Liu’s poignant story, “Time Is an Ocean” published in Strange Horizons, wherein the domestic life of the suicidal protagonist is interrupted by the timely arrival of a time traveler with a broken time machine, absolutely broke and healed my heart, and is one of the few short fiction pieces that I know I’ll keep coming back to.

Eve Morton

Baby on the Fire Escape coverTo paraphrase Amber Dawn, (SF) poetry saved my life this year.

With two toddlers, plus a gigantic house move, I felt the need to seek out old favourites to keep me company rather than working through some of the amazing works that came out this year. This meant a couple of novel rereads from Angela Carter and Frank Herbert, but also poetry. So much poetry. From Audre Lorde to Adrienne Rich and then back to the classics. I also spent so much time on websites like Eye to the Telescope, Star*Line, and the (sadly) now defunct Liminality. Scrolling through short bursts of beauty made me think beyond the mess I was in, and even better, oriented me towards a speculative future I wanted to be in.

But one of the new books I did get a chance to read this year was the wonderful nonfiction literary history Baby on the Fire Escape by Julie Phillips. Though this is a book about creativity and motherhood, there is one chapter devoted to the life and work of Ursula K. LeGuin (I should note, Philips’s previous book was on James Tiptree Jr. and it was phenomenally well-researched). Phillips’s attention to the details of Le Guin’s life and her work made me feel grounded in a reality that I’d never fully felt before. I love Le Guin—still think she’s one of the best writers of sci-fi, regardless of gender—but hearing that she struggled when she first moved with her kids to find a sidewalk for her stroller hit me in a way I could have never imagined. I’ve had that struggle. It sucks. And it makes you think you can’t ever see beyond that lack of sidewalk, of being stuck inside with kids.

But Le Guin figured it out. Eventually.

I spent so much time in 2023 struggling and struggling and feeling like I was never going to get anywhere. To see Le Guin—and many other women in SF—struggle in a similar way with the banal and anxiety-ridden realities of motherhood made me feel as if I could survive and thrive with whatever 2023 threw at me. But I do wish for 2024 to be a touch more quiet, just so I can get more reading done.

Abigail Nussbaum

The Spear Cuts Through Water coverIt’s been a real banner year for science fiction and fantasy, and I can hardly imagine how I’m going to squeeze all the stuff I loved in, but let’s give it a try. In books, Ned Beauman’s Clarke-winner Venomous Lumpsucker mercilessly skewered the environmental-industrial complex, while Tochi Onyebuchi’s criminally under-recognized Goliath reminded us that the future is never evenly distributed. Simon Jimenez’s The Spear Cuts through Water played indescribable games with storytelling and voice, while Adrian Tchaikovsky’s City of Last Chances harkened back to the messy cities of the New Weird.

Three 2023 releases blew my socks off: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh, a breakneck space opera about deradicalization; The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz, which inflects Red Mars with the baleful presence of capitalism; and The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera, which packs politics, fantasy, and violence into an incredible punch of a novel. They should all show up on next year’s award shortlists.

Not classed as genre but still in deep conversation with it: Booker-winner The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, an exhilarating entry in the subgenre of the fantasized afterlife; Orbital by Samantha Harvey, a lush meditation about life in space; and Walking Practice by Dolki Min (translated by Victoria Caudle), which is Under the Skin for the twenty-first century. Finally, Paul B. Rainey’s magnificent graphic novel Why Don’t You Love Me? has an SFnal twist that must be experienced unspoiled.

In film and TV, animation seemed to be where it’s at. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse somehow managed to outdo its magnificent prequel, and the weird, meditative Scavengers Reign brought SFnal ideas that are hardly ever seen on the small screen to beautiful animated life. Live action highlights include the final season of the UK version of Ghosts, and Apple TV+’s silly but oddly compelling Silo. Not quite SFnal but still feeling genre-adjacent are the second season of Our Flag Means Death, which was darker, more intense, and more romantic than the first, and Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai, a pitch-perfect revenge thriller with a gender-bending protagonist.

Finally, 2023 brought us two magnificent and essential review collections from Strange Horizons staff: Niall Harrison’s masterful All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays, and the late, much-missed Maureen Kincaid Speller’s sharp and brilliant A Traveller in Time, edited by Nina Allan. A reminder of how vital and necessary the SFF critical scene is.

Eric Primm

The Mimicking of Known Successes cover2023 was another full year for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Narrowing down so much good art is a tricky endeavor. Looking back through the books I read this year, I’d like to point out some that didn’t get enough attention from my point of view. The God of Endings by Jacqueline Holland was an excellent existential novel pondering whether life is a blessing or a curse. Its alternating between the main character’s daily life and past make for an enticing read. The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older is a cosy sci-fi mystery set in the clouds of Jupiter with a Sapphic romance. I’m looking forward to the sequel in 2024, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. Ness Brown’s The Scourge Between Stars was a fun debut novella mixing generation ships with atmospheric horror.

March’s End by Daniel Polansky was weird and wonderful. It’s as if Narnia had been written for adults who enjoy the politicking and messiness of actually running a nation. Exploring the consequences of leaving Earth in a generation ship is Yume Kitasei’s The Deep Sky, which has some unique takes on how to make a generation ship actually function. Schrader’s Chord by Scott Leeds mixes music, the dead returning to life, and a cursed artifact. It grabbed me from the first sentence. Red Rabbit by Alex Grecian combined horror, fantasy, and the Western into a novel that was Weird in all the best ways. Independently published Melinda West: Monster Gunslinger by K. C. Grifant was another wonderful Weird Western. Of course, the new Josiah Bancroft novel didn’t disappoint either and opened a series that I’ll follow.

Finally, since this was apparently a year in which space resonated with me, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention For All Mankind. I began watching it this year, and it reminded me why I studied aerospace engineering. The show contains all the wonder and joy that the burgeoning NASA created while at the same time not shying away from the darker aspects of the early space program: sexism, racism, and Wernher von Braun. Watching the show reminded me of growing up with the sadness that the US lost interest in space exploration and let it fall to giant corporations that would monetize space. Today, instead of a race between nations, the competition for space is between billionaires who prefer bragging rights over making people’s lives better. In 1969, the US won the space race with the Soviets by putting a person on the moon, and the nation moved its attention onwards. For All Mankind demonstrates what it lost by winning that race.

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

I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
verb 4 [C] to constantly be at war, spill your blood and drink. to faint and revive yourself. to brag of your scars.
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