Happy New Year! Last year was another not-so-great year in a lot of ways, and the last couple of weeks included a storm that knocked out our power for two days and was overall an unpleasant experience. But I also got to visit a cat cafe and spend time with some adorable kitties as an early Christmas gift, and as usual, I read some wonderful books.

One of the biggest highlights of 2022 was the eleventh annual Women in SF&F Month, which was filled with amazing essays by speculative fiction authors discussing their thoughts, experiences, and work. It featured the following guest posts (which are eligible for nonfiction/related work awards):

Every year, I reflect on what I read over the last year and make a list that feels right for my thoughts and feelings about that particular set of books. This year, I came up with 10 books I wanted to highlight: 8 released in 2022, 1 slightly older book, and 1 much older book. Other than the first two—my Book of the Year and Book of the Year Runner-Up—these are not ranked but appear in alphabetical order.

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Favorite Books Released in 2022

Cover of The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

Book of the Year
The Final Strife (The Ending Fire #1) by Saara El-Arifi
My Review
Read an Excerpt

Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel, the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths, is phenomenal. Set in a perilous empire with destructive tidewinds and social classes based on blood color, it follows three women striving to make an impact on their world. Sylah, whose mission to win the tournament that would make her the leader of one of the empire’s four guilds was ruined years before, finds new purpose in using her knowledge of the trials to aid another. Anoor seeks to prove herself to the mother who hates her by competing to succeed her as Warden of Strength, but when she learns more about the cruel treatment of the other classes, she’s driven by the desire to improve lives instead. And Hassa (my favorite character) uses the fact that she’s overlooked and underestimated as a clear-blooded person to hide clandestine activities.

Simultaneously thoughtful and fun, The Final Strife explores injustice amidst storylines about uncovering mysteries about the world, a newfound friendship with potential for romance, and a tournament that’s about a variety of types of strength, not just who can fight the best. This fantasy setting feels real and lived in due to having a rich history that’s fleshed out through the characters’ perspectives, oral stories, and epigraphs. With a prologue that drew me in immediately and wonderful worldbuilding, storytelling, protagonists, and pacing that kept me hooked, The Final Strife is easily my favorite book of 2022.

Babel by R. F. Kuang - Book Cover

Book of the Year Runner-Up
Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang
Read an Excerpt

Babel is set in a version of our world in the 1800s, but in this scenario, England’s power came from silver-working enchantments done by skilled translators. The magic system is a word nerd’s dream, and I loved the classroom lectures on translation and etymology, which were engagingly written and full of interesting tidbits, and the extra details in the footnotes. This is a story about a young man who loves and excels at languages and translation but has to grapple with his growing understanding of how this magic exploits other peoples while raising England. It’s both a gripping novel and a fascinating exploration of the betrayal and imperfections of translation, and of course, colonialism and revolution as well.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan - Book Cover

Daughter of the Moon Goddess (The Celestial Kingdom #1) by Sue Lynn Tan
Read an Excerpt

Daughter of the Moon Goddess, an epic fantasy novel inspired by the legend of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, is one of those books that was easy to sink into and get lost in with its fantastic mythology and storytelling. In this version of the tale, Chang’e had a daughter, Xingyin, that she kept secret while she was imprisoned on the moon. But when the empress of the Celestial Kingdom visits, Xingyin is forced to flee her home and leave her mother behind. While hiding her identity, she becomes a prince’s companion and a great archer—and plans to save her mother from exile. I loved the mythology and the immortal realm, Xingyin’s drive and ambition, and even the love triangle that developed. (Heart of the Sun Warrior, the second part of this duology, recently came out, but I haven’t read it yet.)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh - Book Cover

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
Read an Excerpt

Nothing extraordinary is ever done out of reason or logic, but because it’s the only way for your soul to breathe.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a retelling of the Korean folktale “The Tale of Shim Cheong,” but in this version, a girl named Mina dives into the waves as the Sea God’s sacrifice to save the titular character from her fate. She does this for her brother, who is in love with Shim Cheong, but once Mina is in the Spirit Realm, she tries to find a way to save her people from the storms that they believe to be the Sea God’s curse—but of course, the truth differs from the stories she’s heard all of her life. This is a lovely, hopeful, fairytale-like book, and I appreciated its exploration of myths and the stories we tell. I especially loved that both girls’ desires were respected: Mina’s wish for her brother’s happiness that led her to throw herself into the sea and try to change things for the better, and Shim Cheong’s wish to remain with her family and the man she loved.

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel - Book Cover

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
My Review
Read an Excerpt

Kaikeyi is a “what if” style reimagining of the story of the queen who exiled the hero Rama in the Indian epic the Ramayana, told from her own perspective. Her prettily written narrative had me hooked from the very first page, and Kaikeyi was a remarkable protagonist who channeled her anger at the patriarchy into doing her best to make the world a better place. I appreciated that she was compassionate but also had her flaws and lacked self-awareness at times, and I admired her determination to carve a place for herself in a world that wanted to prevent a woman with ambition from being her fullest, truest self. Kaikeyi’s voice and story, her discovery and mastery of the magic of the Binding Plane, and her familial ties were all fantastic, as were the more epic scenes involving gods and other supernatural beings.

Cover of One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

One Dark Window (The Shepherd King #1) by Rachel Gillig

One Dark Window, the first book in a dark fantasy duology, is one of the most fun, difficult-to-put down books I’ve read this year. Set in a kingdom where the only acceptable form of magic is rare cards with different powers created by a king long ago, people who have their own innate magic are hunted. Elspeth, the protagonist, is hiding magic that has saved her life: ever since she touched a Nightmare card as a child, she’s heard a voice in her head, which belongs to something that can make her more powerful when she’s in danger. I particularly enjoyed the lore surrounding the Shepherd King and the cards he created, the dynamic between Elspeth and the monster she carries (which Rachel Gillig discussed here), and the romance with the king’s nephew, who has secrets of his own. It also had a fantastic ending—I always appreciate it when authors don’t wrap everything up easily or take the easy way out, as is the case here.

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez - Book Cover

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
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The Spear Cuts Through Water is the most unique, creative book I read this year. It’s difficult to describe with its interweaving narrative—it’s memories and pieces of a tale told by your lola (grandmother), it’s a play in a mythical theatre performed in your dreams, it’s a journey through a fantastical world of royal demigods and telepathically linked tortoises. It’s a love story (according to your lola, who disagrees with other family members’ beliefs that it is not); it’s connected to the spear you hold in your dream, the one that you’ve seen hanging on your family room mantel; it’s an account of how the moon god escaped her imprisonment, aided by two young men who traveled with her. It’s a gorgeously written myth, an ambitious novel exploring family and redemption.

A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee - Book Cover

A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee
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Long ago, in the noble realm of Awara, where all creation, from the tallest peaks to the lowliest beetles, had forms both humble and divine, there lived an unremarkable girl named Otori Miuko. The daughter of the innkeeper at the only remaining guesthouse in the village of Nihaoi, Miuko was average by every conceivable standard—beauty, intelligence, the circumference of her hips—except for one.

She was uncommonly loud.

A Thousand Steps into Night had me hooked from those first few sentences, and I found Miuko’s story and adventures in a land with Japanese-influenced mythology a delight. I also really loved the things that Traci Chee discussed in her Women in SF&F Month essay about it—the way she examined heroism and what makes a hero, the desire to shake things up instead of restoring status quo, the discovery that “bad” qualities can actually be strengths, and the acknowledgment that changing the world is a community project. This is such a charming, thoughtfully executed story, both an adventure and an exploration of being a girl who doesn’t fit into the box marked “Proper Lady” in a patriarchal society.

Favorite Books Published Before 2022

Cover of Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

 Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

I’ve been on a quest to read everything Patricia A. McKillip has written after discovering her short story collection Wonders of the Invisible World, followed by her enchanting novels The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Changeling Sea. (However, I have been taking my time as I want to savor every word.) When I heard the devastating news of her death earlier in 2022, I decided to read one of her books I hadn’t read yet: Alphabet of Thorn, which I had recently gotten as a birthday gift.

And it was exactly the sort of reading experience that is uniquely McKillip, magical and warm with exquisitely crafted prose and a dash of whimsical, understated humor. (Such as when Nepenthe is told her face looks just like one seen on an old parchment: “The librarian looked curiously at Nepenthe; she wished she could take off her head and look at herself.”) With multiple threads and characters, it’s difficult to briefly summarize, but it’s largely about an orphan, a translator taken in and raised in a library, who is utterly enchanted by a book written in a thorny language that comes to her with ease. From its pages, she learns the true story of The Emperor of Night and the Hooded One, a ruthless conqueror and the powerful masked sorcerer key to his success. Theirs is an epic love story, and one of the themes that runs through the novel is the invisibility of women: women who did great feats but were forgotten, women who had to hide parts of themselves to follow their dreams.

Although this is not my favorite of McKillip’s novels (that would be The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Changeling Sea), it’s the best book released before 2022 that I read this year and one of the best books I read this year, period.

The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu - Cover Image

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie Liu
My Review

Technically, I read much of The Tangleroot Palace in 2021, but it still stands out as a highlight when looking over books I completed in 2022—it is one of the best short story collections I’ve read, after all! These seven tales—six short stories plus one novella—are all quite different from one another since they encompass a variety of subgenres, settings, tones, and styles, but they also have some common threads and seem like they are in conversation with each other in some ways. Marjorie Liu’s introduction says they share “a longing for home, friendship, love—characters often driven by a weary hope in the possibility of something good.” Although I did prefer some stories to others, I appreciated and enjoyed them all and didn’t think there were any that were far better or worse than the rest. I especially loved how Marjorie Liu parceled out details, as I often was unsure about what was going on at first but there was enough of a hook that I wanted to find out—and everything tied together wonderfully in the end.