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A collage image of titles featured in this list: The Candy House, Speaking Bones, The Hacienda, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, The Oleander Sword, Babel, and The Spear Cut Through Water. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon | Source images: Del Rey Books; Little, Brown Book Group; Harper Voyager; Berkley; Gallery / Saga Press

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The best science fiction and fantasy books of 2022

Impressive debuts, returning favorites, and much more

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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.

The cover for Africa Risen, featuring a Black person whose hair is blending in with green growth behind them, wearing a colorfully painted outfit that looks like a space suit Image: Tor

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

Cover image for Heart of the Sun Warrior, a colorful image with a castle, clouds, and a person aiming a bow. Image: Harper Voyager

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

Cover image for N.K. Jemisin’s The World We Make, with a black-and-white apartment building that has colorful octopus-like graffiti on it Image: Orbit

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

Cover image for Bliss Montage by Ling Ma, with oranges in plastic wrapping Image: Macmillan

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

Cover image for The Spear Cuts Through Water, which depicts two figures fighting — one with a spear, one with a sword — through an opening in a tree canopy. Image: Del Rey Books

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

Cover image for The Oldeander Sword, featuring a woman in a gorgeous dress lifting up a green curtain while holding a sword. Image: Orbit

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

The cover image for Babel, a stark black-and-white drawing of a tall tower, with white birds around it and smaller buildings. Image: Harper Voyager

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

Cover image for Ramona Emerson’s Shutter, featuring a person walking down a dirt road in a red and brown landscape, as seen through  concentric circles. Image: Soho Crime

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

Cover image for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, featuring a woman in a teal dress standing in a large orange doorway, surrounded by growing vines on the house. Image: Del Rey

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

Cover image for A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, filled with bright colors and an orange skyline with circular shapes, as well as a cart going along a hilly road. Image: Tor

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

The cover image for Ken Liu’s Speaking Bones, which depicts a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables inside an antlered skull. Image: Gallery, Saga Press

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

Cover image of Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife, with a dark-skinned woman with long hair backgrounded by blue flowers. Image: Penguin Randomhouse

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 cover image of Isabel Cañas’s The Hacienda, featuring a woman in a red dress standing in front of a dilapidated building and behind some spiky plants. Image: Penguin Random House

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

Cover for Eyes of the Void, which features a planet and multiple space ships. Image: Pan McMillan

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 cover for John Gwynne’s The Hunger of the Gods, which features a very angry wolf. Image: Orbit Books

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 cover for Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, with a pixelated image of horizontal lines of all kinds of colors. Image: Scribner’s

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

The cover for Sea of Tranquility showing a moon behind the horizon Image: Penguin Random House

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