The (Totally Definitive) Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books of 2023!

Posted 29th December 2023 by Sia in Best SFF Of Each Year, Lists, Recommendations / 6 Comments

You would not believe how much I agonised over this list – I read so many incredible books this year! – but I think I’m finally happy with it. These are only the best of the 2023 releases – I have another list coming of the best backlist SFF I read this year; hopefully it’ll be up shortly.

But seriously, we were spoiled rotten this year, weren’t we?

In publication order, because I am not capable of ranking them in order of best-ness – THE TOTALLY DEFINITIVE BEST FANTASY AND SCI-FI BOOKS OF 2023!

A Slice of Mars by Guerric Haché
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Nonbinary MC, sapphic autistic MC
Published on: 11th January 2023

Mars is a strange place these days. Corporate overlords, capitalism, and even aging are things of the past on a planet increasingly brimming with biodiversity - yet pizzerias are in short supply!

Siblings Hett and San set out to change that. But a roboticist and a bureaucrat can't run a restaurant alone, so they bring on some help - a bioengineer, a communications scientist, and an unlikely grad student from Earth. Together, this gang of geeks will brave the fires of small business.

But work is just a small part of life. People are complicated. Different brains, different wounds, different values, and one questionably tame wildcat will all collide as they try to grow and succeed together. What comes out of the oven, in the end, is anyone's guess.

This delicious slice-of-life story set on far-future Mars was a pure joy to read – thoughtful and exploratory and indulgent. Though there is some higher-stakes plot towards the end of the book, for the most part, it’s all about the characters and their relationships to each other, and gently playing with some scifi concepts I’ve never seen before – like Mars’ unique approach to immortality. Definitely some cosy Wayfarer vibes here!

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Sapphic MC, F/F, secondary trans and nonbinary characters
Published on: 17th January 2023

In a United States not so unlike our own, the Department of Balance has adopted a radical new form of law enforcement: rather than incarceration, wrongdoers are given a second (and sometimes, third, fourth, and fifth) shadow as a reminder of their crime—and a warning to those they encounter. Within the Department, corruption and prejudice run rampant, giving rise to an underclass of so-called Shadesters who are disenfranchised, publicly shamed, and deprived of civil rights protections.

Kris is a Shadester and a new mother to a baby born with a second shadow of her own. Grieving the loss of her wife and thoroughly unprepared for the reality of raising a child alone, Kris teeters on the edge of collapse, fumbling in a daze of alcohol, shame, and self-loathing. Yet as the kid grows, Kris finds her footing, raising a child whose irrepressible spark cannot be dampened by the harsh realities of the world.

With a first-person register reminiscent of the fierce self-disclosure of Sheila Heti and the poetic precision of Ocean Vuong, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is a bold debut novel that examines the long shadow of grief, the hard work of parenting, and the power of queer resistance.

This was such a powerful, un-put-downable read! I didn’t really know what to expect, I just couldn’t resist that amazing title – but Crane’s debut goes for your throat from the first page and never lets you go. The first-person narration is just incredible – compelling, powerful, almost painfully human, ensuring that you’re not just reading I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself; you live it. And the story is raw, terrifyingly believable, and one of the most honest and realistic responses to a dystopia I’ve ever seen. It left me speechless, which is why I was never able to review it, but – seriously, do yourselves a favour and make sure you read this one.

The Twice-Drowned Saint by C.S.E. Cooney
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Minor nonbinary character, minor M/M
Published on: 7th February 2023

"World Fantasy Award winner Cooney imagines angels as Lovecraftian monsters . . . Plenty of charm!"
—Publishers Weekly

"Many have spoken about how angels can be both terrifying yet beautiful, but few have successfully captured the idea well-until The Twice-Drowned Saint, at least. A sumptuous, saw-toothed read, it is a jewel box of a novel, glittering with a thousand details and a bright longing we're all familiar with, this want for a place better than we're in now."
—Cassandra Khaw, Bram Stoker and World Fantasy award-nominated author of Nothing but Blackened Teeth

World Fantasy Award winner C. S. E. Cooney takes readers on a journey of wonder, terror, and joy in this mind-bending, heartfelt novel. Contained inside impassable walls of ice, the city of Gelethel endures under the rule of fourteen angels, who provide for all their subject's needs and mete out grisly punishments for blasphemous infractions, with escape attempts one of the worst possible sins.

"Our narrator is Ishtu Q'Aleth (Ish for short), the new owner of Gelethel's only cinema (having taken over from her father). More importantly, she's also the secret saint of Alizar the Eleven-Eyed, Seventh Angel of Gelethel, and one of the fourteen angels who holds dominion over the city. As Ish explains it, at the age of eight she turned down Alizar's offer to be his saint, but, in a moment that speaks to the novel's charm, the young girl and the all-knowing angel agreed to continue their relationship in secret after bonding over their shared love of cinema. Near thirty years later Ish is desperate to get her sick parents out of the city, a near-impossible task given Gelethel is surrounded by an impenetrable blue serac. But Ish's situation grows even more complicated when a new arrival to the city, a girl named Betony, appears as Alizar's true saint. There's so much to adore about the The Twice-Drowned Saint ... [a] sublime short novel."

"With The Twice-Drowned Saint, C. S. E. Cooney once again crafts dazzling feats of imagination grounded in human frailties and plunges her audience inside head-first. Her boldly unique characters live in a fever dream of balletic, graceful description that will make you gasp, even as they find their own escape through the seemingly-mundane world of movies. Like nothing else you've ever read, or will ever read."
—Randee Dawn, author of Tune in Tomorrow

"Fabulous Gelethel is a city of godless angels who intoxicate themselves on human death, but within its icy walls a hidden saint and a dissident angel are hatching a plan. This story left me wrecked and rebuilt: it's a truly glorious tale of family bonds, forgiveness, sacrifice, courage ... and how gods are born. Written with Cooney's signature soaring prose, humor, and imagination, this tale shines a light on cruelties both fantastical and familiar. It honors sorrow and embraces joy-I will treasure it always"
—Francesca Forrest, author of The Inconvenient God

"The way Cooney does world building, she makes the world absolutely gigantic, and then she focuses the lens onto these intimate moments in people's lives . . . My clumsy words don't do justice to The Twice Drowned Saint. Just read it. It is a sunrise, where all things are beautiful and possible, and it is blood on the ground surrounded by those who lap it up, hungering for more. This is one of the best pieces of fiction I've read this year."
—Little Red Reviewer

Cover art, cover design and interior black and white illustrations by Lasse Paldanius.

The year CSE Cooney’s latest release doesn’t end up on my best of the year list is the year I quit. The Twice-Drowned Saint is like nothing else of hers…but then, I think she delights in making everything she creates vividly different from everything else: her only ‘brand’ is Awesome. Twice-Drowned is wildly weird and wildly wonderful, a fizzing soda pop of the whimsical, surreal, and charmingly mundane – with just a dash of eldritch macabre. An absolute stunner!

My review!

The Eidolon (Magnus Academy #1) by K.D. Edwards
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Asexual MC, mlm MC, Native American MC, queernorm culture, background M/M
Published on: 28th February 2023

In the epic conclusion to K.D. Edwards' first blockbuster trilogy in The Tarot Sequence series, readers followed Rune on a race against time as an age-old threat rose to threaten the city of New Atlantis. Now, for the first time, The Eidolon tells what really happened to Max, Quinn, and Anna as prisoners in the Hourglass Throne's base of operation.

The Eidolon is the first in a brand-new collection of novels and novellas in the Magnus Academy Series. These stories will be told through the various points of view of Rune's found family, ultimately leading to a planned arc of novels set at the new Magnus Academy. The book was printed in partnership with Rainbow Crate, the world's largest queer subscription box service, which produced a limited-edition hardcover. There will also be an Audible version, along with a self-published eBook.

I am unabashedly in love with the Tarot Sequence, and I fell head over heels for this new spin-off series too! The Eidolon is the flipside of The Hourglass Throne; it covers events we didn’t get to see in THT, but that add immensely to our understanding of the story. More importantly, it features fan-favourites Quinn, Max, and Anna, giving them a chance to be wholly in the spotlight for once – and proving they absolutely have what it takes to carry a novel by themselves! Fun, tense, thrilling, and revelatory – what more can you ask for?

My review!

The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Trans MC and love interest
Published on: 7th March 2023
ISBN: 1643621882

A baroque work of intimate myth exploring one woman's interdimensional search for beauty and embodiment, through kaleidoscopic renderings of hospital corridors, brutal breakups, and passionate romance.

The Fifth Wound is a phantasmagorical roman à clef about passion as a way of life. In one dimension, this is a love story--Aurora & Ezekiel--a separation and a reunion. In another, we witness a tale of multiple traumatic encounters with transphobic violence. And on yet another plane, a story of ecstatic visionary experience swirls, shatters, and sparkles. Featuring time travel, medieval nuns, knifings, and t4t romance, The Fifth Wound indulges the blur between fantasy and reality. Its winding sentences open like portals, inviting the reader into the intimacy of embodiment--both its pain and its pleasures.

Nothing I write can possibly capture the surreal, ornate enchantment of Fifth Wound – and I was hesitant to include it on this list, because is it really Fantasy? But I think it is – has to be – albeit Fantasy like nothing I’ve ever seen before, a jewelled phantasmagoria that weaves through queer history and a world of fae and sirens, anchoring both in the fantastical and sometimes terrifying reality of a single trans woman’s life. The writing is so beautiful it hurts, hallucinatory and opulent and spiralling, Mattia leading us through a sacred labyrinth with honey and lotus on our tongues.

I can’t even. I really can’t. It defies description, never mind explanation. No doubt it’s not for everyone, but it’s soul-shaking for those it is for, and I’m so grateful to count myself among that number. This is a book that challenges everything you think you know about storytelling and writing – to say nothing of the queer experience – and it’s pure magic. Mattia has a lifelong fan in me.

Blackheart Ghosts (Blackheart Knights, #2) by Laure Eve
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Queer MCs, F/NB, M/NB
Published on: 30th March 2023

A half-drowned stranger turns up at the door of Garad Gaheris, retired King's Champion, with a hell of a story to tell. The ex-knight may have uncovered a conspiracy involving the very highest echelons of London's elite.

'A riveting tragedy of blood and desire. A masterwork of urban fantasy - and the coolest thing you'll read this year' - SAMANTHA SHANNON on Blackheart Knights

Current King's Champion Si Wyll, a master illusionist, still reeling from the betrayal of his lover and the death of his mentor, is poised to become the most dangerous man in London. Then a figure from his past surfaces, determined to blackmail him into a plot to change the balance of power for good.

'A brilliant, bloody wild' - JAY KRISTOFF on Blackheart Knights

And the city's godchildren, those born with illegal magical abilities, have had enough of being put down - but who must die to ensure their ascension?

The sequel to Blackheart Knights (which made my Best of 2021 list) is just – freaking WOW. Where the first book is a King Arthur retelling (albeit an amazingly unique one), Blackheart Ghosts casts off the restraints that come with being a retelling – the need to at least vaguely follow the template of another story – and stretches into the full potential of the incredible world Eve’s created here. Whatever I expected after Knights, this wasn’t it, but I mean that in the absolutely best way. I just cannot get over Eve’s worldbuilding, and we saw so much more of the decidedly fucked-up underbelly of it in Ghosts – to say nothing of the character-work and revelations that cast huge parts of Knights in a completely different light! In that way, Eve kind of gives us two books in this one – Blackheart Ghosts itself, and such a drastically new understanding of what was really going on in Blackheart Knights that it might as well have been rewritten! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author pull something like that off before, and I absolutely delighted in it.

The Winter Knight by Jes Battis
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Gay autistic MC, M/M, ace-spectrum panromantic MC, F/F, secondary trans character, background polyamory
Published on: 4th April 2023
ISBN: 177852107X

Arthurian legends are reborn in this upbeat queer urban fantasy with a mystery at its heart.

The knights of the round table are alive in Vancouver, but when one winds up dead, it’s clear the familiar stories have taken a left turn. Hildie, a Valkyrie and the investigator assigned to the case, wants to find the killer — and maybe figure her life out while she’s at it. On her short list of suspects is Wayne, an autistic college student and the reincarnation of Sir Gawain, who these days is just trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for him. After finding himself at the scene of the crime, Wayne is pulled deeper into his medieval family history while trying to navigate a new relationship with the dean’s charming assistant, Burt — who also happens to be a prime murder suspect. To figure out the truth, Wayne and Hildie have to connect with dangerous forces: fallen knights, tricky runesmiths, the Wyrd Sisters of Gastown. And a hungry beast that stalks Wayne’s dreams.

The Winter Knight is a propulsive urban fairy tale and detective story with queer and trans heroes that asks what it means to be a myth, who gets to star in these tales, and ultimately, how we make our stories our own.

The Winter Knight is one of the many books that took me by surprise this year – I was expecting a sort of Arthurian retelling, but it’s not that at all. Instead, Battis explores what it might mean to be the living manifestation of a myth, one that’s been reincarnated over and over; how do you figure out who the hell you are when what you are is a story? It’s an idea I don’t think I’ve seen before, and Battis anchors it in a Vancouver so real I feel like I’ve visited it myself. The prose is amazing; Battis has a truly magical way with language, capturing ideas and feelings I instantly recognise but have never known how to put into words, sometimes to hilarious effect, sometimes giving me goosebumps and shivers. I genuinely think Winter Knight is something special, and I’ll be keeping a sharp lookout for anything more from Battis in the future!

My review!

To Shape a Dragon's Breath (Nampeshiweisit #1) by Moniquill Blackgoose
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual Native American MC, Native American secondary cast, secondary autistic character, Black sapphic love interest, Native American love interest
Published on: 9th May 2023

A young Indigenous woman enters a colonizer-run dragon academy—and quickly finds herself at odds with the “approved” way of doing things—in the first book of this brilliant new fantasy series.

The remote island of Masquapaug has not seen a dragon in many generations—until fifteen-year-old Anequs finds a dragon’s egg and bonds with its hatchling. Her people are delighted, for all remember the tales of the days when dragons lived among them and danced away the storms of autumn, enabling the people to thrive. To them, Anequs is revered as Nampeshiweisit—a person in a unique relationship with a dragon.

Unfortunately for Anequs, the Anglish conquerors of her land have different opinions. They have a very specific idea of how a dragon should be raised, and who should be doing the raising—and Anequs does not meet any of their requirements. Only with great reluctance do they allow Anequs to enroll in a proper Anglish dragon school on the mainland. If she cannot succeed there, her dragon will be killed.

For a girl with no formal schooling, a non-Anglish upbringing, and a very different understanding of the history of her land, challenges abound—both socially and academically. But Anequs is smart, determined, and resolved to learn what she needs to help her dragon, even if it means teaching herself. The one thing she refuses to do, however, is become the meek Anglish miss that everyone expects.

Anequs and her dragon may be coming of age, but they’re also coming to power, and that brings an important realization: the world needs changing—and they might just be the ones to do it.

I’m not sure how a Native American dragon-rider story could go wrong, but Blackgoose got it SO INCREDIBLY RIGHT! This is such a powerful book – not just because it takes on colonialism and racism, but because Blackgoose’s writing will have you feeling everything Anequs goes through as if you were living it yourself. And honestly, even when Anequs was calm and/or in control, I often wasn’t – To Shape a Dragon’s Breath had me full of Feels pretty much constantly. Anequs herself is definitely one of my favorite MCs of the year, and I cannot express how much I love Blackgoose’s take on dragons and their abilities. Joint-best dragon book of 2023, hands down!

My review!

Bang Bang Bodhisattva by Aubrey Wood
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Biracial trans MC, F/F/M polyamory, Hispanic MC, trans and nonbinary rep
Published on: 9th May 2023

An edgy, queer cyberpunk detective mystery by an exciting new trans voice from New Zealand.

Someone wants trans girl hacker-for-hire Kiera Umehara in prison or dead—but for what? Failing to fix their smart toilet?  

It’s 2032 and we live in the worst cyberpunk future. Kiera is gigging her ass off to keep the lights on, but her polycule’s social score is so dismal they’re about to lose their crib. That’s why she's out here chasing cheaters with Angel Herrera, a luddite P.I. who thinks this is The Big Sleep. Then the latest job cuts too deep—hired to locate Herrera’s ex-best friend (who’s also Kiera’s pro bono attorney), they find him murdered instead. Their only lead: a stick of Nag Champa incense dropped at the scene.  

Next thing Kiera knows, her new crush turns up missing—sans a hand (the real one, not the cybernetic), and there’s the familiar stink of sandalwood across the apartment. Two crimes, two sticks of incense, Kiera framed for both. She told Herrera to lose her number, but now the old man might be her only way out of this bullshit...

A fast-talker with a heart of gold, Bang Bang Bodhisattva is both an odd-couple buddy comedy that never knows when to shut up and an exploration of finding yourself and your people in an ever-mutable world.  

Despite how bleak the dystopian(-esque?) setting is, Bang Bang Bodhisattva is surprisingly heart-warming and HYSTERICALLY funny. It has such strong queer-found-family themes, this idea of refusing to NOT find and fight for every little scrap of joy you can get even in a corporate hellscape. I just – it felt surprisingly reassuring and uplifting, to have a book that says ‘sometimes the bigger world sucks and there’s nothing you can do, but you can still find happiness amidst all that’. I don’t think I’m explaining it very well, but I really needed it, and every single one of the characters is marvellous, and I really did laugh SO MUCH, and I loved the technological and cultural changes Wood imagined for the future.

And I need more people to read it because this could so easily be the start of a series, okay, Wood could so easily write more adventures for Kira, so go tell the publisher that we want that!!!

Witch King by Martha Wells
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Brown cast, secondary F/F
Published on: 30th May 2023

"I didn't know you were a... demon."
"You idiot. I'm the demon."
Kai's having a long day in Martha Wells' WITCH KING....

After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?

Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.

He’s not going to like the answers.

I love Murderbot, but I was so happy to see Martha Wells writing fantasy again! Witch King is rich and beautiful and subversive, giving us High/Epic Fantasy without the big cinematic parts…and I realise that sounds very boring, but it’s not – it’s sneaky-clever, and gives Wells room to focus on the characters and their relationships, the quiet parts that a lot of big cinematic stories skip over or don’t have room for. The worldbuilding is gorgeous – I hope Wells revisits this setting some day! – and I adored all the characters, especially our MC Kai, who is a badass with a huge heart.

My review!

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual biracial/latina MC, F/F, bisexual MC
Published on: 30th May 2023

In this spellbinding debut novel, two estranged half-sisters tasked with guarding their family's library of magical books must work together to unravel a deadly secret at the heart of their collection--a tale of familial loyalty and betrayal, and the pursuit of magic and power.

For generations, the Kalotay family has guarded a collection of ancient and rare books. Books that let a person walk through walls or manipulate the elements--books of magic that half-sisters Joanna and Esther have been raised to revere and protect.
All magic comes with a price, though, and for years the sisters have been separated. Esther has fled to a remote base in Antarctica to escape the fate that killed her own mother, and Joanna's isolated herself in their family home in Vermont, devoting her life to the study of these cherished volumes. But after their father dies suddenly while reading a book Joanna has never seen before, the sisters must reunite to preserve their family legacy. In the process, they'll uncover a world of magic far bigger and more dangerous than they ever imagined, and all the secrets their parents kept hidden; secrets that span centuries, continents, and even other libraries . . .

In the great tradition of Ninth House, The Magicians, and Practical Magic, this is a suspenseful and richly atmospheric novel that draws readers into a vast world filled with mystery and magic, romance, and intrigue--and marks the debut of an extraordinary new voice in speculative fiction.

Ink Blood Sister Scribe took me completely by surprise – it wasn’t on my anticipated list, I had no idea it was coming out, but the second I picked it up, it swept me away. Törzs’ prose is deliciously readable, and the magic system she’s created is sure to capture the hearts of every reader who still secretly believes that books are inherently magical. I was so impressed with how many balls Törzs kept in the air, never dropping a single one, and yet this intricate story was so easy to read – it felt like a gift, not something I had to work at. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for anything Törzs writes in the future!

My review!

The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar by Indra Das
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown cast, nonbinary MC, major Chinese character
Published on: 1st June 2023
ISBN: 1645240878

Ru is a boy from nowhere. Though he lives somewhere—the city of Calcutta—his classmates in school remind him he doesn’t look like them, and must come from somewhere else. When Ru asks his parents, they tell him they are descended from nomads. But even nomads must come from somewhere. The question, forever on the mind of the boy from nowhere, is where.

Ru dreams things that wouldn’t seem out of place in the fantasy novels his father read to him when young. Fragments of a culture that doesn’t exist in this world, but might in another, where sky and sea are one, and humans sail this eternal ocean on the backs of divine beasts.

Ru dreams of dragons, of serpents impossible. Perhaps Ru remembers dragons.
Alone in a city that’s home but doesn’t feel like it, Ru befriends Alice, his neighbor from the nearby Chinatown. As they grow with their friendship, Ru finds that Calcutta may yet be a home for him. But with his best friend starting to realize that Ru’s house and family hide a myriad of secrets, the question haunts him still—where is his family from? Are they truly from nowhere, migrants to this reality? And if so, what strange wings brought them across the vast reaches of impossibility to here—and what is their purpose?

In any other year To Shape a Dragon’s Breath would be the uncontested Best Dragon Book of the year – but this year it’s the joint-best, because this year, we also had The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar. And it is breathtaking. This is a book so beautiful it’ll make you ache, so full of wonder it hurts a little (but in the best way). Das’ dragons might be my favourite dragons of all time, and are captured perfectly by the dreamy, magical prose. This is a book you can’t help but treasure, and nothing I write about it will do it justice. You’ll just have to read it for yourself!

If Found, Return to Hell by Em X. Liu
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Nonbinary Chinese MC, Chinese setting and cast
Published on: 15th June 2023
ISBN: 1786189917

Being an intern at One Wizard sounds magical on the page, but in practice mostly means getting yelled at by senior mages and angry clients alike. And so, after receiving a frantic call from a young man who’s awoken to a talisman on his bedroom wall—and no memory of how it got there—Journeyman Wen jumps at the chance to escape call-center duty and actually help someone for once.

But the case ends up being more complicated than Wen could ever have anticipated. The client has been possessed by a demon prince from Hell, and he’s not interested in leaving.

Liu’s debut novella manages to be cute and hilarious while also perfectly capturing the utter HELL that is tech support – to say nothing of the helplessness of being caught in corporate rules when all you want is to actually help people. The found family is strong with this one, and every single character managed to steal my heart before I knew what was happening. So many giggles and so much approval!

The Archive Undying (The Downworld Sequence #1) by Emma Mieko Candon
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Asian-coded setting and cast, mlm MC, M/M
Published on: 27th June 2023

War machines and AI gods run amok in The Archive Undying, national bestseller Emma Mieko Candon's bold entry into the world of mecha fiction.


When the robotic god of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched. It killed its priests, its city, and all its wondrous works. But in its final death throes, the god brought one thing back to life: its favorite child, Sunai. For the seventeen years since, Sunai has walked the land like a ghost, unable to die, unable to age, and unable to forget the horrors he's seen. He's run as far as he can from the wreckage of his faith, drowning himself in drink, drugs, and men. But when Sunai wakes up in the bed of the one man he never should have slept with, he finds himself on a path straight back into the world of gods and machines.

The Archive Undying is the first volume of Emma Mieko Candon's Downworld Sequence, a sci-fi series where AI deities and brutal police states clash, wielding giant robots steered by pilot-priests with corrupted bodies.

Come get in the robot.

The Archive Undying is maybe the strangest book on this list; since its release, it’s been pretty clear that it’s a love-it-or-hate-it book, and which side you’ll come down on completely depends on how badly you as a reader need to understand everything that’s going on. In that way, it’s very like the Locked Tomb series – there are no sword-wielding sapphics or necromancers here, but Candon’s prose hits the same flavour of wtfery as Tamsyn Muir’s does, and we also have disaster!queers making disastrous decisions. So, you know, they have that in common as well!

But everything else is very different: this is set in a world where AI gods rule cities, but keep self-destructing (and taking their cities with them), following Sunai, who is cool with dying but can’t handle anyone being nice to him, through a landscape of strange mechas and so many – so many! – levels of intrigue coming at him from all directions. If you’ve been craving something as weird and unique as the Locked Tomb books, and are willing to go full sci fi without any magic, then this will be perfect for you.

My review!

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown cast, bi/pansexual MC, M/M, minor nonbinary characters
Published on: 11th July 2023

Nestled at the head of a supercontinent, framed by sky and sea, lies Luriat, the city of bright doors. The doors are everywhere in the city, squatting in walls where they don’t belong, painted in vivid warning. They watch over a city of art and avarice, of plagues and pogroms, and silently refuse to open. No one knows what lies beyond them, but everyone has their own theory and their own relationship to the doors. Researchers perform tests and take samples, while supplicants offer fruit and flowers and hold prayer circles. Many fear the doors as the source of hauntings from unspeakable realms. To a rare unchosen few, though, the doors are both a calling and a bane. Fetter is one of those few.

When Fetter was born, his mother tore his shadow from him. She raised him as a weapon to kill his sainted father and destroy the religion rising up in his sacred footsteps. Now Fetter is unchosen, lapsed in his devotion to both his parents. He casts no shadow, is untethered by gravity, and sees devils and antigods everywhere he goes. With no path to follow, Fetter would like to be anything but himself. Does his answer wait on the other side of one of Luriat’s bright doors?

The Saint of Bright Doors is an easier read than Archive Undying, but it’s another very weird book. Chandraskekera has created a wholly unique world like nothing I’ve ever seen, with a support group for Chosen Ones who ended up UnChosen, magic teeth, pogroms, and strange invisible beings coming through unopenable doors. It’s a story about a young man without a shadow, raised to assassinate his cult-leader father…who then decides to go off and have a normal life instead. Except, obviously, nothing about it is normal, in the end. It’s so weird and so GOOD and you won’t be able to predict where any of it is going; if you’re tired of seeing the same things in fantasy over and over, then you need to read this book!!!

My review!

Prophet by Sin Blaché, Helen Macdonald
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Desi masc nonbinary/genderqueer MC, M/M
Published on: 23rd August 2023

Daring, suprising and superbly plotted, this is a fresh, thrilling page-turner from a dynamic new duo in genre fiction

Your happiest memory is their deadliest weapon.


It knows when you were happiest. It gives life to your fondest memories and uses them to destroy you. But who has created it? And what do they want?

An all-American diner appears overnight in a remote British field. It's brightly lit, warm and inviting but it has no power, no water, no connection to the real world. It's like a memory made flesh - a nostalgic flight of fancy. More and more objects materialise: toys, fairground rides, pets and other treasured mementos of the past.

And the deaths quickly follow. Something is bringing these memories to life, then stifling innocent people with their own joy. This is a weapon like no other. But nobody knows who created it, or why.

Sunil Rao seems a surprising choice of investigator. Chaotic and unpredictable, the former agent is the antithesis of his partner Colonel Adam Rubenstein, the model of a military man. But Sunil has the unique ability to distinguish truth from lies: in objects, words and people, in the past and in real time. And Adam is the only one who truly knows him, after a troubled past together. Now, as they battle this strange new reality, they are drawn closer than ever to defend what they both hold most dear.
For Prophet can weaponise the past. But only love will protect the future.

This is another book that jump-scared me; I had no idea I ought to be looking forward to it, but after picking it up to check out the first few lines, I was sucked in and couldn’t put it down until I’d inhaled the whole thing. These authors are mad geniuses with some of the most compulsive prose I’ve ever read, with a gift for making even the most minor characters come to brilliant life. Rao, one of our main characters, is such a git, but you can’t help but love him for it, and his superpower is flat-out amazing – as is the way the authors utilised it. So often I’m frustrated by how characters don’t use a power to its fullest extent because that would wreck the plot, but that’s not the case here, and I ate it up with a spoon. A seriously wild ride.

The Best of Catherynne M. Valente, Volume One by Catherynne M. Valente, Alyssa Winans
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi, Science Fantasy
Representation: Some queer MCs
Published on: 5th September 2023
ISBN: 9781645240785

The celebrated author of Fairyland, Space Opera, and much more, Catherynne M. Valente is also known for her stunning prose and captivating worldbuilding. From life on Mars to the zombified streets of Augusta, Maine, she has taken readers on unforgettable journeys for two decades.

Subterranean Press is proud to present: The Best of Catherynne M. Valente, Volume One, the first comprehensive collection of Valente’s short fiction, soaring through eighteen years of pushing the edges of storytelling.

Among her award-winning stories, you’ll find everything from melancholy robot girls to Eurydice and Orpheus; from detectives in Purgatory to time-traveling squirrels to a very different Santa Claus; from the grey coast of Washington to Alice’s Wonderland.
Valente’s work is an open, beating heart, ready to welcome you in to its darkness and its light.

Table of Contents:
Left Ventricle
The Consultant
The Difference Between Love and Time
A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica
White Lines on a Green Field
The Wolves of Brooklyn Reading
Borges in Buenos Aires
Days of Flaming Motorcycles
One Breath, One Stroke
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time
Mouse Koan

Right Atrium
The Melancholy of Mechagirl
The Future Is Blue
The Sin-Eater
The Sun in Exile
Color, Heat, and the Wreck of the Argo
The Perfect Host
How to Become a Mars Overlord
Fade to White
Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus
In the Future When All’s Well
Planet Lion

Left Atrium
A Great Clerk of Necromancy
Urchins, While Swimming
L’Espirit D’Escalier
The Lily and the Horn
The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild
The Red Girl
The Flame After the Candle
The Wedding
The Bread We Eat in Dreams
The Secret of Being a Cowboy

Right Ventricle
Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985
A Fall Counts Anywhere
A Delicate Architecture
Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy
Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune
Down and Out in R’lyeh
The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World
No One Dies in Nowhere
The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, Or, the Luminescence of Debauchery
Daisy Green Says I Love You
Silently and Very Fast
What the Dragon Said: A Love Story

I guess you could argue with me about this one, since the actual content of the book has all been published in previous years, not 2023. To which I say: fight me. This is an absolute treasure trove of wickedly beautiful and wildly strange short stories (and a few poems), that rollercoaster from fantasy to scifi to comedic cosmic horror, and it was one of the highest highlights of my year. It’s much harder to keep up with all of an author’s short stories than their novels – especially when they’re as prolific as Valente! – and I found so many that were new to me in this collection. I’m so happy someone was finally smart enough to gather all these together, and I can’t wait for Volume Two!

The Pomegranate Gate (The Mirror Realm Cycle #1) by Ariel Kaplan
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Portal Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Jewish cast, major bi/pansexual character, queer MC
Published on: 26th September 2023
ISBN: 1645660753

Ariel Kaplan’s The Pomegranate Gate is the lyrical first installment of the Mirror Realm Cycle, a vibrant and heartfelt Inquisition-era Jewish epic fantasy in the vein of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, and Tasha Suri.

Toba Peres can speak, but not shout; she can walk, but not run. She can write with both hands, in different languages, but has not had a formal education. The only treasure Toba has dared to keep is a precious star sapphire, set in a necklace she must never take off.

Naftaly Cresques sees things that aren’t real, and dreams things that are. He is a well-trained tailor, but a middling one, and he is risking his life to smuggle a strange family heirloom: a centuries-old book he must never read, and must never lose.

The Queen of the Sefarad has ordered all Jews to convert, or be exiled with nothing. Toba, Naftaly, and thousands of others are forced to flee their homes. Toba, accidentally separated from their caravan of refugees, stumbles through a strange pomegranate grove into the magical realm of the Maziks: mythical, terrible beings with immense power. There, she discovers latent abilities that put her in the crosshairs of bloodthirsty immortals, but may be key to her survival. On the other side of the gate, Naftaly, intent on rescuing Toba, finds his new companions harbor dangerous secrets of their own.

Now, hunted by an Inquisition in both worlds, Toba and Naftaly must unravel ancient histories and ancient magics in order to understand the link between the two realms. More than their own lives might be at stake.

Brimming with folkloric wonder, The Pomegranate Gate weaves history, myth, and magic into an exquisite tale of fate, legacy, and friendship that will leave readers spellbound.

This book isn’t weird in the sense that it has that kind of brain-twisting feel to it – instead, it feels beautifully and wholly unique. (Weird and unique are close together, and can sometimes overlap, but the connotations are just a little bit different.) Kaplan pulls from folklore completely unfamiliar to me (and I consider myself a proper myth-nerd) and expands it into something as enchanting as it is original. The Pomegranate Gate feels magical in a way you don’t see too often, and I was delighted by how unpredictable it was – every time I thought I knew where the story was going, it twisted in a whole different direction! Consider me enchanted, and pining for the sequel!

My review!

Menewood (The Light of the World Trilogy #2) by Nicola Griffith
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Bisexual MC, F/F
Published on: 3rd October 2023
ISBN: 0374715866

In the much anticipated sequel to Hild, Nicola Griffith's Menewood
transports readers back to seventh-century Britain, a land of rival kings and religions poised for epochal change.

Hild is no longer the bright child who made a place in Edwin Overking's court with her seemingly supernatural insight. She is eighteen, honed and tested, the formidable Lady of Elmet, now building her personal stronghold in the valley of Menewood.

But Edwin needs his most trusted advisor. Old alliances are fraying. Younger rivals are snapping at his heels. War is brewing--bitter war, winter war. Not knowing who to trust he becomes volatile and unpredictable. Hild begins to understand the true extent of the chaos ahead, and now she must navigate the turbulence and fight to protect both the kingdom and her own people.

Hild will face the losses and devastation of total war, and then she must find a new strength, the implacable determination to forge a radically different path for herself and her people. In the valley, her last redoubt, her community slowly takes root. She trains herself and her unexpected allies in new ways of thinking as she prepares for one last wager: risking all on a single throw for a better future...

In the last decade, Hild has become a beloved classic of epic storytelling. Menewood picks up where that journey left off, and exceeds it in every way.

Menewood. Menewood. What can I possibly say that will do this book any kind of justice??? Griffith’s prose is pure poetry, revelling in the natural world and the sensuality of living fully in your body, and Hild remains one of my favourite characters of all time. In this book, she finally starts carving herself out a sanctuary, becoming a power in her own right – but Griffith subverts the arc of that story, casting Hild as creator and protector rather than power-hungry conqueror. There’s grief here, and so much love and beauty, and this fabulous woman giving a middle finger to her culture’s idiotic notions of honour and glory in favour of getting shit done. Hild’s hyper-competence, almost supernatural pattern-spotting and pattern-weaving, and her tender ruthlessness all make me swoon, and Griffith held me completely hypnotised with this…this blossoming of Hild’s story. In so many ways, Menewood is about Hild coming into her own, and somehow it’s soft and gentle as well as vicious, all hazelnuts and gold, milk and arrows, twin foals and hands stained red. I couldn’t love it more. It’s a masterpiece – so much more than worth the wait! – and I cannot express how much you are missing out if you’re not reading this trilogy. It’s a true treasure of our time.

Traitor of Redwinter (Redwinter Chronicles #2) by Ed McDonald
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC, sapphic love interest
Published on: 24th October 2023

The second in Ed McDonald’s Chronicles of Redwinter, full of shady politics, militant monks, ancient powers... and a young woman navigating a world in which no one is quite what they seem.

The power of the Sixth Gate grows stronger within Raine each day—to control it, she needs lessons no living Draoihn can teach her. Her fledgling friendships are tested to breaking point as she tries to face what she has become, and her master Ulovar is struck by a mysterious sickness that slowly saps the vitality from his body, leaving Raine to face her growing darkness alone. There’s only one chance to turn the tide of power surging within her—to learn the secrets the Draoihn themselves purged from the world.

The book can teach her. She doesn’t know where she found it, or when exactly, but its ever changing pages whisper power that has lain untouched for centuries.

As the king’s health fails and the north suffers in the grip of famine, rebellious lords hunger for the power of the Crown, backed by powers that would see the Crowns undone. Amidst this growing threat, Raine’s former friend Ovitus brings a powerful new alliance, raising his status and power of his own. He professes support for the heir to the throne even as others would see him take it for himself, and desperately craves Raine’s forgiveness—or her submission.

But the grandmaster has her own plans for Raine, and the deadly training she has been given has not been conducted carelessly. In Raine she seeks to craft a weapon to launch right into her enemy’s heart, as Redwinter seeks to hold onto power.

Amidst threats old and new, Raine must learn the secrets promised by the book, magic promised by a queen with a crown of feathers. A queen to whom Raine has promised more than she can afford to give…

Daughter of Redwinter, the first book in this series, was on my Best of 2022 list – and now I have to include the sequel on this year’s list, because seriously: DAMN. I admit, I was sceptical at first; the beginning was a little underwhelming…but only because what I thought was happening was not what was happening: McDonald tricked me! And the trick/twist was MOST EXCELLENT. But a book needs more than clever twists to be The Best, and Traitor of Redwinter has all that more. The character work! The magic! The politics! The secrets and tests and betrayals!!! And oh, the emotion. This book had me torn between Ren’s fear and rage and desperation to be good, and needless to say, I was glued to the pages. Traitor officially cements McDonald’s place on my auto-buy-author list!

My review!

Starling House by Alix E. Harrow
Genres: Fantasy, Horror
Representation: Bisexual PoV character
Published on: 31st October 2023
ISBN: 1529061156

A contemporary gothic fairy tale about a small town haunted by the history it can't quite seem to bury and the canny, clever young woman who finds herself drawn to the house that sits at the crossroads of it all.

Starling House is odd and ugly and fully of secrets, just like its heir. Opal knows better than to mess with haunted houses or brooding men, but it might be a chance to get her brother out of Eden, and it feels dangerously like something she's never had: a home.
But she isn't the only one interested in the house, or the horrors and wonders that lie beneath it. If Opal wants a home, she'll have to fight for it. She'll have to dig up her family's dark past and let herself dream of a brighter future. She'll have to go down, down into Underland, and claw her way back to the light.

Starling House is the sweeping, romantic new novel from New York Times bestseller and Hugo Award-winner Alix E. Harrow.

I have yet to encounter a novel of Harrow’s that hasn’t stolen my heart right out of my chest, and Starling House did not break that streak! I was a little worried, because it sounded – and is – so different from her other books, but no: I fell for our resilient, ruthless, oh-so -unlikable MC after just a few lines, and I loved the eerie but enchanting Starling House manor, with its vivid personality and silver secrets. This is a book about ugliness and poverty and dreams and monsters of many kinds, with a story that seduces you from the my first page. Harrow’s prose is biting and exquisite, razor-edged and velvet-soft and utterly hypnotic. Even if you’re not a fan of Gothic stories – and I don’t consider myself one – it’s still a must-read.

The Darkness Before Them (The Soulfire Saga, #1) by Matthew Ward
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC, F/F, major Deaf character
Published on: 7th November 2023
ISBN: 0316476706

The first in an exciting, action-packed new trilogy from epic fantasy author Matthew Ward,  The Darkness Before Them introduces readers to a world ruled by a dangerous immortal king, where souls fuel magic, and a supernatural mist known as the Veil threatens to engulf the land.

These are dark times for the Kingdom of Khalad. As the magical mists of the Veil devour the land, the populace struggles beneath the rule of ruthless noble houses and their uncaring immortal king.

Kat doesn’t care about any of that. A talented thief, she’s pursuing one big score that will settle the debt that destroyed her family. No easy feat in a realm where indentured spirits hold vigil over every vault and treasure room. However, Kat has a unique she can speak to those spirits, and even command them. And she has no qualms using her power to her advantage.

Kat’s not a hero. She just wants to be free. To have her old life back. But as rebellion rekindles and the war for Khalad’s future begins, everyone—Kat included—will have to pick a side.

The Darkness Before Them is an object lesson in not judging a book by its cover – for all that the title + cover combo scream Generic FantasyTM, this is actually an incredibly original and deliciously twisty book, not just subverting reader expectations and classic tropes, but also packed full of wonderfully unique worldbuilding and some of the twistiest political intrigue I’ve ever come across! Including the politics and machinations of revolution, rebels, and the manipulation of the oppressed by the powerful. And I couldn’t be more impressed with the creativity that went into this society that runs on bits of soul – souls that light lamps, power engines, and even serve as security systems and weaponry! How has this slipped so far under the radar?!

Godly Heathens by H.E. Edgmon
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Trans nonbinary Seminole demiromantic pansexual MC, polyamory, brown trans love interest, plus-sized Indigenous trans love interest, QBIPOC cast, very minor fibromyalgia rep
Published on: 28th November 2023
ISBN: 1250853621

Infatuation. Reincarnation. Damnation.

Gem Echols is a nonbinary Seminole teen living in the tiny town of Gracie, Georgia. Known for being their peers’ queer awakening, Gem leans hard on charm to disguise the anxious mess they are beneath. The only person privy to their authentic self is another trans kid, Enzo, who’s a thousand long, painful miles away in Brooklyn.

But even Enzo doesn’t know about Gem’s dreams, haunting visions of magic and violence that have always felt too real. So how the hell does Willa Mae Hardy? The strange new girl in town acts like she and Gem are old companions, and seems to know things about them they’ve never told anyone else.

When Gem is attacked by a stranger claiming to be the Goddess of Death, Willa Mae saves their life and finally offers some answers. She and Gem are reincarnated gods who’ve known and loved each other across lifetimes. But Gem – or at least who Gem used to be - hasn’t always been the most benevolent deity. They’ve made a lot of enemies in the pantheon—enemies who, like the Goddess of Death, will keep coming.

It’s a good thing they’ve still got Enzo. But as worlds collide and the past catches up with the present, Gem will discover that everyone has something to hide.

I read less YA than I used to, but not putting Godly Heathens on my Best of the Year list would be criminal. Edgmon has levelled up from their debut duology; that was good, but this is mindblowing, raw and sharp and uncompromising, easy to read and superficially simple, but complex as fuck underneath the surface. I couldn’t put it down, and may have had to muffle my shrieks in a pillow a few times as I read. IT’S SO FREAKING WILD AND ORIGINAL AND GIVES ME EVERYTHING I’VE BEEN CRAVING re messy characters, embracing love AND the dark side, and a polyamorous ship I want to wave pom-poms for. HELLS FREAKING YES!

My review!

All the Hidden Paths (The Tithenai Chronicles Book 2) by Foz Meadows
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown mlm MCs, M/M, major mute character, brown queernorm culture, multiple minor nonbinary characters
Published on: 5th December 2023

The follow-up to Foz Meadows's A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, a sultry political & romantic fantasy exploring gender, sexuality, identity, and self-worth.

With the plot against them foiled and the city of Qi-Katai in safe hands, Velasin and Caethari have begun to test the waters of their relationship. But the wider political ramifications of their marriage are still playing out across two nations, and all too soon, they’re summoned north to Tithena’s capital city, Qi-Xihan, to present themselves to its monarch.

With Caethari newly invested as his grandmother’s heir and Velasin’s old ghosts gnawing at his heels, what little peace they’ve managed to find is swiftly put to the test. Cae’s recent losses have left him racked with grief and guilt, while Vel struggles with the disconnect between instincts that have kept him safe in secrecy and what an open life requires of him now.

Pursued by unknown assailants and with Qi-Xihan’s court factions jockeying for power, Vel and Cae must use all the skills at their disposal to not only survive, but thrive – because there’s more than one way to end an alliance, and more than one person who wants to see them fail.

I loved A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, but I have to say, I think the sequel’s even better. Which I did not think was going to be possible, but HERE WE ARE! All The Hidden Paths feels indulgent and decadent, with even more intrigue than its predecessor, and I don’t think I’m capable of loving these characters more than I do now after this book. Meadows’ prose is rich and I continue to adore the worldbuilding here, and want to applaud how well the action balances the introspection and romance. And I’m delighted to be able to say that this is a book that reminded me of what a joy it is to read, at a time when I was having real trouble remembering that – making it precious to me even aside from how incredibly excellent it is as a story.

There’s a lot of reasons Meadows is an auto-buy author for me, okay? AND ALL THE HIDDEN PATHS IS DEFINITELY ONE OF THEM!

My review!

Paladin's Faith (The Saint of Steel, #4) by T. Kingfisher
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Published on: 5th December 2023
ISBN: 0356518701

Marguerite Florian is a spy with two problems. A former employer wants her dead, and one of her new bodyguards is a far too good-looking paladin with a martyr complex.

Shane is a paladin with three problems. His god is dead, his client is much too attractive for his peace of mind, and a powerful organization is trying to have them both killed.

Add in a brilliant artificer with a device that may change the world, a glittering and dangerous court, and a demon-led cult, and Shane and Marguerite will be lucky to escape with their souls intact, never mind their hearts. . .

Another book that was MORE than worth the wait – it’s hard to rank the World of the White Rat books, because they’re all excellent, but this might be the best yet! Paladin’s Faith had me cackling like mad, and then sobbing with absolutely AGONISING Feels. I loved how much more we saw of Kingfisher’s worldbuilding – we got some pretty revelatory revelations! – but as usual, it was the cast that stole the show. I’m not usually a fan of characters with so little self-worth, but luckily Kingfisher knew exactly how much wallowing was too much, and Shane never annoyed me – and I got to cheer him on as he grew out of it. And MARGUERITE! Marguerite dazzled just as much as we all knew she would – I’m still so delighted she got her own book! – and her pragmatism and competence were just *chef’s kiss*. Even the secondary characters sparkled with life, and the plot itself was so wildly different to any of the previous Paladin books. THE ECONOMY OF A CONTINENT IS AT STAKE! I adore that kind of thing, when it’s economics rather than a Dark Lord that needs dealing with, and WOW did Kingfisher deliver! SO MUCH YAY!

And that right there is my list! Did you read any of these? What were YOUR faves this year? I’d love to know!

Tags: , ,

6 responses to “The (Totally Definitive) Best Fantasy & Sci-Fi Books of 2023!

    • Sia

      No thanks needed – I don’t put your books on your lists because I know you’ll see them, they go on the lists because they earned their spots there fair and square <3

      And I'm very sure we will!

  1. I love your booklists, because you often mention hidden gems I never heard of!

    I did hear about the newest book by Alix E. Harrow. I absolutely loved The Once and Future Witches, and also wasn’t sure if I would like Starling House. But after your recommendation, I’d love to read it!

    • Sia

      Thank you! I LOVE finding hidden gems and sharing them with people, so your comment made my day!

      Starling House is so different from Once and Future Witches, but they’re equally excellent, imo. (Although I prefer Once and Future Witches a tiny bit more, because, you know. Witches!)

    • Sia

      Thank you!!! I always have so much fun putting these together, and sharing them. Hope you find plenty to love! 😀

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.