Happy (very belated) New Year! I had hoped to have this post up much earlier, but I got a bad cold starting on Christmas Eve and it just would not go away. I don’t think I started to feel normal again until about halfway through January. But late as it is, I could not pass up the opportunity to discuss my favorites of 2023 since I read some wonderful books and found something else fantasy-related that I absolutely love (which is covered in a special category I made just for this case, Media of the Year).

Blog Highlights in 2023

One of the biggest highlights of 2023 on this blog was the twelfth 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):

There were also some additional guest posts or excerpts last year, such as:

If you enjoy lists, I also shared about my Favorite Books of 2022 and some Anticipated 2023 Speculative Fiction Releases. (And a heads up for those of you that enjoy giveaways, I’ll be giving away one of my favorite books ever next week!)

Favorite Books & Media of 2023

Once again, I reflected on what I read over the last year and came up with a list that feels right for my experiences with the books I read during that time. Though I was not as taken with some of my most anticipated books as I’d hoped (like this standalone by an author who has written other books I’ve enjoyed, this debut novel, and the conclusion to a trilogy that was not as well executed as the first two volumes), there were others that were highlights. This year, I had three clear favorites released in 2023 and two favorite trilogies released prior to that, as well as at least one honorable mention in each category.

I don’t normally discuss media other than books in these posts, but this year is unusual since I am utterly obsessed with something else fantasy-related that came out last year and could not resist including it!

Favorite Media of 2023

As a fan of the two games that preceded it (as well as D&D and Icewind Dale), I’ve been excited for Baldur’s Gate 3 for a while, but I did not expect to love it the way I do. I’ve now finished two multiplayer games and one single player game, and I am currently in the second act of my second single player game. Considering this is more than I’ve played any other, I think it’s safe to say this is now my favorite game of all time.

It’s just fun with a lot of entertaining dialogue and scenes, and it also has some beautifully done scenes and storylines, excellent acting, and a story that I appreciate more each time I play it. But what stands out to me the most about Baldur’s Gate 3 is the character development and growth that can happen depending on how you interact with and treat your companions, paired with the aforementioned excellent acting that makes them all the better. I didn’t really remember much about the characters from the previous games, but this one has some memorable ones with fantastic lines and journeys, including one character from the older games who I appreciate far more in this one. There are also a lot of wonderful animals and non-main characters, and the narrator (Amelia Tyler) does an incredible job.

My Drow Fighter/Bard from Baldur's Gate 3
Daenerys, Seldarine Drow Fighter/Bard (who does not bear much resemblance to her namesake other than a certain Ready to Unleash Vengeance Look)

It’s also made to replay: I come across new things each time I play it and a different main character can make for a different story, even if I do keep playing the Dark Urge and pairing my characters with the same companion. (Yes, I’m currently on my third Astarion romance. I just can’t help it. Of course, the award-winning performance by Neil Newbon is amazing, and his primary writer, Stephen Rooney, did an incredible job. I think he is the best written character with the best lines, and the way each act shows a new layer of characterization is perfection.) My last completed game followed a Seldarine drow fighter/bard who liked dramatics and intimidation, had a soft spot for innocents and animals, and became less hardened over the course of her journey, especially with how close she came to her found family. My current character is a high elf Oath of Vengeance paladin/sorcerer who is darker and more chaotic than the last, extremely loyal, and someone who cares fiercely when she does care—and she is making a huge mess of things because she’s terrified and would burn down the world for those she cares about. I’m having the best time shaping her story even when it hurts, and I’m already contemplating ideas for my next character.

If by any chance anyone who was part of the team that worked on Baldur’s Gate 3 comes across this: Thank you. You’ve created something truly special and unique, and this fantasy fan is grateful.

Favorite Books Released in 2023

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Cover of Cassiel's Servant by Jacqueline Carey

Book of the Year
1. Cassiel’s Servant (Kushiel’s Legacy) by Jacqueline Carey
My Review
Read an Excerpt

Cassiel’s Servant is a companion to Jacqueline Carey’s beloved first novel, Kushiel’s Dart, telling the same story from the perspective of a different character: Joscelin, the warrior-monk whose order assigns him the task of protecting the courtesan/spy Phèdre. While many of the novel’s events are familiar if you’ve read the first Kushiel’s Legacy book, the first 20% is new material covering Joscelin’s training and monastic life before his fate collides with that of his god-marked charge—and of course, his first-person voice fits his personality and viewpoint, meaning it’s much different from Phèdre’s narration. Joscelin is far less dramatic and verbose with a more straightforward, concise style.

This novel is yet another example of Jacqueline Carey’s prowess as a master storyteller (in addition to the Kushiel books, also see Starless). Although the prose is less embellished than the books narrated by Phèdre, it’s also beautifully written and I loved the exploration of the relationship between the two main characters. They have different but complementary strengths, and I particularly appreciated the evolution of Joscelin’s perspective as he reevaluates his beliefs and reforges them into something new, something that makes sense with the world he experiences once he’s no longer confined to the monastery. Though his attitude and views change throughout the story, they are true to him as a person who grew to have a more mature worldview once he was no longer isolated within one order that followed one system of beliefs—but it’s also done with nuance, without making all the monks who taught and raised him seem like “bad” people.

I just adored Cassiel’s Servant, and it’s my absolute favorite book I’ve read this year.


Cover of The Jasad Heir by Sara Hashem

Book of the Year Runner-Up
2. The Jasad Heir (The Scorched Throne #1) by Sara Hashem
My Review
Read an Excerpt

The Jasad Heir follows “Sylvia,” the heir to a demolished kingdom who has repressed her past self in order to hide her identity and survive. However, her plans of remaining in obscurity go awry when she catches the attention of Arin, the heir to the military kingdom that razed her homeland. As she does her best to keep him from realizing just who she is, Sylvia is forced to contend with the complicated feelings about her identity as the Jasad heir that she’s been avoiding—all while growing closer to the son of the man who killed her family.

The first book in an Egyptian-inspired epic fantasy duology, The Jasad Heir is great fun with its banter, dark humor, and wonderful character dynamics. Sara Hashem also clearly recognizes exactly what makes tropes like enemies-to-maybe-something-more-romantic and a protagonist hiding their royal lineage and magic work, and these common story elements are excellently executed. Sylvia is a fantastic narrator: her voice brims with personality and her stabbiness is expressed in new and creative ways instead of seeming repetitive, and she’s more complex than most characters I encounter with her prickliness, selfishness, loyalty, awareness of her flaws and shortcomings, and overall complicated relationship with herself. The contrast between Sylvia and her love interest makes the progression of their relationship all the more delicious. Arin is self-assured, confident, and manipulative—traits Sylvia finds simultaneously admirable and infuriating—but his facade starts to fall apart as he comes to care about this frustrating woman he’d once described as having the “temperament of a deranged goose.”

I found The Jasad Heir immensely entertaining, and I can hardly wait for the sequel (fingers crossed for a 2024 release!).

Cover of To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

3. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath (The First Book of Nampeshiweisit) by Moniquill Blackgoose
Read/Listen to an Excerpt

To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is the first book in a new series set on an alternate version of Earth that followed a different path in history and has dragons. It follows Anequs, a young indigenous woman who discovers a dragon egg and bonds with the first dragon her people have encountered in ages. After her hatchling accidentally injures someone when startled, Anequs decides it’s her duty to go to the dragon academy on the mainland and learn all she can about being bonded to a dragon and how to prevent it from hurting others. Here, Anequs is thrust into a new world filled with social rules that make no sense to her, but instead of following a more traditional fantasy of manners arc—that of attempting to fit in with these customs or flouting etiquette here and there while building toward rejecting these ways in the end—Anequs constantly calls them out, loudly, and it is a delight. I was actually surprised by just how much I enjoyed this novel considering I tend to prefer characters that have internal conflicts, but I found Anequs’ security in who she was and what she believes to be refreshing. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is a riveting story, and I am eagerly awaiting news of the sequel.

Honorable Mentions

Cover of The Battle Drum by Saara El-Arifi Cover of The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill Cover of Lone Women by Victor LaValle

The Battle Drum (The Ending Fire #2) by Saara El-Arifi
The Final Strife, the first book in this series, was my Book of the Year in 2022 with a world full of rich history that made it real, excellent protagonists, and pacing that kept me engaged. Although I didn’t love The Battle Drum quite as much, I still rather enjoyed it and am looking forward to the final book in the trilogy. (Even if I was extremely irritated by one character in the end. Yes, I’m looking at you, Anoor.)

The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill
This novella, a retelling of the folktale “The Crane Wife,” is dark and traumatic with lovely writing. It’s an honorable mention because it wasn’t a book I loved that stuck with me, but it is a really well done story that I admired even so.

Lone Women by Victor LaValle
Much like The Crane Husband, this short horror novel didn’t stick with me as much as I’d hoped but it’s also a book I think is really well done. It had some amazing lines that made me pause in appreciation and short chapters and fast pacing that kept me turning the pages, but I did discover that I much preferred the setup to the conclusion. That said, I did like the handling of the theme of letting go of toxic ideas instilled into one in their youth.

Favorite Books Published Before 2023

Cover of Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman Cover of Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman Cover of The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman

1. The Welsh Princes Trilogy by Sharon Kay Penman
Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, The Reckoning

After reading Cassiel’s Servant, I wanted something that felt similarly epic, and I ended up deciding to pick up Here Be Dragons. (I would have just reread Kushiel’s Dart and then finished the rest of the trilogy, but due to some house issues, those were among a bunch of books that were packed away at the time.) Although the Welsh Princes trilogy is historical fiction rather than fantasy, I’d seen them recommended for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, and now that I’ve read the series, I completely understand why with its blend of politics, drama, and complex characters.

Set in the thirteenth century, Here Be Dragons centers on the conflict between England and Wales, showing characters from both countries as people with both strengths and flaws that make them real (even though one side is portrayed as being more sympathetic than the other). It has a large number of characters, but the one who ties everything together most is Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John who is wed to the Welsh prince Llewellyn the Great. Joanna’s story is poignant because she loves them both and is caught between them: though most people see her father as a villain, it’s more difficult for her to view him that way since he was kind to her and made her feel safe for the first time as a child. As much as I enjoyed the entire series, which covers the conflict between Simon de Montfort and King Henry in the second book and that between Llewellyn II and King Edward in the third, Here Be Dragons is my favorite of the three largely because of Joanna.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik - Cover Image Cover of The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik Cover of The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik

2. The Scholomance Trilogy by Naomi Novik
A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate, The Golden Enclaves

As you may recall from my review, I did not like A Deadly Education the first time I read it, so it’s amusing to me that this series made my list. I probably wouldn’t have read the entire trilogy if my husband hadn’t gifted them to me, saying he knew it was a risk given my opinion of the first but that he’d seen raves about these books and heard they got better. But I actually was curious because as much as I struggled with the voice and the amount of infodumping in A Deadly Education, I did find the main character memorable and also wondered if I might have had a better experience with it if I hadn’t read a digital version. (I much prefer reading print, and I also felt that format might have worked even better for me than usual in this case, given that the rambling sentences sometimes took up more than one screen.)

It probably worked better for me on a reread both because of reading it in paperback and knowing where it went, but whatever the reason, I enjoyed it a lot more the second time and read the entire trilogy back to back. El’s a great character: prickly but also loyal, someone with a strong sense of justice, someone who sticks to her values and hates that trying to survive magic school results in people treating others as a means to an end rather than fellow human beings. Her unique personality is what draws the class hero, Orion, to her (even though she is not happy with him whenever he comes to her rescue), and they have such a wonderful dynamic. I had an excellent time with all three books, especially the middle volume.

Honorable Mention

Cover of Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin

Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonin
This Filipino-inspired YA fantasy novel stuck with me largely because of how unique the setting was with its settlements amongst large sprawling trees and dangerous beasts. It just overall felt different from most of what I read, and although it’s a common general theme, I thought the author did a fantastic job with the “learning the world isn’t exactly what you’ve been taught all your life” storyline.