We’ve run through our favorite games, movies, and TV shows of 2022, and now it’s time to talk about our favorite science fiction and fantasy books of the year.
2022’s best SFF books feel like an apt reflection of the past few years, as so much has changed. It may come as no surprise that this year ushered in a tidal wave of terrifying gothics and hauntings — books where protagonists were trapped in by the spaces around them. Science fiction gave us visions of the future, from white flight and space exploration to hopeful philosophical ramblings about the nature of being alive to post-pandemic technofuturism. At the same time, much of this year’s best fantasy looked backward, retelling mythologies and critiquing institutions of power.
This list has a range of titles from beloved authors, impressive debuts, and short-story collections, that all share one thing in common: We absolutely loved the time we spent with them. And we hope you do too. The list is in reverse chronological order of release, so the most recently released books will be at the top — with honorable mentions at the end.
Africa Risen edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight
Africa Risen showcases some of the most talented contemporary speculative writers — ranging from established writers to debut authors — whose works are set in Africa and across the African diaspora. This large volume reimagines fantasy and science fiction with stories about capturing lost memories and minds, those of climate crisis, and interpretations of folklore and myth. Stories range from whimsical and imaginative to hefty and contemplative, and each is the perfect size to read over a morning commute or before bed (which is how I have been slowly savoring this book). The breadth of this anthology harkens back to the seminal Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora. Africa Risen’s editors take care, in their introduction, to mention numerous other publishers and collections of short speculative fiction set in the African diaspora and written by Black authors — including independent presses, zines, and other short-story collections. As the editors write in their introduction: “Africa isn’t rising — it’s already here.” —Nicole Clark
Heart of the Sun Warrior (The Celestial Kingdom #2) by Sue Lynn Tan
Sue Lynn Tan’s debut, Daughter of the Moon Goddess, took the world by storm earlier this year. And she published the second in the duology this year as well, gifting us with a short wait and another romance- and action-packed adventure. In the first book, Xingyin, daughter of the moon goddess Chang’e, worked her way into the palace’s army in order to ensure her family’s survival — falling for Liwei the prince, son of the Celestial Emperor, in the process.
Heart of the Sun Warrior picks up right where the previous book left off, throwing Xingyin back into action. The Celestial Emperor once again found reason to punish the moon goddess and her daughter, forcing them to flee for their lives. Wenzhi attempts to curry Xingyin’s favor, even after his betrayals. It is unwise to attempt to outsmart the gods, but this is once again the choice our heroine is given. This sequel packs an impressive, near-breathless amount of plot into its pages, telling a tale of love for one’s family, and the quiet dignity of never giving up. —NC
The World We Make (Great Cities #2) by N.K. Jemisin
New York City may be the fifth character in Sex and the City, but it’s all six main characters in The World We Make. The conclusion to Jemisin’s Great Cities duology finds five of the city’s avatars still struggling to figure out how to stop the R’lyeh — a feat made more difficult without the aid of Staten Island, who remains allied with the enemy despite idly watching her borough’s boroughness be leached out of existence. The rest of the city is similarly threatened by a popular mayoral candidate whose campaign built on hateful rhetoric and gentrification threatens the very fabric — and existence — of the city. The battle for New York is thus fought across two planes in The World We Make, with some of the avatars focusing on the multidimensional fight for survival against an eldritch terror, and others standing off against Proud Men chanting “Make New York great again.” Subtle, this book is not. Though not as strong as the first installment in the duology, The World We Make still has enough grit, heart, and humor to propel you through to the very end. Though maybe I’m biased. I am a New Yorker, after all. —Sadie Gennis
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma
Bliss Montage is a departure from Ling Ma’s bestselling debut, Severance, in the best of ways. I was sucked into this collection of short stories from the very first page as Ma melds the fantastical with reality, serving it all in a witty deadpan. The opening paragraph from “Los Angeles” immediately sets the tone:
The house in which we live has three wings. The west wing is where the Husband and I live. The east wing is where the children and their attending au pairs live. And lastly, the largest but ugliest wing, extending behind the house like a gnarled, broken arm, is where my 100 ex-boyfriends live. We live in L.A.
Stories deftly blur the lines between reality and satire, borrowing from speculative fiction conventions to create something entirely new and satisfyingly odd. It is a must-read. —NC
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
The Spear Cuts Through Water is many things. At its core, it’s the tale of Jun and Keema, two strangers who help a fallen god escape her captivity at the hands of her cruel husband, the emperor, and their sons, aptly dubbed the Three Terrors. But Jun and Keema’s adventure is actually being acted out in a magical theater in another dimension hundreds of years later, with the book’s narrative winds between Jun and Keema’s story, the performance of it, and the experience of one man watching from the audience — though he’s fated to forget what he’s witnessed as soon as he leaves the theater.
The Spear Cuts Through Water recalls Gabriel García Márquez with its surreal fluidity, though the way Jimenez weaves together first-, second-, and third-person perspectives creates an immersive style just his own. And his decision to consistently disrupt the primary story with the flowing thoughts of surrounding characters gives you the sense that you’re floating through this world, both tethered to and set free by Jimenez’s mesmerizing prose.
So, as I said, The Spear Cuts Through Water is many, many things. It’s a spellbinding tribute to oral storytelling and folklore. It’s a thoughtful exploration of identity and family. But more than anything, The Spear Cuts Through Water is a love story, and one unlike anything you’ve read before. —SG
The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri
While the first Burning Kingdoms book was a beautifully lush piece of world-building and slow-burn romance, The Oleander Sword is a brutal epic that relentlessly builds toward utter devastation. The Jasmine Throne ends with Malini’s and Priya’s paths diverging, as Malini wages her vengeful war against her brother to claim the throne and Priya steps into her role as an Elder of Ahiranya. But when the two women see an opportunity to come together to help each of their people, the lovestruck pair leap at the chance to reunite and end Parijatdvipa’s reign. Malini’s brother is not the only threat facing the kingdom, though. The rot continues to spread throughout the kingdom, and new revelations about the Yaska leave Priya and Bhumika reevaluating their people’s history and relationship to their faith. A series already beloved for its thorniness, Suri muddies the dynamics further in The Oleander Sword as political plots, romantic desires, and religious beliefs intertwine and clash in in engrossing and often heartbreaking ways. —SG
Babel: Or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
In this masterful, lengthy book, R.F. Kuang sharply critiques British imperialism and the bureaucratic institutions that hold it up — particularly academic scholarship and monarchy. Historical fiction intertwines with fantasy, as a cohort of four students pursue translation studies at Oxford’s Babel. The end goal of their academic pursuits is to make magic-imbued silver for the crown. These magical silver bars are created through a process of translation — namely, that bit of meaning that’s lost between words in different languages, or as they’ve evolved over time.
One such example comes early in the book: the gulf between triacle and treacle, the former from Old French and Middle English with herbalist connotations of curing poisons and ailments. The contemporary in English is a kind of sweet and bitter syrup. This creates a silver bar with the power to heal, and that leaves a sweet aftertaste in the mouth. It is also the bar that Professor Lovell uses to save Robin Swift (this is the English name the boy chooses) from cholera in 1828, before whisking him from his home in Canton.
While studying at Babel, Robin and his cohort are given access to abundant resources they could have never dreamed of. At the same time, they see the ugly agenda of Oxford, and how even their mother tongues become tools of British imperialism. Their professors and classmates see the value in the silver they may produce, with their knowledge of such “exotic” languages, but view those who live in foreign countries as less than human and ultimately expendable. Robin and his friends must choose between two paths set before them: comfort and wealth in the bosom of the crown, or simply burning it all down. —NC
Shutter by Ramona Emerson
The National Book Award-winning novel follows a forensic photographer who — unfortunately for her — can see ghosts. The traumatized spirits haunt Rita at all hours, refusing to let her sleep and purposefully sabotaging her life. These hauntings are also what pushed her out of the Navajo reservation she grew up on, where even discussing death was seen as taboo. But no ghost has given her as much trouble as an alleged suicide victim, whose crime scene Rita is sent to photograph at the start of the novel. The rageful ghost is insistent that she was murdered and won’t stop terrorizing Ramona until her case is solved. Soon, Rita is in deep over her head as she finds herself immersed in a web of crime and corruption involving one of New Mexico’s top cartels.
A thrilling yet melancholy read, Shutter delivers on all levels. But be warned: If you can’t stomach too much gore, you might need to skim through the crime scene descriptions where Emerson’s own experience as a forensic photographer shines through in her grisly prose. —SG
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s newest novel is a retelling of the 1896 classic by H.G. Wells. But Moreno-Garcia sets it in 1871 in Yucatán, during the Caste War — a time when the Mayan people fought back against their Mexican and European oppressors.
As in her other works, this Gothic tale is told through the perspective of the young woman at its center. Sequestered in her father’s estate in the Yucatán Peninsula, Carlota Moreau lives alongside hybrid creatures, formed of animal and human DNA. She grows up alongside these hybrids, treating them as siblings, though the outside world would see them otherwise. She has long suffered from a “disease of the blood” that her father has treated with a regular injection of jaguar “gemmules.” To keep their work private, her father claims that he runs a sanatorium — attempting to hide the Lovecraftian horrors that lie within.
Carlota loves her home, and feels as if no other place would contain such natural beauty — though she begins to suspect all is not well. When Eduardo Lizalde, son of the doctor’s benefactor, visits the estate, her doubts only intensify. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau explores themes of colonization, class, and what it means to be human, all while being a suspenseful page turner. —NC
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers’ newest installment of her Monk and Robot series follows Sibling Dex and Splendid Speckled Mosscap’s journey through the wilds of future human civilization. A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the first in the series, details the context of this world. In the future, AI has gained sentience — and in response, humans decided to let them form agency and leave to build their own civilization in the wilderness.
Sibling Dex had been a Tea Monk, a profession that led them to human settlements; they would prepare tea and chat or offer guidance to those who sought their various brews. But one day the monk chose to eschew this path, leaving behind their profession to wander in the wilderness — where they stumbled upon Mosscap, a robot on a quest to learn about humans and their needs. In the first book, the two wander through uninhabited lands, discussing philosophical questions about the nature of being alive. In this second slim volume, the two finally enter a settlement of humans.
Chambers builds an alternate, gentler world than the one we live in — though it has its fair share of melancholy, sorrow, and prejudice. Through their questions back and forth, Dex and Mosscap get closer to the tender marrow of what keeps them going, and what their friendship might look like once their “quests” have come to a close. Chambers’ work has been called “hopepunk” by various critics, and this small novel continues on this theme. —NC
Speaking Bones by Ken Liu
I was dreading having to write this blurb because it’s incredibly intimidating — and I think, frankly, impossible — to do justice to Speaking Bones in a few hundred words or less. Though, my struggle is thematically aligned with one of the Dandelion Dynasty series’ larger points: that people’s truths are too complicated and contradictory to ever be fully captured. Often, the intricacies of people’s hearts, minds, and relationships become stripped of context, simplified, misinterpreted, or erased until what’s left is a cohesive, neatly wrapped-up history that’s easy to digest. But even within these stories, there’s truth and there’s power. And learning how to wield the power of storytelling is just as important in Speaking Bones as the ability to wield a sword, the might of a garinafin, or the grace of kings.
Speaking Bones is a detail-rich, multigenerational saga with a scope and ambition that would be unwieldy if not helmed by someone of Liu’s masterful talent. There are gods and war, political cunning and philosophical debates, pages upon pages of technical specifications for inventions, and dialogue that reads more like poetry. The questions the book raises and the empathy it extols are not things easily forgotten. But what has stayed with me the most is the gap between the characters’ stories that I read and the ways those stories get retold — within the book, but also outside it, as I try to share my love for this story with others. There’s so much that gets lost in that translation, but it doesn’t make either version any less true. —SG
The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi
This epic fantasy remixes tropes to create something entirely new and impossible to put down. As in other dystopias, society is separated by a strict class system — this time by blood color. Embers have red blood, which affords them the powers and privileges of blood magic. Dusters, the middle classes, have blue blood, while Ghostings, the servant class who are maimed at birth, have transparent blood.
Sylah was raised as a Duster and trained to overthrow the Embers by winning the Wardens’ annual trials. But when the rebellion was quashed — killing her family, or so she believed — she coped by turning to other vices, hoping to vanish into the background. All of this changes when she sneaks into an Ember princess’s quarters and gets roped right back in. The Final Strife sets its bureaucratic squabbles and a gripping love triangle against the backdrop of a deadly competition. It’s thrilling and entertaining from start to finish. —NC
The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas
If you loved Mexican Gothic, then The Hacienda will be right up your (haunted) alley. This Gothic is set at the lavish Hacienda San Isidro, in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence. Beatriz faces dire prospects — her father had been executed, and she and her mother are near penniless. When Don Rodolfo Solórzano proposes marriage, she feels as if her problems have been solved. She’ll turn Hacienda San Isidro into the home she and her mother have long craved, with bright windows and beautiful gardens.
But the Hacienda is not what it first appears. It is profoundly haunted, projecting visions of blood-soaked floors and walls caved in, blacking out the lights and rattling doors. In this tale, the monster is in the house — but the monster also is the house. Beatriz is abandoned without allies: Rodolfo has left on a business trip and his sister, who lives at the estate, turns her nose at Beatriz at every turn. Who will save her from this house? And who will give her and her mother a place to live if she cannot make this work? Only Padre Andrés, the young priest — with other secrets of his own — is there to help. —NC
Eyes of the Void by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Architects, an alien species of moon-sized planet destroyers, are back, and the one thing that used to ward them off is no longer effective. So, how does humanity respond? With infighting, power grabs, and petty squabbles. At the center of all this is Idris Tellemier, the only person to ever communicate with an Architect, who spends the majority of Eyes of the Void being bargained over, used, and kidnapped for political gain and protection. But while Idris is the one burdened with saving the world, his friends on the Vulture God are tasked with saving Idris. Eyes of the Void finds Solace, Kris, Kit, and Ollie (who rightfully gets her own POV chapters this time around) navigating the tense political atmosphere and facing down enemies ranging from the Architects to cultists to their own people in order to protect their unusual family.
Adrian Tchaikovsky has built a dizzyingly complicated narrative, and his inventive world-building gets a chance to shine in Eyes of the Void, as the Vulture God crew becomes further entangled with new characters, species, and cultures — most of whom the crew finds various ways to piss off. And though the book raises more questions than answers, the compounding mysteries raise the stakes to heart-pounding heights as Idris’ quest to learn how to stop the Architects unravels startling truths about the very makeup of the universe. —SG
The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne
In its second outing, The Bloodsworn Saga remains a merciless and brutal series filled with graphic action, impeccable world-building, and an ever-growing ensemble of characters who straddle the lines of morality. Only now, it’s no longer just about mortals fighting for power, revenge, or family. Gods have returned to Vigrið, throwing the balance of society into chaos. As many scramble to find footholds of power in the shifting world order, our original protagonists — Okra, Elvar, and Varg — continue resolutely down their paths to rescue and avenge those taken from them, even if that means fighting (or enslaving) a god. While characters’ storylines were largely separate in the first novel, here they weave in and out of each other’s lives as fate and (mis)fortune reveal how intricately their paths intertwined. Tightly paced and with invigorating action throughout, The Hunger of the Gods is the epic payoff to the foundation Gwynne meticulously laid down in The Shadow of the Gods and a thrilling setup for the series conclusion. —SG
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
Like A Visit From the Goon Squad before it, The Candy House, the newest novel from Jennifer Egan, is written in the mode of its subject matter. While the 2010 outing’s connected-yet-discrete short stories functioned much like a mixtape, or an experimental album from a band that had gotten sick of releasing catchy singles, The Candy House functions more like the omniscient, hyper-reactive style of communication that defines social media, and the internet writ large.
Following ancillary characters from Goon Squad, the sort-of sequel focuses on a groundbreaking consciousness-sharing app, its celebrity creator, and the multifarious cast that gave rise to its existence. As in Goon Squad, and even Manhattan Beach, Egan is above deploying the ramifications of such a godlike technology for soapbox diatribes — instead, she explores her own winding maze of characters and conflicting interests with disgust, empathy, and some of the year’s best prose: ”My problem is the same one had by everyone who gathers information: What to do with it? How to sort and shape and use it? How to keep from drowning in it? Not every story needs to be told.”
Above all, The Candy House explores both the danger and the sublime in humans’ compulsion to share their lives with others. Weaving stories from dozens of points of view in New York, the redwood forests, and the deserts of the American Southwest, among many others, it’s a sobering reminder that the connective technology — the “social media” — that could either save or ruin us is already here. —Mike Mahardy
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel has demonstrated her talent for penning interlacing stories, with both Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel introducing their casts in piecemeal fashion, slowly revealing how each of these characters know each other. Sea of Tranquility is even more sprawling, stretching from the 1910s and into the further future, a time when people live in moon colonies. The book also creates an official Mandel multiverse, if that’s your thing, with characters from The Glass Hotel serving as some of the novel’s primary focuses.
My favorite part of Sea of Tranquility is its wholesale embrace of one of my favorite science fiction tropes. It’s a time travel story with a number of well-plotted turns, all in Mandel’s fluid, introspective writing style. It’s a great read for anyone who loves The Matrix movies or enjoyed Disney’s Loki (but maybe wished it stuck the landing a bit better). —NC
This Rebel Heart by Katherine Locke
Budapest is where Csilla’s family has lived for hundreds of years. It’s also where they died. In 1956, seven years after her parents were executed by the Soviet police, Jewish newspaper typist Csilla and her aunt are preparing to flee to Israel. But after chance encounters with a student revolutionary and an angel of death, Csilla begins questioning what means more to her: fighting to survive or fighting for a better life.
With its richly drawn characters and gutting depictions of post-Holocaust trauma and antisemitism, This Rebel Heart is a grounded, often heartbreaking account of Jewish life under Russian occupation. As Csilla finds herself on the forefront of the Hungarian revolution, she navigates the dueling realities that have shaped her — remembering and forgetting, survival and freedom, and loving a city that has never loved her back. Elegantly blending history with magical realism and Jewish folklore, Katherine Locke has created a profound tribute to those willing to risk everything for hope. —SG
The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories edited and collected by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang
Chinese science fiction has become increasingly popular in the United States, as Ken Liu (an accomplished author in his own right) translated Liu Cixin’s groundbreaking Three-Body Problem into English. Since then, Chinese speculative fiction has gained popularity, making way for other literary talent.
The Way Spring Arrives is a collection of 17 Chinese science fiction and fantasy stories — and all of them have been written, translated, and edited entirely by women and nonbinary writers. Curated by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, the excellent collection spans topics and tropes. —NC
Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi
In the near future, a mass white flight to space colonies has left the largely poor, BIPOC population to eke out an existence on Earth, which has become uninhabitable after ecological and human-made disasters. But though the powerful and privileged abandoned the planet, the system they profit off of remains intact. Now, years later, the space colonists have begun to return — some to gentrify the neighborhoods their ancestors deserted and others as trauma tourists seeking to gawk at those who’d been left behind. A nonlinear series of vignettes, Goliath switches between several characters’ perspectives, but the main focus is on a group of stackers, a Black and brown crew of workers who scrape by salvaging bricks from demolished buildings to send to the colonies. With no hope of circumstances improving, they’ve long ago come to accept that grief will be the primary constant in their inevitably short lives — if the cancerous air doesn’t kill them, the automated drone police will. But while so much of their lives are defined by pain, the stackers keep moving forward, searching for meaning and fleeting moments of joy in a world designed to destroy them.
Impressive in its scale, ambition, and range of voice, Goliath is a shattering work that is so much more than the sum of its parts. In addition to the stackers, Tochi Onyebuchi weaves in tales of a gay white couple leaving the colonies to play pioneer on Earth, a journalist hoping to tell the stackers’ story (but really, hoping to assuage her white guilt), an incarcerated Yale grad who becomes a negotiator in a prison protest, and a Black marshal dragging a slaver across the West to retrieve the body of a murdered boy. Goliath is simultaneously sprawling and intimate, exploring racism, classism, gentrification, the prison system, and the climate crisis through brief moments in these largely disconnected lives. But taken together, these small moments add up to a powerful look at America’s broken system and the harrowing trajectory we find ourselves on. —SG
Akata Woman by Nnedi Okorafor
If the first two installments in The Nsibidi Scripts series were about Sunny discovering and exploring her identity, Akata Woman is about her defining it. The inventive, adventurous novel follows Sunny during a period of great growth as she and Chichi are forced to uphold their bargain with the giant spider Udide to return her stolen ghazal. With Orlu and Sasha tagging along, the coven’s treacherous journey to retrieve the ancient scroll leads them to discover breathtaking new worlds and the increasing limits of their juju abilities. But as Sunny strains to keep up with her rapidly evolving powers, she must also face the growing fracture in her relationship with her spirit face, Anyanwu.
Being doubled and being a free agent both carry heavy burdens in Leopard culture, but throughout Akata Woman, Sunny discovers a strength and comfort in who she is and what she can do. It’s yet another beautiful leg in Sunny’s coming-of-age journey, made all the more impactful by Nnedi Okorafor’s rhythmic prose. —SG
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s my absolute favorite by the end of the year. Tender and dystopian, the pandemic novel is told in a series of vignettes, each exposing a different pocket of future society — and eventually connecting through characters and circumstances.
Nagamatsu sharply paints a picture of society inevitably building industry out of grief, as people fight for basic human dignity and struggle to hold onto memories of loved ones. It’s an ambitious critique of late-stage capitalism, wrapped up in a series of family dramas that sound wild out of context: a robo-dog toy that contains recordings of a deceased mother’s lullabies, a euthanasia state park for children whose parents want them to have happy final memories, and tech-bro-created funereal currencies are just a few of the scenarios. —NC
Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan
This heartfelt, lyrical fantasy follows Xingyin, a young immortal raised in secret by her mother Chang’e, the moon goddess exiled to a life of solitude by the cruel Celestial Emperor. But when Xingyin’s existence is discovered, she must flee the only home she’s ever known and carve a new path for herself while hiding the truth of who she is.
Daughter of the Moon Goddess sweeps through the years of Xinglin’s journey with efficient, effortless speed, chronicling her evolution from a sheltered child to the Celestial prince’s unlikely but dearest companion and a decorated archer serving the very emperor she despises. All the while, Xingyin must juggle the desires and duties she develops in her new life with her long-held determination to free her mother from under the emperor’s thumb. A story about how far we go for love and the painful choices we must make along the way, Daughter of the Moon Goddess weaves together Chinese mythology, court intrigue, romance, action, and betrayal into one of the year’s most exciting debuts. –SG
- House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson
- The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang
- The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid
- What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
- Fruiting Bodies: Stories by Kathryn Harlan
- Walk the Vanished Earth by Erin Swan
- Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse
- The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe
- Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda
- Scattered All Over the Earth by Yōko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
- Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes
- The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan