My Favourite SFF Backlist Reads of 2023!

Posted 29th December 2023 by Sia in Best SFF Of Each Year, Crescent Classics, Lists, Recommendations / 2 Comments

I always feel like my best-of-the-year lists need to be accompanied by a list of best books read that weren’t published this year. But I never have the spoons to put two best of the year posts together.

The solution? Start this post in June and update it as the year goes along!

Not counting rereads, HERE WE GO: the very best books I read this year that were published pre-2023!

The Sphere of the Winds (The Floating Islands #2) by Rachel Neumeier
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Brown cast
Published on: 5th February 2021

The Long awaited sequel to The Floating Islands

The Floating Islands are under siege.

Trei, Araenè, and their friends saved the Floating Islands once, thwarting the Toulonn Empire’s attempt at conquest. But the Toulonnese haven’t given up, and the same trick certainly won’t work a second time … especially when the Islands unexpectedly lose their special connection to dragon magic.

Then it turns out that Toulonn is not the only, or the worst, enemy the Floating Islands face. As peril grows, Trei, with his connection to Toulonn, and Araenè, with her an unusual style of magic, will need all their strength and resolve if they are to find a way to safeguard the Islands once more.

Somehow I COMPLETELY MISSED the fact that Neumeier wrote a sequel to her amazing The Floating Islands – YEARS AGO. How did I not know?! I have no idea, but the point is that I finally read it, and it is amazing. I thought Floating Islands was meant as a standalone, and imo it works as a standalone, but Neumeier took all these tiny pieces from that book – and one VERY BIG THING – and spun them out into this gorgeous, heart-in-your-throat story with very high stakes…which does absolutely nothing you’d expect. I was so impressed with the very non-traditional ending, the way Neumeier (as she so often does) discarded the-way-things-always-go and did her own thing instead. I will not turn down any more books set in this world, but Sphere of Winds is a perfect conclusion to the series if Neumeier stops here, and I am so happy I finally read it.

Kirith Kirin by Jim Grimsley
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: M/M
Published on: 1st May 2000
ISBN: 9780983251606

In Aeryn, where science has never developed but where magic is quite powerful, a usurper know as the Blue Queen, aided by a very powerful, very old wizard, has ravaged the land. A boy is called out of his own life on a farm to enter a legendary forest and learn magic in order to help Kirith Kirin reclaim his rightful throne to maintain the balance of order. Jessex grows strong in his magical studies and fighting skills discovering his crucial role in the battle against the evil that overshadows his land.

This is the first of three novels by Grimsley that deal with the world of Aeryn.

Kirith Kirin is a book I’ve been vaguely aware of since I was a teen, but bounced off the first few times I tried. Luckily, my book-bestie mentioned she loved it, causing me to pick it up again – and this time, I could not put it down. Which is odd, because even if you asked me to describe it, nothing about my description of it would appeal to me. AND YET. Something about the voice, and the delicious density of the prose, were exactly what I apparently wanted at that particular moment. It was a hugely escapist read for me, which, again, makes no sense. I can’t explain it. I can only tell you that I adored it, and will definitely be tracking down more of Grimsley’s books!

These Imperfect Reflections: Short Stories by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Various queer and neurodivergent MCs
Published on: 30th August 2022

What's the price of revolution backed by artificial intelligence? Can you change the past to free ghosts trapped in endless loops? Do fairy tales always end the same way?

Follow a battle poet on aer quest to save a kingdom; witness the last documentary about alien whales; and travel with the Wolf who is prophesied to eat the sun as they look for alternatives to their fate.

From living trains to space stations populated with monsters, these eleven fantasy and science fiction stories from Merc Fenn Wolfmoor will take you on otherworldly adventures that are tethered to the heart.

Wolfmoor won me over for life with The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt, a novella so beautiful it stole my breath right out of my throat (even as it was also so horrifying it gave me nightmares!) So when I realised that Wolfmoor was publishing collections of their short stories, OBVIOUSLY I pounced – and this particular collection, These Imperfect Reflections, blew me away. They’re all themed around resistance and hopepunk, and they’re all queer as fuck, but it’s the incredible imagination poured into each one, and the exquisite prose they’re written in, that earned this book an instant spot on my favourites shelf. Book-mages! AIs leading the rebellion against a dystopia! A girl with bells sewn to her toes taking on Beauty & the Beast! Stealing a space-prison! I don’t understand how Wolfmoor isn’t a household name yet, honestly.

So You Want to be a Robot by A. Merc Rustad, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Various queer MCs
Published on: 1st May 2017

Step one: forget the convention and disregard the binary. Gender? Sexuality? Old words unsuited for new consciousness. The twenty-one stories in this book challenge the imagination as only acclaimed author A. Merc Rustad can. Pages of robots and AIs constructing lives and exploring "humanity"; wasted worlds with monstrous cityhearts; assassins and the perils of enchanted labyrinths; and always the raw truths of love, loss, and devotion.

Step two: read these science-fiction and fantasy tales as if they are the only stories you will discover on your bookshelf this day.

Step three: dare to feel.

Another Wolfmoor collection, albeit published under another name! If Wolf Among the Wild Hunt took my breath away, then So You Want to Be a Robot stole my heart. Again, Wolfmoor’s prose is just magical, as if every story is a spell, from the first (This Is Not a Wardrobe Door, which is for everyone who ever threw The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the wall for the cruelty of its ending) to the last (How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps, wherein the MC falls in love with the robot who sells them coffee, which – valid). Again, there’s plenty of queerness; again, the sheer creativity of Wolfmoor’s imagination is just delightfully astonishing. A prehistoric menagerie! Rescuing the monsters under the bed! A stranger tattooed with maps! This is a book I want to push into everybody’s hands, honestly, and I know I’ll be rereading it year after year, and only treasuring it more as time goes on.

A Restless Truth (Last Binding #2) by Freya Marske
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Published on: 1st November 2022

Magic! Murder! Shipboard romance! The second entry in Freya Marske's beloved The Last Binding trilogy, the queer historical fantasy series that began with A Marvellous Light

The most interesting things in Maud Blyth's life have happened to her brother Robin, but she's ready to join any cause, especially if it involves magical secrets that may threaten the whole of the British Isles. Bound for New York on the R.M.S. Lyric, she's ready for an adventure.

What she actually finds is a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.

A Restless Truth took me by surprise; I picked it up when looking for an easy read, because I was struggling to focus on anything but missed reading. What I got was a MASSIVE book hangover, because this book filled me up with so much glittery, electric delight that it was a while before I could read anything else. Marske’s sophomore novel is just plain FUN; giggly, over-the-top, and somehow joyful even when The Bad Guys Are At It Again. It’s not often that a book puts this big a smile on my face, and for that alone, I had to include Restless Truth on this list!

Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman
Genres: Horror
Representation: Secondary mlm character
Published on: 2nd October 2012
ISBN: B008EXK672

And Lucifer said: “Let us rise against Him now in all our numbers, and pull the walls of heaven down…”

The year is 1348. Thomas, a disgraced knight, has found a young girl alone in a dead Norman village. An orphan of the Black Death, and an almost unnerving picture of innocence, she tells Thomas that plague is only part of a larger cataclysm—that the fallen angels under Lucifer are rising in a second war on heaven, and that the world of men has fallen behind the lines of conflict.

Is it delirium or is it faith? She believes she has seen the angels of God. She believes the righteous dead speak to her in dreams. And now she has convinced the faithless Thomas to shepherd her across a depraved landscape to Avignon. There, she tells Thomas, she will fulfill her mission: to confront the evil that has devastated the earth, and to restore to this betrayed, murderous knight the nobility and hope of salvation he long abandoned.

As hell unleashes its wrath, and as the true nature of the girl is revealed, Thomas will find himself on a macabre battleground of angels and demons, saints, and the risen dead, and in the midst of a desperate struggle for nothing less than the soul of man.

After falling head over heads for Buehlman’s Blacktongue Thief a few years ago, I naturally wanted to read everything else he’d written too. But Between Two Fires is another book that required several attempts from me – I don’t consider myself much of a Horror reader, and BTF does not hold back on the awfulness, despair, and ick. But after a certain point, I couldn’t put it down anymore; despite being vastly different from Blacktongue in almost every way, it’s just as compelling. There’s a lot of nightmare-fuel here, but it’s wonderfully written??? I really don’t know how to describe it.

Also, talk about a Biblically accurate take on God – you have to laugh or you’ll cry.

Shades of Grey (Shades of Grey, #1) by Jasper Fforde
Genres: Sci Fi
Published on: 29th December 2009

Hundreds of years in the future, the world is an alarmingly different place. Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour.

Eddie Russett is an above-average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane - a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed.

For Eddie, it's love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey...

Hi, this book is completely and utterly bonkers.

But in an enormously fun and thought-provoking way. It’s not a random mess, even if I do strongly believe an acid trip had some part in the inspiration for Shades of Gray. What starts out as bewildering (but delightful) whimsy grows both more bizarre (humans are born with barcodes on their fingernails now?!) and more suspicious (why does the library have no books?) as the pages turn. Underneath the ridiculousness of a society with a spoon shortage and snail-racing are great mysteries – and great conspiracies. So much comes down to Fforde’s incredibly readable prose, which carries you along so swiftly via the unintentionally hilarious and very endearing narration of the main character; and there’s also the worldbuilding, which, as previously stated, is BONKERS, but also gives the strong impression that it all fits together and makes sense – it’s just not clear how to the reader yet.

But we’re getting the sequel next year, so hopefully we’ll learn more about that shortly!

Greenwode (The Wode, #1) by J. Tullos Hennig
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: M/M
Published on: 28th October 2014
ISBN: 1632164388

Book One of The Wode

The Hooded One. The one to breathe the dark and light and dusk between....

When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman's son could well be their destruction—Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode's Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable... and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.

Another rec from my book-bestie, Greenwode became an instant favourite pretty much immediately – long before I reached the end of the book, I knew this one was a keeper. Loosely inspired by Robin Hood, Hennig has created an intricate portrait of an England torn between the French nobility with their Christianity, and the native paganism practised in secret by the people they rule over. Hennig’s prose is gorgeous, rich and lush, but – beside the romance, which I ship passionately – my favourite thing about this book might be how Hennig, via Rob, challenges the heteronormative Lord and Lady set-up familiar to modern Wiccans. Not that the paganism here is Wicca, but it does feature a Lord and Lady, and as the Lord’s scion/chosen, Rob fights to craft a new story out of his people’s traditions. As a nonbinary pagan, that meant a lot to me – and besides, the ‘new story’ is a stunning one.

And my gods, the FEELS. Hennig had me dancing to her tune, going from awe to giggles to rage to panic to delight and back again over and over and over. I felt like I was living the story, not reading it. This is a book to get happily, deliriously lost in, and being close to the end of the next book, I can confirm that the sequel is every bit as wonderful.

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker, #1) by Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Brown MC
Published on: 1st January 2010

It is the dawn of a new age... The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are springing up across the country, and new technologies are transforming in the cities. But the old ways do not die easy.

“I was not a bard or a djeli or an historian or a scribe and I was certainly not a sage, but that didn't mean I wasn't curious…”

Young Cat Barahal thinks she understands the world she lives in and her place in it, but in fact she is merely poised, unaware, on the brink of shattering events. Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood, betrayal and old feuds, she will be forced to make an unexpected and perilous journey in order to discover the truth, not just about her own family but about an ancient secret lying at the heart of her world.

Cat and her cousin Bee are part of this revolution. Young women at college, learning of the science that will shape their future and ignorant of the magics that rule their families. But all of that will change when the Cold Mages come for Cat. New dangers lurk around every corner and hidden threats menace her every move. If blood can't be trusted, who can you trust?

From one of the genre's finest writers comes a bold new epic fantasy in which science and magic are locked in a deadly struggle.

According to Goodreads, I read this back in 2015 and didn’t enjoy it that much – but I have absolutely no memory of that. (Which is why I’m not discounting this under the reread rule.) Reading it this year felt like encountering it for the first time – and folx, I adored it. This is Elliot at her best, with gorgeously rich worldbuilding, plenty of intrigue, and an incredible heroine surrounded by a fabulous cast of secondary characters. The truth behind all the mysteries is revealed bit by bit – but for every clue we’re given, more questions are raised, in what I thought was a very accomplished balance; it could have been frustrating, but between Elliott’s lovely prose and the sheer awesomeness of Cat, I was just happy to luxuriate in the story. I can’t wait to dive into the sequel!

A Matter of Oaths by Helen S. Wright
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Brown cast, M/M
Published on: 1st October 1988
ISBN: 1448216966

'A compelling, mind-bending future that's finally come home to the present' – Becky Chambers, author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

When Commander Rallya of the patrol ship Bhattya hires Rafe as their new Web officer, she knows she is taking a risk. As an oath breaker, Rafe has suffered the ultimate punishment – identity wipe – but luckily for him, there's no one else around qualified for the job. Shunned by his previous shipmates, Rafe is ready to keep his head down and do his job, but his competence quickly earns him respect, admiration, and, in one particular case, love.

It's difficult to maintain the glow of acceptance however, when his past is chasing him across the galaxy in the shape of an assassin, intent on dealing once and for all with Rafe, whatever the cost.

Originally published in 1988, A Matter of Oaths is a space opera with heart, intergalactic intrigue and epic space battle.

With a new introduction by Becky Chambers, author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

'Fast paced and inventive ... it held my attention to the end' – C. J. Cherryh

I can’t believe it took me so long to read this – and that it’s not all over my circles! Matter of Oaths has everything I ask for from sci fi – incredibly compelling prose; a diverse future (why do so many sci fi authors write futures that are all white and cishet??? oh wait, nevermind); a cast of brilliant multi-faceted characters I can’t get enough of; and mindblowingly cool, original sci fi concepts. Wright has created a universe where space ships are piloted by being hooked up to human nervous systems: how cool is THAT? The ships become their bodies! But it takes more than one person to ‘fly’ a ship, which makes for a really fascinating intimacy between pilots, aka ‘Webbers’, who are connected to each other while connected to their ship. AND THE POLITICS – ohhhhhhhh, I could talk about this book for hours, but honestly, the best thing I can possibly tell you is to GO READ IT YOURSELF! I promise you won’t regret it!

And that is the last of my Best Of lists for 2023! What did you think? Have you read any of these? What were your favourite backlist reads this year???

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