Do Not Look Back, My Lion: A heartbreaking anti-war story, featuring lesbians and bizarre gender worldbuilding. This is what tragedy can be at its best: cathartic, transcendent, sublime. Highly recommended.
As The Last I May Know: The codes to use an apocalyptic superweapon are implanted in the heart of a child; to use them to defeat an enemy, the president must first kill the child with his bare hands. The story is told from the point of view of that child. I recommend setting aside some time to cry afterward.
And Now His Lordship Is Laughing: Horror-fantasy set during the Bengali famine, which is both a summary and a content warning. Reads like a particularly good The Magnus Archives statement, for those of you who are into that podcast.
Omphalos: One of two stories Ted Chiang published this year! Set in a world where it is provably scientifically known that God created the world ex nihilo six thousand years ago; the worldbuilding is clever and well-thought-out, full of “of course it had to be that way” details. A profound and thoughtful exploration of finding meaning in a purposeless world. I broke down crying at the end.
For He Can Creep: A whimsical and charming story about Jeoffry, a cat who belongs to a poet, and his fight with the Devil in order to prevent the Devil from keeping his master from finishing his poetry. Jeoffrey’s voice is strong and clear, and the sentences are hilarious. If you like cats you’ll enjoy this one.
To Be Taught If Fortunate: Becky Chambers returns with another slice-of-life science fiction novella, this time set among some of the first astronauts traveling to exoplanets to explore alien life. Chambers is rigorously biologically accurate (at least to my layperson’s eye) and clearly fascinated by the details of biology. Plot happens– sort of– but Chambers is clearly far more interested in the intricacies of what it would be like to discover nonsapient aliens. If you prefer that your science fiction novels be mostly about what it implies about evolution that alien microbes use both chiralities, this will be up your alley. It also features some of the most stirring pro-space-exploration sentiment I have read this year.
The Deep: Adapted from clipping’s Hugo-nominated song of the same name. (clipping is Daveed Diggs’s band, and if you like Hamilton you should check them out.) If you enjoy a well-characterized autistic protagonist, a weird take on mermaids, and themes of remembrance of history in the wake of generational trauma, you might enjoy this. Unfortunately, strips out a lot of the Lovecraftian themes which I appreciated so much in the original song.
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: One of the two stories Ted Chiang published this year. As always, absolutely brilliant. A technology is developed which allows you to talk to versions of yourself who made one decision differently. Most of the book is devoted to the consequences of the technological development for society: support groups for people who found they made the wrong choice; the millions of dollars people are willing to spend on being able to see their deceased loved ones in alternate universes one last time. It concludes with a heart-warming affirmation of individual choice. Both Anxiety and Omphalos are much less depressing than usual Chiang and it is making me wonder if someone slipped him an antidepressant.
The City In The Middle Of The Night: My one-sentence summary is “YA dystopia but actually, like, good.” The character development is thoughtful and rich, and common dystopian tropes are subverted cleverly. Set in the twilight part of a tidally locked planet, the setting explores the concept of time. In totalitarian Xiosphant, everyone eats, sleeps, and works at the exact same time, or is severely punished for being late. In anarchic Argelo, you sleep and wake and work whenever you feel like it– or don’t. The alien species has its own unique relationship to time which I won’t spoil. The cities are richly detailed, with clever and true-to-life details, and yet the thematic unity makes it all hang together.
A Memory Called Empire: Written by a historian, and it shows. The Aztec/Byzantine mashup that is the Teixcalaanli Empire should not work as well as it does. The protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Like many people from her home, Lsel Station, she carries around the memories and personality of her predecessor in a device called an imago. But her predecessor’s imago is twenty years out of date– and he’s gotten up to a lot of shenanigans since then. If you enjoy political intrigue, rich worldbuilding, fast-paced and gripping plotting, people constantly quoting poetry at each other, and characters who arrange their elaborate betrayals to be a reference to classic epic poetry, you’ll like A Memory Called Empire.
Becoming Superman: The serendipitous discoveries are one of the reasons I read the Hugo nominees each year. I would never have picked up J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir on my own, but it’s probably my favorite book so far this year. Straczynski was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder after an astonishingly abusive childhood. His memoir is the story of a person in the general cluster B/CPTSD/reactive attachment disorder cluster striving to overcome the lessons he was taught in childhood in order to become a better person. (The better person is Superman.) I found it comforting, validating, reassuring, and hilarious; I recommend it to anyone in that cluster or who loves someone in that cluster. Also, frankly, it’s just great to see Straczynski live the dream by outing his abusive father as a literal Nazi war criminal. Vengeance is sweet.
Young Adult Book
Dragon Pearl: This is the first book I’ve read in the Rick Riordan Presents line, and it’s definitely making me want to check out more of them. Dragon Pearl is science fantasy in the best and goofiest way possible, a space opera set in a world where Korean mythology is literally true. The protagonist is a kumiho (fox shapeshifter) from a planet which is incompletely terraformed and therefore poor. At one point someone sabotages a spaceship by throwing things around to fuck up the feng shui. Yoon Ha Lee is writing for a middle-grade audience, which means that he has been forced to tone down his love of spaceship battles and only have a reasonable number.
Minor Mage: A classic Ursula Vernon story; if you like her (or Diana Wynne Jones, whom she’s typically very reminiscent of), I recommend checking it out. Oliver is a mage who has to go on a quest to end the drought, despite only knowing three spells, one of which unties shoelaces. Oliver wins through cleverness rather than through overpowering might. I particularly appreciated the harpist whose magic ability is to turn dead bodies into harps that play themselves and sing about who murdered them. He is so profoundly irritated about this state of affairs! I love it.
Deeplight: Once, giant Lovecraftian beasts– the gods– ruled the seas. A generation ago, all the gods died. Fifteen-year-old Hark, an orphan, grew up on an island with no advantages other than his ability to spin a clever story. Deeplight has Frances Hardinge’s characteristic twisty plot full of betrayal and intrigue, where you’re never quite sure who to trust. If you enjoy themes of body horror, antitheism, and emotional abuse in your children’s literature you will enjoy Deeplight immensely.