The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2022 – The New York Times

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Pandemics, witchcraft, terrifying A.I.: speculative fiction that stood out in 2022.
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Completing a novel is a difficult feat in the best of times, and we haven’t had any of those in a while. Because publishing moves slowly, this year brought us several novels that were drafted or revised during the upheavals of 2020, only to be released into a very different world. I want to recognize and celebrate the many, many hands laboring to make books in the face of so many challenges: not only authors but editors, agents, artists, designers, typesetters, copy editors and publicists. Of all the books I read this year, the following stood out as the most accomplished, astonishing or a heady mix of both. They’re arranged in the order I read them.
THE VIOLENCE, by Delilah S. Dawson, takes place in a post-Covid Florida, in 2025, on the cusp of a very different pandemic. Chelsea Martin lives a seemingly idyllic life in a gated community with her wealthy husband, two daughters and small fashionable dog. But Chelsea’s husband is physically and emotionally abusive, and he has systematically cut her off from any friends or support systems apart from her cruel and self-absorbed mother. As a new disease called the Violence spreads — causing brief, individual episodes of amnesiac rage during which the infected beat the nearest living thing to death — Chelsea sees an opportunity to free herself and her daughters. The book is a dazzling piece of knife work.
Instantly immersive and deeply affecting, IN THE SERPENT’S WAKE, by Rachel Hartman, concludes an epic fantasy duology that began with “Tess of the Road.” Publicly, Tess is on a quest: to sail through the Archipelagos to the South Pole and find the Polar Serpent, for science and for her friend Pathka, who has an ailment only the Serpent can ease. Privately, Tess is on a mission for the queen of Goredd: to spy on the neighboring nation of Ninys’s activities in the Archipelagos and report any aggression against its Indigenous peoples. Complex, compassionate and challenging as all Hartman’s novels are, this one is more expansive and multivocal than her previous work.
Sarah Tolmie’s ALL THE HORSES OF ICELAND is a slim and beautiful chronicle in the tradition of Naomi Mitchison and Ursula K. Le Guin. In it, a medieval Christian scholar named Jor relates the adventures of a stoic Icelander, Eyvind of Eyri, who travels to Mongolia to make his fortune and returns with a nameless white mare from whom all of Iceland’s horses will descend. The result is a sorcerous journey through hospitality and enchantment.
Jo Harkin’s TELL ME AN ENDING is one of the most sophisticated works of science fiction that I’ve read recently. A British company called Nepenthe offers therapeutic memory removal to two kinds of clients: self-informed and self-confidential. “The self-informeds know that they’ve had a memory removed; the self-confidentials don’t.” But a court order forces the company to offer the latter the option of memory restoration — revealing that they’ve had memories deleted in the first place and, for some, throwing their lives and relationships into turmoil. Sharply written with wry, slanted asides, “Tell Me an Ending” follows five characters in alternating chapters and explores the threads binding them to one another.
THE IMPOSSIBLE US, by Sarah Lotz, is an utterly delightful epistolary romance between Nick, a grumpy failed novelist turned freelance editor, and Bee, a cheerful workaholic with commitment issues, who refashions her clients’ wedding dresses into new clothing. When Nick types up an angry message demanding payment from a client and accidentally sends it to Bee, the two begin a cheeky, charming correspondence that will change both their lives — in multiple universes.
In Juno Dawson’s HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN, Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle are modern-day British witches who were inducted into the titular coven when they were schoolchildren. In the 25 years since, their tightly knit group has loosened. Helena has become the high priestess of H.M.R.C.; Niamh has drifted away from it; Leonie has left decisively to start her own coven, Diaspora; and Elle has buried herself in mundane domesticity, hiding her witchy nature from her husband and children. But when a terrible prophecy rattles the witching community, the friends draw together again — only to find just how different they’ve become. Warm, funny and heartbreaking.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s LOCKLANDS concludes his “Founders” trilogy, an epic fantasy that blends Renaissance Italy aesthetics with the ingenuity of the industrial and computing revolutions, and that asks hard questions about late capitalism and its attendant technologies. Over the course of three books, Sancia Grado has gone from a petty thief with the ability to “hear” magical objects, to the leader of the last bastion of free people battling against a terrifying artificial intelligence. Called Tevanne, it turns people into unwilling hosts for its consciousness and fodder for its projects; Sancia and her wife, Berenice, wage guerrilla warfare against it, having developed their own magical and technological enhancements. Berenice thinks winning requires ever more clever technology; Sancia isn’t so sure. A worthy conclusion to a spectacular series.
R.F. Kuang’s BABEL is a tremendous achievement, imagining an alternate history for the British Empire in which languages are an exploitable magic resource, provided the children who speak them with native fluency are groomed and assimilated into the empire’s violent systems. In the 1840s, Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation attracts or uproots students from foreign countries and teaches them to work translation magic on its behalf. Focused on one cohort of four brilliant students and viciously footnoted by a shrewd narratorial voice, “Babel” is an unflinching study of the cost of loving what’s destroying you.
Aimee Pokwatka’s SELF-PORTRAIT WITH NOTHING is tantalizing and elusive lacework, delicately balanced between the branches of fantasy, mystery and realism like a spider’s web. Pepper Rafferty is a forensic anthropologist who often treats the facts of her own life as a puzzle in need of solving; in particular, she wonders what kind of person she would be if she’d been raised by her birth mother, Ula Frost, a reclusive painter of strange portraits rumored to have sensational effects on the lives of their subjects. Ula goes missing, and Pepper is declared her heir — but Pepper isn’t certain Ula’s dead, and decides to become the kind of person who sets out to find her.
Teeming with music, magic, family and art, Alex Jennings’s THE BALLAD OF PERILOUS GRAVES is a feast for the senses, dazzling and inventive, with prose I wanted to eat off the page. In the marvelous city of Nola, graffiti can walk and swamp rats can talk — but the city’s magical existence depends on nine foundational songs that live inside Doctor Professor’s piano. When those songs escape, Doctor Professor recruits Perilous Graves; his little sister, Brendy; and their best friend, Peaches, to retrieve them.
THE SCRATCH DAUGHTERS, by H.A. Clarke, is a sequel to “The Scapegracers,” but it feels more like that book’s second half: fully as bold and bloody, visceral and fierce. In the first book, Sideways Pike, a solitary weirdo witch, found a coven but lost her magic; in the second, she fights to get it back. Along the way, she learns more about her friends and enemies, their shared histories and herself. Chaotically queer and helplessly loving, it’s a series I wish a long and celebrated life.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Hugo Award-winning writer and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”


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