2023 brought me some of the most remarkable reading experiences of the last several years. A few, like The Mountain In the Sea and When Woman Were Dragons were published in 2022, but there were plenty that I was able to read in the year of publication. So here are my 10 favorite SFF novels of 2023. They’re in no particular order, since I don’t believe in ranking new fiction. I just know what I like, regardless of genre or author, and this year was filled with unforgettable books.
Ethera Grave by Essa Hansen
A favorite series of the past few years is Essa Hansen’s Graven trilogy, which concludes in spectacular fashion with Ethera Grave. The first thing that attracted me to these books is their abundance of telling sensory and synesthetic imagery which deepens the reading experience without ever cloying. The story takes place in a multiverse that has been dominated by god-like beings called the Graven. The humans endowed with the Graven genetic inheritance command obedience and shape the will and perception of those within their sphere of influence, which is vast. An upstart named Caiden, who possesses some of these genes, aided by a spirit-like entity called Azura, which sometimes inhabits the form of a spaceship, takes on the rulers of this universe in a series of spectacular fights. This is great space opera, beautifully written, that poses powerful questions about time, personal transformation and moral choice.
Furious Heaven by Kate Elliott
This is the second installment in Elliott’s trilogy about Alexander the Great in space. Though the first novel was good, I found the second and much longer Furious Heaven more involving and powerful. In this volume Sun Shan, daughter of the ruthless and brilliantly strategic Eirene, takes her place as queen-marshal of Chaonia, then at once sets in motion her greatest challenge, conquering the extensive and much richer Phene empire. The novel picks up shortly after the conclusion of Unconquerable Sun and brilliantly interweaves character studies with palace intrigue, a study in power, deep action and the realistic staging of many battle scenes.
Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh
As I said in my review, Tesh set herself an interesting task in this debut novel: “Present the reader with a young protagonist raised in a militaristic society who is all about duty, war-breeding, xenophobia, homophobia and worse, then draw her through enough world-shattering experiences to make her interesting, flaws and all, from start to finish.” Some Desperate Glory is an extraordinary character study as well as a fine adventure story. Valkyr is a young warrior in training in a culture devoted to destroying the people who have attacked and ruined their original home on earth. She is forced to confront evidence that the stories drilled into her since childhood may not be true. Her choices become more and more difficult, as she has to overturn all her values to survive.
The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao
I was taken with The Surviving Sky from the opening when it’s clear the troubled relationship between the leading characters, Iravan and Ahilya, will dominate. They live in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by earthrages where people survive on floating cities. They are made possible by the innate skills of architects who commune with plants in such a way that they control their growth, turning vast trees into cities that can be guided through the sky but also returned to earth when conditions permit. Iravan is one of the most important architects, while Ahilya, his estranged wife, seeks answers on earth that might let the people return permanently to land. The novel combines remarkable science, magic and a powerful love story. It’s another great debut.
Lords of Uncreation by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Lords of Uncreation, the conclusion of The Final Architecture trilogy, beautifully ties together the story arcs in an exciting climax. Once again, the Intermediary Idris enters the strange realm of unspace to confront the entities known as the Architects, who have been destroying whole worlds. But this time he senses another presence, another power, that is directing the Architects. He is determined to stay in unspace, long after it is physically safe to do so and long after his allies want to get him out, so that he can solve the deepest mysteries of the force guiding the Architects. It’s an incredible journey that makes this series one of my all-time favorites.
Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee
Fonda Lee calls this remarkable novella a memoir, and it reads like one as we follow the first person account of Ester, a master of the giant fighting birds called rocs. She lives in a desert landscape prowled by human-eating manticore beasts that can only be killed by specially trained rocs. This is an exciting adventure but also a compelling story about friendship and love, as Ester’s life is changed forever by her skill as the chariot-riding ruhker or controller of a fighting bird. Her style in presenting what happens is stark, as the rugged hunter, totally devoted to this life, fulfills one difficult mission after another. Yet she retains great sensitivity about the few relationships that she tries to hold onto. I found Untethered Sky to be a compelling story from start to finish.
Menewood by Nicola Griffith
This historical novel is the sequel to Griffith’s Hild, that dramatized the youth of a woman who became a saint in seventh century Britain. While it’s based on the life of a real person, about whom little is known, it creates a world that has almost a fantasy feel about it. And that’s my slender logic for including this brilliant book in this list. Menewood captures just a couple of years of Hild’s life in her early twenties. She is regarded as a seer because of her comprehensive knowledge of the natural world and her uncanny ability to read people for their motives and intentions. She also proves herself as a fearsome warrior, taller by far than the men who seek the glory of war and treasure. Griffith recreates an early British world through Hild’s eyes with incredible detail that make Hild seem almost like an embodiment of her time.
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
This wonderful mystery, set on Jupiter where steel rings surrounding the planet support cities, universities and other institutions, features the sharply perceptive investigator, Mossa, and her one-time lover, Pleiti, now a university professor. This Holmes-Watson pair investigate the strange disappearance of a man while also cautiously rekindling their earlier relationship. There is a splendid contrast between the wild environment of the planet, here called Giant, with its poisonous and stormy atmosphere, where humans are protected by shields over their towns and special scarves for their faces, and the cozy interiors of university buildings where the quality of tea and scones are a major concern. The Mimicking of Known Successes is the first of what I hope will be a long series. A second installment, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, is due out in February, 2024.
Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon by Wole Talabi
In this debut novel, Talabi imagines a Yoruba pantheon of gods as a corporation fallen on hard times as believers have been falling away from the old beliefs. Shigidi, a minor god of nightmares, scrimps his way from job to job in which he invades the sleep of victims and brings them nightmares that cause their deaths. His existence is transformed by Nneoma, a succubus, who transforms his body from misshapen ugliness to strong and handsome manhood. The two team up for adventures that span multiple eras of time as well as other pantheons of gods. They bring together a strange team to carry out a grand heist from the British Museum, where so much colonial loot is protected by its own powerful spirit. Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon is a great fast-paced story that travels through time and many levels of reality.
These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs
Here’s another great debut, a character-driven space adventure. From the opening scene, it’s clear that the Kindom is a world where survival depends on force, physical skill, cunning and treachery. The vicious and manipulative Esek Nightfoot sets a challenge to Six, a child recruit who already shows a talent for toughness and brilliance in combat, that will shape her life and form the basis of enduring conflict between the two. It’s a planet-hopping story of struggle to control a key fuel resource that engages the major families in complex intrigues. As Esek and Six carry on their battles, Jun Ironway of a family largely destroyed in the conflict fights to regain their position.The characters are all strong, and the story takes them to a great climax. These Burning Stars is the opening book of a trilogy, so there is a lot more of the story to look forward to.