As with my short fiction reading this year, I am woefully behind. I’m still trying to catch up on 2023 titles, but knowing that I will never actually be caught up, I figured I would share a few favorites now.
Wild Spaces by S.L. Coney is a gorgeous coming of age story about a young man whose family legacy may very well be one of monstrousness. The novella has very much got a Ray Bradbury/Robert R. McCammon vibe to it. It’s tense, eerie, uncertain, and dark, but also filled with wonder. I highly recommend it.
The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill takes on the idea of animal spouses, and explores themes of grief, obsession, guilt, art, and family. Like Coney’s novella, it could also be viewed as a coming of age story. It’s told from the point of view of the daughter of an artist who invites the titular crane husband into the family’s life, forcing the daughter to be the adult and the responsible one in the household as the mother throws herself more fully into her new, unhealthy relationship, which is also wrapped up in her art.
Hybrid Heart by Iori Kusano is beautiful, dark, and painful. Rei is an idol, and as such, everything she does is tightly controlled by her manager – what she eats, how she spends her time, everything. Her former partner and friend walked away from their duo act, but Rei feels trapped, unable to see a way out, and things only get worse when her manager introduces a new, young client, making Rei simultaneously feel protective and like her career is being threatened with a “replacement” being held over her to keep her under control.
The Killing Grounds by Joan Tierney is a sharply-written, fast paced story about a woman who works for one of the passenger truck lines that have replaced airlines for cross-country travel. A man claiming to be a fellow driver hitches a ride with her crew, then attacks the driver and is killed in the resulting fight. Bina is shaken by the incident, but things get even stranger when she comes to believe that the man may have murdered her mother years ago, leading her to uncover a whole history of violence and secrets buried in her hometown.
The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi is a rich, secondary world fantasy, in which a young man sets out to find water for his dying village, and specially, for his mother. All his life, he’s been told certain stories about the shape of the world – who his enemies are, what he can expect out of life – but in the desert, he encounters three women who upend his worldview. It’s an excellent exploration of oppression, propaganda, and systems of power, beautifully told.
A Necessary Chaos by Brent Lambert is another story full of rich worldbuilding, where the main characters have been told one thing about the shape of the world and who their enemies are, and gradually discover the truth to be something completely different. It’s slick and fast-paced, a spy vs. spy story, but also a romance, set in a world of magic.
The Marigold by Andrew F. Sullivan offers up an excellent blend of sci fi and horror, set in a post environmental collapse Toronto, where multiple types of corruption have taken hold. A phenomenon known as The Wet is taking over the city, which may be merely an advanced kind of mold, or something supernatural, or both. Sullivan does a wonderful job weaving together various points of view to slowly build a picture of the world. Wonderful character-driven eco-horror.
Apparitions by Adam Pottle is a deeply unsettling and highly effective read. A young man abused by his father finds himself caught up in the orbit of another charismatic young man at the hospital where he’s taken after escaping his family. The story is both dark and heartbreaking in its exploration of how the system fails people, and what happens when society as a whole looks away from things it would rather not see.
A Market of Dreams and Destiny by Trip Gailey is an incredibly charming queer romance set against the backdrop of the goblin market. There are fae tricksters, clever mortals, and tons of gorgeous worldbuilding. It’s sweet and fun, with occasional moments of darkness, and overall, a highly satisfying read.
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang flips over a rock within the world of publishing and exposes an underbelly wriggling with darkness. The novel takes a biting look at competition and jealousy between authors, racism, and the churn of online discourse. There are a few touches of horror, and some genuinely tense and eerie moments, but the fact that the novel is so grounded and feels plausible is what makes it truly terrifying.
Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is set in the world of Mexican horror cinema. Lifelong friends Monserrat, a sound editor, and Tristan, an actor, are drawn into a mystery surrounding the unfinished film of an aging director, who also happens to be Tristan’s neighbor. They discover a world of occultism, with film being used to cast magic spells, and find themselves hunted and haunted. The novel is a slow burn, but satisfyingly dark and twisty, with wonderful characters.
Starling House by Alix E. Harrow is an absolutely gorgeous novel about a young woman named Opal struggling to take care of her teenage brother and give him a better existence. She’s dealing with the weight of grief, responsibility, and guilt, and is plagued by dreamed about Starling House, the home built by the eccentric author of the dark children’s book The Underland. She finds herself repeatedly drawn to the house in her waking life as well, and ultimately takes a job cleaning the house under the watchful eye of its guardian, the brooding Arthur Starling. There are touches of the Gothic, hints of cosmic horror, and some very real world horrors as well, and they all blend wonderfully. The illustrations by Rovina Cai are lovely as well – just a really fantastic book on every level.