Even by my standards, this one is slow to come out, so I’ll keep the intro brief.
As I’ve done for the past few years, I quasi-obsessively rank the books I read, and I write about the top several.
It’s 40 again this year, and again, I’m really sorry.
As usual, don’t take the rankings seriously, they’re just here for some kind of organization.
Book links go to Amazon Kindle pages.
I try to explain enough about the book so you can tell if you’ll like it too, I’ll use an elevator pitch, a “recommended if you like” list, or a weird math problem, which ever one I thought was most clever for each book.
This is not a place where I like being critical about these books, I liked all of them, and you might also.
And away we go…
40: On Repentance and Repair by Danya Ruttenberg
Elevator Pitch: A Jewish perspective on what to do when you break things.
I guess we’re going to start here with a slightly more personal cut than the usual nonsense in this post. This may be too personal, but as I get older I find real meaning in Judaism as an ethical structure, in part because of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s writing in this book and her newsletter, Life is a Sacred Text. This is a thorough examination of what it means to repair harm, whether intentional or not, whether personal or organizational, and how that goes beyond merely expressing remorse. While it’s based on Jewish tradition, I don’t think you need to be versed in, or believe in, Judaism to get meaning out of this book.
39: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn
Elevator Pitch: Another book where the title is the elevator pitch
Recommended If You Like: It’s a good spiritual sequel to last year’s Jews Don’t Count.
I did not plan for these to be back-to-back and leading off our show. Feels exposed. I honestly considered dropping them both and starting at 38, but that felt bad too.
Horn is a novelist by trade, but this is a series of essays on the overarching theme that the outside world is much more willing to lionize Jews who are safely dead (Anne Frank, for example), but as for the living ones…
Maybe the most interesting thing I learned from this book is that very very few Jewish immigrants changed their names at Ellis Island. Instead, they changed their names after arriving in America and learned that they couldn’t get jobs with Jewish names. (Horn uses legal records do track name changes). Then, they allowed their children to believe the names had been changed for them so they would not grow up knowing that particular experience of American antisemitism. There’s a really, really good chance this is true of my family tree.
38: Five Decembers by James Kestrel
Do The Math: December + December + December + You get the joke
Recommended If You Like: Noir detectives, world war 2 stories, for some reason it gets compared to All the Light We Cannot See, but I’ve never read that, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
The Award For: Edgar award for best Mystery novel, 2022, actually.
You could make a case that this should be higher. Kestrel is, if I’m remembering correctly, a pen name for an author that has published under another name (per the Amazon reviews it’s Jonathan Moore).
Anyway, our main character here is Joe McGrady, a detective in Honolulu, who is investigating a brutal series of murders, when clues take him from Hawaii to Hong Kong.
On December 6, 1941.
He winds up trapped in land under Japanese control, and then we get into spoiler territory. It’s a pretty gripping mystery story, somewhat on the bloody side, and like all noir heroes, McGrady has to make tough choices and pay high prices.
37: Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Elevator Pitch: What if you were one of John Wilkes Booth’s siblings?
Do The Math: Hamilton + 100 years - the music and if it was told from Burr’s point of view
Fowler, who I think is an excellent writer, is known more for small-scale family and magical realism stories, I’d say, which makes me wonder how this book even came about.
This is the story of about 40 years in the life of the family Booth as told by all the Booth siblings you haven’t heard of. It’s a very empathic look at these people, and it’s interesting tracing the ups and downs of the Booth family fortunes, tracking the lives of the various siblings, and yes, watching one of them get increasingly radicalized in a process that seems distressingly familiar. That said, on another level, I’m not sure I completely get what compelled Fowler to tell this particular story, and I do kind of wish there was more of it after the big event that you know is coming.
36: Quantum of Nightmares by Charles Stross
Elevator Pitch: Well, it’s Mary Poppins. Plus Sweeney Todd. Well, not really? But kind of?
Recommended If You Like: I recommend you start this series at the beginning, to be honest…
So this is both book two of the New Management Series, and book 11(!) of the Laundry Files. It shares a world with the original Laundry Files books, but has a completely different cast of characters and influences. (The Laundry Files books first pulled from spy tropes and then urban fantasy, this series pulls from different kinds of British lit – Peter Pan and the Lost Boys in book one, Mary Poppins and Sweeney Todd in this one.
Actually this book is a super-creepy and very darkly funny take on the Sweeney Todd story in a world of supermarkets, evil magic, evil management consultants, and other weirdness, paired with the main story of weird magic, obscure islands and their laws that enable weird magic, and more weird magic.
35: When You Get The Chance by Emma Lord
Do The Math: Mamma Mia + Gender Swap + Theater Kid Energy + Musicals, Lots of Musicals
Recommended If You Like: Enemies to Relationship YA books, musicals, endearingly quirky lead characters
We really do whipsaw back and forth on genres and tones in this list…
I’ve been reading a lot of rom-com style books the last couple years (though I guess this is more YA than rom-com), and I’ve definitely found a few authors that I’ve liked repeated books from. Lord, who mostly writes YA, has very appealing characters and her books have a certain charisma. This book, where a Broadway-bound teen goes through various shenanigans to suss out her biological mother, is fun and really captures a certain kind of theater kid. (I also recommend Abbi Waxman, who just missed this list, and who puts snarky jokes in the book’s narration in a way that I really enjoy).
34: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Elevator Pitch: What if Emily St. John Mandel wrote a time-loop novel with a self-insert?
Do The Math: Time loops + pandemics + time loops + pandemics + time loops
Mandel is the author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, both of which I would say I admired more than loved. She’s a very strong writer line-by-line, and this book pairs that skill with a more explicitly SF hook than the previous books. My experience with literary writers who take a swing at SF is mixed, to say it mildly. Like a lot of books in that combination of genres, it thinks it’s more inventive about the SF element (in this case, what turn out to be time-travel machinations) than it actually is. I was somewhat forgiving of that because the prose is really good, and the story does have some clever moments.
33: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
Do The Math: Ragtime + 20 Years + Magic
Recommended If You Like: Penn & Teller, Fictional historical conspiracies, descriptions of magic shows…
This book is several years old, and I’ve had it in my TBR pile for some time, on the recommendation of Joseph Fink (co-creator of Welcome To Night Vale). It’s a historical novel, with a main character very, very loosely based on a real stage magician of the time. The plot involves the death of Warren Harding, and ties in a couple of other historical characters in a way that would be spoilery if I told you who. It’s a twisty novel that flows in and out of flashbacks to pretty good effect. It’s fun, though I think more fun if you know some of the history behind it, and it also helps to have some tolerance for descriptions of magic shows…
32: The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison
Elevator Pitch: It’s a sequel to one of the best fantasy novels of the last decade
Recommended If You Like: Fantasy mysteries, slightly depressed but highly competent main characters.
This is the second book of what is now being called “The Cemeteries of Amalo Trilogy”, and is a spin-off of The Goblin Emperor. Like the first book, our Witness For The Dead is asked to understand a mysterious death. I still very much love the world-building here, and I still kind of wish I was up to date on what the actual Goblin Emperor was doing (I do understand the idea that the interesting part of Maia’s story might be over, but a drop-in would be nice), but this is still a strong trilogy.
31: Illuminations by T Kingfisher
Elevator Pitch: What if pictures really were magic?
Do The Math: Simon in the land of chalk drawings + alternate renaissance + plucky young hero who gets into and out of scrapes
Not to be confused with the Alan Moore short story collection of the same name released one month earlier (which I haven’t read).
This is a fun, odd YA book, very similar in tone to Kingfisher’s previous Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking. It takes place in an alternate history where painting very specific images has very specific magic benefits. They also use the French Revolutionary calendar because Kingfisher correctly thinks it’s cool to use those date names in a novel. The structure here is familiar, a young, smart, headstrong child makes a mistake, causes great havoc, but eventually saves the day. What makes it work is that the hero and her family are – you’ll pardon the phrase – very well drawn, and just fun to read about, and the very specific magic images to effects is great. Kingfisher, again correctly, makes no effort to explain why the images work, so we’re just left with the family painting random images to, say, keep mice out of a kitchen.
30: An Immense World by Ed Yong
Elevator Pitch: One of the best “did you know…” books of the last few years
The Award For: Aspiring SF writers should read this yesterday
This book is a tour of the entire animal kingdom based on what different animals’ sensory worlds are like. What their range of visual light is, what kinds of sounds they can process, what information they sense that humans don’t even notice (electrical fields, magnetism). It’s definitely the kind of book where you will find yourself dropping facts from it into casual conversation for months. If I have a quibble, it’s that like a lot of pop science books, each individual chapter is basically a self-contained essay (on a different kind of sensory input) and they are only loosely joined.
As an SF writer, there’s just so much food for thought here about non-human life. I don’t think I’ve ever read a first contact story where the issue was that the aliens processed a different part of the visual spectrum. Or aliens that had magnetic or electrical senses (beyond, like super-hero stories, I guess). How does the Federation manage?
29: How to Take Over the World by Ryan North
Elevator Pitch: Pinky and the Brain, the operating manual
Recommended If You Like: Ryan North, basically. If you like Randall Monroe, you’ll probably like this.
This is North’s follow up to How to Invent Everything and it has a similar brief of being a good general-science information book in the guise of an SF novel. In this case, it’s a manual for aspiring world-conquering supervillains from creating your own lair, to controlling the weather, to achieving immortality. North is always funny and has a real talent for including a lot of actual facts and knowledge on top of the supervillainy.
28: Watergate: A New History by Garret M. Graff
Elevator Pitch: It’s Watergate. A New History.
It’s weird how the non-fiction books tend to cluster.
Why a new Watergate history? Mostly because a lot of new documents have become available over time, making some parts of the story clearer.
The thing about this story, is that it’s basically two very distinct parts. There’s the actual misconduct, leading up to the actual Watergate break-in and mostly stopping at that point. Graff does an excellent job at given an overview of the shady and illegal conduct of the Nixon team going back years and including various financial and political scams – this is where a lot of the new documents pay off. What’s amazing is that even now, it’s not at all publicly clear why the actual break-in was ordered, who ordered it, and what they were trying to accomplish. Given that roughly five trillion words have been spilled on this story, that’s a remarkable hole in the center.
After that, the story turns to the investigation in the media, and eventually in the Congressional committees. This part is still interesting, but I think has been more completely covered in the past. Graff does do a good job identifying and crediting the non-Washington Post teams that worked on the story.
27: The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman
Elevator Pitch: Murder She Wrote, after Jessica retires…
Recommended If You Like: Cozy mysteries, UK Geography, Cold War nostalgia
Book three in Osman’s mystery series featuring four detectives who are retirees at a retirement community in the UK. In this case, our team takes on the cold case of the mysterious death of a local news reader. One of the team is ex MI-6 and and the case comes to involve her ex-KGB nemesis.
The characters are great, there’s a background subplot about the spouse of the ex MI-6 agent that is quietly devastating (when an author can take a plot to the point where what would otherwise be a casual line of dialog and make it break your heart, the author is on to something. You’ll know it when you get there.)
I think this is my preferred tone for mystery novels, clever detectives who might be in slightly over their head, some danger, but not grim, more banter and common sense.
26: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Elevator Pitch: What if an octopus could solve crimes?
Recommended If You Like: Octopi, Carl Hiaasen but you think his books are too mean
I liked this a heck of a lot more than I expected to. Our main character is a woman who does overnight cleaning at an aquarium and the octopus that she befriends when she discovers that the octopus can escape its tank. The octopus has a rich inner monologue, that the woman never gets to hear – it’s not like they start having conversations or anything, more like the octopus starts trying to manipulate events to improve the life of his friends. And when I say it like that, it sounds ridiculous. It’s not, (okay maybe it is a little) but it does take a certain willing suspension of disbelief about the way an octopus could, for example, recognize a key.
I may be the only person in the world who would make this connection, but it reminded me of a Carl Hiaasen novel, where a bunch of seemingly disparate and eccentric people are pulled together into a common plot. Unlike a Hiaasen novel, most of the characters in this book are basically good people, though, which gives it a much different tone than a lot of Hiaasen.
25: Even Though I Knew The End by C. L. Polk
Elevator Pitch: It’s Marlowe, but with angels and demons
Do The Math: Noir Detectives + Demons + Angels + Midcentury aesthetic
Award 2023 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella
So, this has a couple of things that I just like. It’s set in Chicago in the mid 40s. Polk did her research (I think she said online that the hockey game you hear on the radio in the background matches the actual day in history). Our lead is a supernatural detective, for lack of a better term, and she’s trying to undo having sold her soul days before her debt comes due and she dies, leaving behind her girlfriend. A chance comes for her to get out of her debt in exchange for some supernatural detective-ing. Naturally, things get out of hand and it’s unclear who to trust, even the girlfriend turns out to have a secret. I’ve kind of soured on angel/devil/heaven/hell stories, but this is a good one, and it really sticks the ending.
24: Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jennings Reid
Elevator Pitch: Tennis, and comebacks
Recommended If You Like: Sports fiction, 90s period pieces, tennis
Sports books and movies basically have two endings: “win, but at what cost” or “the real winning was the friends we made along the way”. The plot tension in the story is usually which one the author will pick.
Anyway, Carrie Soto is a (fictional) women’s tennis prodigy, who retired in 1988 holding the record for career Grand Slam titles. Six years later, when the next generation prodigy threatens her record, she decides to come out of retirement at age 37 to defend it. Soto had a reputation as cold and sort of mean, and it’s not a coincidence that the title of the book and the media reaction to her comeback evokes a particular Elton John song.
The secret about sports stories is that even stories where the hero wins in the end are only satisfying if the process makes it work, and this book has a lot going for it. It’s very convincing about what kind of dedication it would take to even try to come back to that kind of elite level, and I think the book makes it’s point about different media and social treatment of men and women athletes without belaboring it (Soto’s practice partner is a male player on a similar trajectory, only he is beloved). The relationship between Soto and her father/coach also feels well drawn.
23: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Do The Math: I mean, this one is in the title
Recommended If You Like: Computer game history, if you, like, me lived in Boston in the 90s/early aughts
Fiction about computer programmers – in this case, game developers – well… it’s rare that it goes well…
Our heroes here are Sam and Sadie and the book follows them from when they first meet as children to their collaboration on one of the defining video games of their generation, and beyond, as they circle each other’s lives for thirty-some-odd years. It has a lot of the beats of a romantic comedy, but Sam and Sadie are artistic partners, not romantic ones, and the book makes that quite clear.
This book is a lot of things. It’s about interacting with art to combat loss, and especially the way interactive art like games can be used. It’s about what makes a partnership, it’s about appropriation, it posits a seminal (fictional) moment in games and LGBTQ history, and not least, creates fictional games that seem utterly plausible as generationally popular games. It’s a little… rambly or it might be higher here – I think about it a lot – but it’s extremely well done.
22: Secret Identity by Alex Segura
Elevator Pitch: Murder Mystery in the world of 70s comic book publishing
Do The Math: Murder, She Wrote (and also Drew) + The DC implosion + The comics history books of Marc Tyler Nobleman
A murder mystery set in 1975 and our main character is Carmen Valdez, an assistant at the fictional Triumph Comics, one of the also-rans of the comics industry. She’s asked to help create Triumph’s first female hero, which is complicated somewhat when her collaborator turns up dead, and the scripts they worked on are submitted without her name. (I should mention that the book contains several sample pages of the comic, which is great.)
In addition to being a well-done murder mystery, this book does a really good job of capturing the feel of comics in the 70s (I mean, I think it does, Segura did his research, but I wasn’t there), an industry that seemed to be on the cusp of either total collapse or unprecedented success, where the voices that said that comics could be more than what they had been were just starting to get louder…
21: How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur
Do The Math: Chidi’s lectures from The Good Place but with Elenor’s sense of humor.
Recommended If You Like: Being perfect.
I admit that I bought this because I was a huge Good Place fan, and secondarily a pretty big Mike Schur fan, but without any real hopes that it would be more than kind of superficial and snarky.
I turned out I really enjoyed it, and felt like I learned some things. It’s a funny book, but Schur comes off as sincere in trying to explain differing theories of ethics. Like, it’s obviously not going to replace a real college course on ethics, but I still felt I understood some ideas better after reading it.
20: Winter’s Orbit / Ocean’s Echo by Everina Maxwell
Elevator Pitch: Well done Space Opera/Romance
Do The Math: Miles Vorkosigan (Especially Ethan of Athos) + 30 Years - some SF rigor
So these are two SF romance dramas (same universe, very different parts of that universe) that seem to be very explicitly trying to recreate the feel of the romance parts of Bujold’s novels. Winter’s Orbit, in particular, feels like it takes place on a world that’s a remix of Barrayar. This isn’t a criticism – quite the opposite, I love Bujold and I don’t think I’ve read very many books that evoke her particular storytelling ability. This gets… well, not all the way there, but pretty close.
These two books are both different variations on the theme of couples where the two partners are very different personalities, but are forced together for various political reasons and end up in love and saving the day. Other than that, they don’t feel very much alike – the worlds are very different and the problems being solved are different. Even the character pairs strike different notes.
All the characters in both relationships are male. It’s interesting that 25+ years ago Jim Baen (reportedly) only reluctantly published Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (which takes place on an all male planet) and (reportedly) forbade Bujold from writing a sequel…
19: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Elevator Pitch: I’m not sure I could elevator pitch this one
Recommended If You Like: Stories about stories, historical sweep, fictional greek plays
This one is hard to describe. Ultimately, it’s a story of a story – the title Cloud Cuckoo Land, a (fictional) story from ancient Greece, that barely survives into the 22th century, and the story of several people who knowingly or unknowingly keep it from being lost to history. It takes place in 15th century Constantinople, 21st century Oregon, and a 22nd century generation ship. Those three time lines have five total viewpoint characters, and the book weaves back and forth among their stories.
It takes a while to piece together how the stories fit, but it’s a satisfying click when they do. The future story has a bit of the “non SF reader writing SF” vibe, and I didn’t love the resolution of that part. But overall, it’s an interesting story about stories and legacy and how contingent history can be.
18: Flying Solo by Linda Holmes
Do The Math: Holmes’ previous book, Evvie Drake - romance + a dash of leverage
In fine romance tradition, this isn’t a sequel to Evvie Drake Starts Over exactly, but it does take place in the same town. (This book is not a romance, I should say going in, because it doesn’t end on a romance beat and also because Linda Holmes got some flack when an interviewer described it as a romance novel)… It’s a little bit more of a story of personal discovery with a little bit of “revenge on someone who tried to scam you”. Look, I’ve been reading Linda Holmes on the internet for… forever, and I like her writing and this book is fun.
17: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark
Elevator Pitch: What if Egypt became a world power in 1910 using magic?
Do The Math: The Golem and The Djinn - The Golem + A lot of other Djinn - The US + Egypt
Award 2022 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel
I’m generally on board for a) alternate history b) fantasy that takes place post-industrial revolution and c) interesting takes on existing folklore, especially integrating folklore into the mundane world. This book, which takes place in an alternate 1912 some forty years after magic was re-introduced to the world. Egypt has been able to use its magical creatures, djinn and others, to shake off Europe and become a power in its own right.
Our hero here is a young woman in the employ of Egypt’s “Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities” and we start with a supernatural murder. Which of course, is only a precursor to something bigger, as the event is claimed by a person appearing to be Al-Jahiz, the mystic who unleashed all the magic in the past. Is this possibly the end of the world? Or just a scheme?
I very much enjoyed the setting of this story, Cairo in kind of an art-deco style. Mysteries are great story engines for exploring different parts of a city, and this is not an exception.
16: The Past is Red by Catherine M. Valente
Elevator Pitch: What if Mad Max, but on the Garbage Island?
The Award For: This might be our “If you only read one” book of the year… as in “if you only read one book set on a garbage island where people have names of discarded products, make it this one…”
Award 2022 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella
This is two stories – Valente’s 2016 novella “The Future is Blue” followed by a longer sequel, “The Past is Red”.
They are post-climate-apocalypse, and our main character, Tetley, lives in what is basically the Pacific Garbage Patch, a small society that has survived on the garbage of those past peoples they call the Fuckwits. People choose their name after a quest where they find their name amongst the garbage, hence Tetley, and Big Red, and Goodnight Moon and onward.
Tetley is an optimist at heart, and Valente is able to focus and display her anger through Tetley’s optimism, which is no small writerly feat. I wouldn’t describe this book as “fun” exactly, there is too much rage behind the faux-fairy tale facade that Tetley narrates with, but it uses the concept of what we might find fun to structure it’s own interesting story.
15: What If? 2 by Randall Monroe
Do The Math: What If? * 2
Recommended If You Like: Footnotes. Serious answers to snappy questions.
Not much to say about this one, it’s Randall Monroe and What If, and it’s great.
14: Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty
Elevator Pitch: Murder, She Wrote, in Space!
Recommended If You Like: Any mystery series where the protagonist happens across a new murder every week. (There’s an Amazon review that calls it Dirk Gently, in Space, which is also not a terrible gloss)
So, among a couple of other things, this book starts with a character who has been solving mysteries all her life in the way of Jessica Fletcher, where everywhere she goes, somebody dies spectacularly and she winds up solving the murder.
Anyway, among a bunch of other things, Station Eternity takes that trope seriously. What would it be like to be a person who is continually in a situation where somebody close to them dies? How would the world react to the existence of such a person? How would the police react? Mallory Viridian reacts by getting off planet at the first opportunity. (The book takes place “15 minutes in the future”, but after first contact with aliens who aren’t like, tremendously interested in or impressed by humanity). Mallory takes an opportunity to basically hide on Station Eternity, a sentient space station filled with aliens. (Another part of the world building is that, other than humans, all other sentients are part of some kind of symbiotic bond with another species).
Soon enough, however, the murders start, and Mallory is back in her familiar position and has some familiar people beside her. This was a fun mystery, and it even goes far enough as to suggest an in-universe reason my Mallory always finds murders. Looks like this is the start of a series, and that makes me happy.
13: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal
Elevator Pitch: The Thin Man, In Space
Do The Math: Kowal is quite up-front the this is The Thin Man + Space
It’s pretty funny that these are back-to-back because I read them back-to-back.
This is very much The Thin Man, fancy heiress solving crimes with her detective husband, with a cute dog, and a lot of cocktails. The crime is on a luxury cruise spaceship that has Earth, Mars, and Lunar gravity rings, and Kowal is very precise about how the ship works.
So, bluntly, I liked this book, it’s a good book, and the banter is fun. I wanted to love this book – I came in with super-high expectations. Kowal is a fantastic writer, it’s a story trope I really like. And I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not sure if I burned myself with high expectations, or what. It’s a very good book and you’ll probably like it and maybe you’ll love it.
12: Mickey7 by Edward Ashton
Elevator Pitch: What if you were immortal via being resurrected all the time?
Do The Math: Well, the cover copy describes it as “The Martian” meets “Multiplicity”, but I’m a little dubious about that… Maybe more like Old Man’s War meets Old Man’s War…
Recommended If You Like: Scalzi, for sure.
This is a thing that I think is hard to do well – light SF that feels like SF without feeling like homework (not that I always mind a book that feels like homework) and is genuinely light while maintaining stakes.
Mickey joins an off-planet colonization team to get away from a bad situation. He’s not technically qualified to be on the team but he volunteers to be the “expendable” – a person whose memory is backed up, so they can go off and do the dangerous tasks, die, and be reprinted into a new body. (The process is expensive, so there’s only one per colony). That’s a weird kind of life, and we see enough of Mickey’s backstory in flashbacks to get a sense of how weird. We also get enough of the history of the world and colonization to get a sense of it, but not so much that the book is bogged down in lore.
As the book starts, Mickey7 is believed to be dead enough that Mickey8 is printed, but – surprise – he’s not dead. Having two versions is a big taboo, so there are some shenanigans around that. The real problem comes when it seems like the planet might have more intelligent life than previously thought.
This reminded me very strongly of Scalzi, which I think is a good thing, it’s breezy but doesn’t forget to tell a story.
11: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Elevator Pitch: What happens when the wizard on the mountain is actually a scientist from space?
Do The Math: (Game of thrones + Star Trek) / 2
Award 2022 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella
This a very clever book. We go back and forth between two viewpoint characters, one of them is a minor royal on a planet that has fallen to pre-industrial tech and doesn’t remember how those things work, and the other is a person sent to observe them for a larger galactic culture that may or may not still exist. The back and forth is the interesting part here – the two characters obviously have different ways of describing, say, a flying drone, and less-obviously just have a vastly different set of cultural touchpoints for everything. It’s just a really well-written and structured story.
10: Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennet
Elevator Pitch: Game of Thrones meets the Singularity
Do The Math: Foundryside (which is the first book in this series) to the 100th power,
It’s almost hard to fathom how this trilogy got to this book from its first book, which was about a labor dispute in one single city. This book is about a world-wide war, where the technologies that drove the labor dispute have gotten many orders of magnitude more powerful leading to basically people with super-heroic powers, hive minds, attacks on the fabric of reality itself.
This book starts some years after book two, with the war that was kind of hinted at the end of book two already in mid-swing. Bennet does an amazing job of both extrapolating the possibilities of the magic technology as introduced in the first book, and also of explaining it such that it’s usually pretty clear what’s happening, what’s possible, and what’s difficult or impossible. There’s also interesting characters, and some thought about the morality of all this trans-humanism. It also, I thought, nailed the ending.
9: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Elevator Pitch: I mean, it has a cuddly skeletal dog…
Recommended If You Like: It’s got kind of a Princess Bride feel
Award 2023 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel
Kingfisher has been a regular on this list for a few years, since I discovered her, and I’m pretty sure this is my favorite one.
I guess you’d kind of call this “revisionist fairy tale”, there are a lot of fairy tale tropes, you’ve got the damsel in distress, and a rescuing quest, but you also have a reluctant kind-of-a-nun heroine, a reanimated skeleton dog, and a good mix of darkness and silliness. Like I said, it has a lot of the feel of Princess Bride – especially the book version, which occasionally veers into the logistics and pragmatics of living in a fairy tale world.
As with many Kingfisher books, there’s a romance between a decent, but somewhat scattered woman and a competent man who is emotionally reserved due to past trauma. As with many Kingfisher books, they take a very long time to get together but it works great once they do.
8: Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson
Elevator Pitch: Stevie Bell, in an English manor house mystery
Do The Math: Liar * 9
As I may have mentioned here, I do like mysteries, but am not really part of that community enough to reliably find ones that I like (detective forward, puzzles rather than violence – basically the Westing Game).
Maureen Johnson is also a big Westing Game fan, and the Stevie Bell mysteries, of which this is number 5, definitely show some influence.
Stevie’s in the UK this time, which lets Johnson write the English manor murder mystery she’s clearly wanted to do for years. (Okay, getting Stevie and friends to the UK and investigating is a little contrived, but honestly, that’s just part of the genre sometimes). Here, it’s a cold case from the 90s with two dead from a group of nine college friends celebrating their last weekend of school.
Stevie in the UK is fun, the mystery is nicely done, I just like this series. It does end on an emotional cliffhanger, which means the next book should be fun.
7: Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang
Elevator Pitch: It’s “translator, traitor” the novel.
Recommended If You Like: Recommended if you think colonialism was bad
Award 2023 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel
You could make a case that this could be higher – it’s quite ambitious and technically groundbreaking in its magic system.
We’re in an alternate mid 19th century England, which controls the world through magic. The mechanism is interesting, though. Two bars of silver, each with a similar, but not identical, word in two languages. The connection between the two causes a magical effect related to the subtle difference in meaning between the words. Our main character was adopted (or abducted, really) from China because England is continually trying to get more multi-lingual speakers to fuel new magics. It’s maybe not the most subtle metaphor for colonialism, but it’s quite effective.
Anyway, our hero struggles with reconciling the beauty of the magic with the ugliness of British rule and eventually comes to run the Translators Revolution, as listed in the title.
It’s really good. Full of detail about Oxford, the magic system is great, the characters are interesting. There’s a really good chance it wins all the awards next year. It’s not higher because I think the first half is a little slow and I’m not sure the second half completely nails the ending, but the things it does well it does very well.
6: Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers
Do The Math: Robot + Monk - maybe minus a monk?
Recommended If You Like: Slow character studies, subtle character shifts, soothing conversation
Award 2023 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella
The sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built finds Sibling Dex and Mosscap continuing their journey across planet trying to find out what each of them needs. Like the first book, not much actually happens (and if it’s true that this is the last book Chambers plans here, we don’t even really see the end of the journey). Like the first book, it’s very soothing and pleasant to spend time with. This is a case where the second book in a series is freed from having to do origin-story type stuff and can go a little deeper on the characters. It’s nice.
5: The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
Elevator Pitch: What if Hogwarts was actively trying to kill you? Part 3, where the whole world is actively trying to kill you.
Recommended If You Like: YA magic stories, this turns out to be a good one.
I was maybe a little harsh on the first couple books in this series, which are good but maybe I’m a little burned out on magic schools.
Turns out what the series really needed was to get out of the schools and out into the larger world, where the moral conflict of “why do these people send their children to school to get slaughtered” gets a “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” kind of gloss. Where the first couple books were focused on what kind of a person you were willing to be in order to survive, this book is about what kind of a person you are willing to be to make the world a better place. (Also, just on a plot level, Novik’s explanation for basically everything that’s been going on is very clever, and I did not see it coming).
4: Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Elevator Pitch: What would scientifically accurate Kaiju look like if they were tended to by a bunch of smart-alecs?
Recommended If You Like: I mean, it’s Scalzi, there’s a good chance you are either in or out already.
I’m loath to suggest that books in this list are too high, but maybe? I did enjoy this very much. It’s very Scalzi, with a bunch of clever smart-mouthed characters and a well thought out bonkers situation. (In this case a parallel world that dares to ask the question “how could you have scientifically plausible Kaiju”) Like, it’s real fun, it’s not real deep but it’s real fun.
3: Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Recommended If You Like: Ankh-Morpork - Rage + Caffeine
The Award For: I mean, this is clearly the most Pratchetty thing I read this year.
Award 2023 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel
This is a book that puts the “cozy” in “cozy fantasy”. The story of an Orc adventurer who retires to set up a coffee-shop is fun and sweet enough that I can forgive it the extreme convenience of how the coffee-shop trappings all come together. But that’s basically it. It’s pretty low stakes, just will the coffee shop survive and thrive in a fantasy world that has never seen a coffee shop before. (Okay, there’s a little bit of other plot stakes, but not much). It’s very Terry Pratchett, it’s got the same sense of things in the fantasy world that just happen to mimic things in our world, plus it has the same warmth toward its characters that a lot of Pratchett has. It is missing the satirical bite that a lot of Pratchett’s best stuff has.
I’ll also say that doing what this book does is harder than it looks, and I’ll back that up with something like a half-dozen other cozy fantasies I tried after this, none of which quite get the balance of character plot quite as well as this book does.
2: Blitz by Daniel O’Malley
Do The Math: Neal Stephenson - science + Buffy The Vampire Slayer + a dash of Connie Willis
Recommended If You Like: Off the wall fantasy noodling, WWII Blitz books
This is the third book of a series that started with The Rook, a book l loved. It was also the last book I read in 2022, so perhaps some recency bias is in order.
Somehow I didn’t find out about this one until I saw it on a couple of year-end lists, from people who somehow publish their year-end lists in December. It was described as “a novel that takes place partly in WW2 and partly present-day, and which has a lot of digressions”.
And I thought “Daniel O’Malley has written a Neal Stephenson book.”
And that’s about what this is, except instead of digressions about, say, cryptography, the digressions are about the unnatural glow cloud that somehow impregnated three men in 1889.
The book is a lot of fun, and eventually gets at an interesting question about what the super-secret supernatural society is there to protect and what it’s not there to protect.
1: Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak by Charlie Jane Anders
Is this my favorite book of 2022? I guess so? I liked it a lot, but it is the middle book of a trilogy.
This book does an interesting thing, which is take a first book that was largely a single character hero’s journey and really switches it to a multi-character viewpoint book here, which makes the whole thing feel deeper and more epic. As a second book in a trilogy the job is to widen the world, slightly disrupt our understanding of the first book, and set up the real conflict in the third book. This book does it. We see more of the wider galaxy that we kind sprinted through in the first book, we see more aliens, we see more languages and get more background on the real conflict coming for all the characters. The ending sets up the third book very clearly.