I’m honored to have served as one of the World Fantasy Award judges this year, considering works of horror and fantasy originally published in 2022. It was an incredible experience, and I’m truly grateful to all my fellow judges, all the authors, publishers, and editors who sent work out way, the World Fantasy Award board members, and all the members of the World Fantasy Convention(s) who voted for their favorites this year. It was a lot of work, but absolutely worthwhile in terms of putting work on my radar that I’d missed, and giving me an opportunity to catch up on things I’d meant to read but hadn’t gotten around to yet. If you ever have the opportunity to be a judge, and you have the bandwidth to do so, I highly recommend it!
This year’s ballot was recently released. Congratulations to all the finalists! At the risk of repeating myself – thank you again to everyone who sent work our way to consider. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to read your work, and I’m even delighted that you made our job so incredibly hard!
There was so much phenomenal art, fiction, and non-fiction published last year. We could have easily filled a finalist ballot twice as long, or even longer. To that end, I wanted to highlight some additional personal favorite reads from 2022 that I came across during the judging process, including some that did make the final ballot. They are all amazing as far as I’m concerned, and I would love for people to read them! These recommendations are on top of the favorite short stories, novels and novellas, anthologies and collections, and novelettes that I already posted about at the end of last year and the beginning of this year.
Ready? In no particular order, here we go!
Breakable Things by Cassandra Khaw
This collection has received a good deal of buzz this year, including winning the Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Collection, and the buzz is well-deserved. The collection is full of dark, gorgeous writing, and a perfect opportunity to get a sense of Khaw’s voice if you haven’t read their work before.
A Study in Ugliness & Outras Historias by H. Pueyo
An incredibly dark and occasionally downright brutal collection. The stories aren’t always an easy read, but I found all of them worthwhile, even when they hurt. As an extra bonus, each story is offered in both English and Portuguese. One of the standouts for me was “Rabbit’s Foot”, exploring friendship turned vicious, what it means to belong, and the pressure to go along and not make trouble in order to be considered “one of the good ones”. It’s terrifying and rings terrifyingly true.
How to See Ghosts and Other Figments by Orrin Grey
I’m absolutely a sucker for tales of old Hollywood, classic movie monsters, uncanny video games, and stories that explore the eerie possibilities of other artistic mediums like music, painting, poetry, and so on. Grey hits a lot of my fictional favorites in this collection, and overall the collection is full of pleasingly weird and uneasy tales.
The Black Maybe by Attila Veres (Translated by Luca Karafiath)
Attila Veres is a Hungarian author who hadn’t previously be on my radar, and now absolutely will be going forward. This collection was a finalist for the Stoker Award this year, and with good cause. The stories tend to the surreal, with hints of cosmic horror. A particular favorite of mine was “The Time Remaining”, about a child’s toy that becomes inextricably linked with their grandmother’s death, effectively blending a building horror with an exploration of loss and guilt.
Song of the Mango and Other New Myths by Vida Cruz-Borja
This is a lovely collection by an author whose work I enjoy, giving me a chance to revisit stories and discover new ones. Many of Cruz-Borja’s stories have a fairy-tale like feel, blending elements of mythology and fantasy into the real world. In an overall strong collection, two stories that stood out to me in particular were “Blushing Blue”, where two sisters use tattoo magic to try to bring back their dead mother, and “Ink: A Love Story”, a meta fictional piece about two writers trying to write their perfect partner into existence, with quite dark and unsettling undertones.
All Our Hearts Are Ghosts by Peter Atkins
An overall strong collection, with stories ranging from weird noir, to a quiet and touching story about a ghost who doesn’t yet realize she’s a ghost, and everything in between. Definitely worth checking out.
The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia
I’d heard so many good things about this novella, and it did not disappoint. The voice is fantastic, and the worldbuilding intricate and incredibly well done. There’s a satisfying mystery at the heart of the story, which blends perfectly with the fantastical elements and the system of magic. The characters are complex and nuanced, and they have beautifully complicated relationships with each other. The story also provides a thoughtful exploration of gender, different experiences of euphoria/dysphoria, different experiences of what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to belong to a culture, systems of power, and the way violence and oppression can be passed on. Overall, a really lovely and worthwhile read.
Radcliffe Hall by Miyuki Jane Pinckard
This novella was published in Uncanny Magazine, and is free to read online. It’s got some wonderfully Gothic vibes, set in a boarding school whose grounds are being haunted by a former student who died under mysterious circumstances. The main character is recruited into a society with a deep interest in Spiritualism, and soon discovers both the society’s racist undertones and their nefarious motives. The characters are wonderful and the relationships between them well-done. It’s fast-paced and even at novella-length, it reads quickly and smoothly online.
Kid Wolf and Kraken Boy by Sam J. Miller
I always love Sam J. Miller’s work, and this was no exception. Set in 1920s New York in the world of boxing, with a healthy dose of tattoo magic, double and triple-crosses in the criminal underground, and a very sweet love story to boot. Its delightfully queer and sets up a lovely alternate world build on hope and marginalized people dismantling capitalism and fascism.
The Dirty Golden Yellow House by Debbie Urbanski
This one might fall under the category of novelette, depending on who’s asking, but either way, it’s free to read online at Lightspeed Magazine and worth your time, though it is a dark read dealing with difficult subject matter. The main character turns to the supernatural in order to cope the abuse and marital rape, which no one seems willing to believe that she’s experiencing. A painful look at power dynamics and the limited options available to people in abusive relationships, exploring what constitutes “love” and “need” and who is expected to give way in a relationship despite their own feelings.
And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
A smoothly-written and dark novella that explores the power of stories to shape reality, while also playing with the idea of unreliable narrators. The story can be read as a unique twist on the zombie trope, a pandemic story, a political metaphor, or all of the above, as a plague of violence sweeps the nation and people are locked away for their own good until they recover from their beliefs.
Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse
A novella with distinct weird west vibes that also explores classism in a town below a hill where the remains of a dead god are mined and those with fallen blood are shunned. Fantastic worldbuilding and great characters, who are faced with complex choices, while they also work to solve the novella’s central murder mystery.
Of Charms, Ghosts, and Grievances by Aliette de Bodard
This novella is set in the world of the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series, but the story stands well on its own. Thuan, a dragon prince, and his fallen angel husband, are caught up in a mystery when they discover the ghost of a child haunting a temple. They don’t exactly see eye to eye when it comes to the dead, especially those who can only survive by feeding off the living, and solving the mystery tests their relationship, while also putting them, their friends, and their family in danger. Gorgeous worldbuilding, fantastic characters, and evocative writing – definitely worth the read even if this is your first time encountering the author’s Dominion of the Fallen world.
The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield
A gorgeously-written and richly-detailed alternate history, set in 1760s Europe, focused primarily on two of the daughters of the Hapsburg emperor, whose lives are ruled by their mother’s expectations of them – that they marry kings and strengthen their family’s position. Charlotte and Antoine (known as Marie Antoinette in France) came into possession of an embroidered book of spells as young girls, and have secretly been using magic ever since to better their lives and subtly influence the course of history. Heartfield does wonderful things with the idea of “small” magics that effect big changes, showing the subtle ways women of the time might exercise power and control, while also doing a wonderful job with the impossible situation the sisters are put in, their complex relationships, and the choices they must make with limited information and opportunity. With all the history, magic, complex politics, and the deeply human characters, even at 600+ pages, the story never bogs down. The novel feels truly epic, and I could have happily kept reading when I reached the end.
The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
The Ballad of Perilous Graves is set in an alternate New Orleans, full of music, magic, living songs, ghosts, zombies, super-powered children, and walking graffiti. (So possibly actually New Orleans and not alternate at all, if you know where to look, but I digress.) This is a fantastic novel in all senses of the word, bursting with energy, and taking unexpected twists and turns. The titular Perilous Graves, along with his sister Brendy, and their neighbor, Peaches, is caught up in a mystery/adventure/life-threatening quest, when someone begins kidnapping famous songs and taking them out of the world. An unexpected family legacy is revealed, spirits are consulted and confronted, and reality turns out to be not at all what any of them believed. I remain in awe of how much Jennings fit into one book, and how it all works perfectly together to form a rich, swirling, mosaic tapestry to snap the reader up and carry them along – just like a proper New Orleans parade.
The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin
This is the sequel/conclusion to the story started in The City We Became, so it doesn’t stand alone, but both novels are absolutely worth reading. The boroughs of New York, recently awoken living embodiments of their neighborhoods, along with the avatar of New York as a whole, pick up their fight against an incursion of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The speculative fiction element works perfectly alongside a story about both overt and subtle racism, city politics, fighting for your neighborhood, and the people who truly have your back. The characters are wonderful, and their relationships and lives are made more complex this time around. The creepy white tendrils of cosmic horror remain effective, and it’s fun getting to see even more of the city-avatars from around the world as they’re inevitably drawn into the fight.
The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
I’ll admit that this one took me a little while to get into, but it did end up hooking me with its gorgeous, lush descriptions, and the way new facets of the characters were revealed over the course of the novel. The story centers on a merchant-thief, travelling with her djinn bodyguard, and a prince who is tired of his life confined to the royal palace and wants to see the world. They both get caught up in a search for a dangerous and coveted magical relic, uncertain who can be trusted, and trying desperately to keep the artifact out of the wrong hands. The novel is beautifully-written, and I appreciate the way the characters are deepened, interconnected histories are revealed, and the truth about the powerful relics is uncovered, over the course of the story. This is the first book of a trilogy, and I look forward to reading the rest.
To Catch a Moon by Rym Kechacha
This novel took me by surprise, not being on my radar at all, and having no idea what to expect when I picked it up. What I found was a series of lovely, interwoven stories, moving fluidly through time, nesting one inside the other, and creating a wonderfully elaborate mythology, while also telling a satisfying tale. The framing narrative starts with a painter who accidentally create an entire world, and the bulk of the novel tells the epic story of that world, the flow of its history and the interconnected lives of its characters. It’s hard to describe properly, but it’s truly beautifully-written, and well worth a read.
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Pretty much anything by T. Kingfisher is worth the read in my opinion. Nettle & Bone nods to several fairy tales without being a direct adaptation of any particular fairy tale. It’s dark and it’s bloody. There is a series of seemingly impossible tasks that need to be undertaken, including weaving a cloak of nettles and building a dog out of bones. There are fairy godmothers – fearful and powerful creatures whose blessings (or curses, depending on your perspective) can shape the fate of an entire realm. The prose is lush and the characters are wonderful, and overall its a quick and highly-satisfying read.
Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane
This is another novel that wasn’t on my radar and took me pleasantly by surprise. An alternate telling of the Iliad and the battle of Troy, centered on Achilles, a trans woman imbued with the power of the gods, who becomes a battleground in an of herself as divine influences seek to sway her to their cause. The descriptions of battle are sharp, the writing gorgeous, and the characters are wonderfully-drawn. It feels simultaneously epic and intimate, like reading a secret, hidden history of what really went down in the Trojan War.
Passerthrough by Peter Rock
Yet another novel that wasn’t on my radar, which pleasantly surprised me. This probably isn’t the book for people who like concrete answers, or narratives that wrap everything up at the end. Uneasiness is the name of the game here, with readers thrown directly into a highly uncertain situation, as Benjamin tries to piece together his memories of his daughter’s mysterious disappearance 25 years ago. Helen was gone for a full week, reappearing several miles away from the campsite where she vanished, with no explanation, displaying behavior at the time that might almost be called possession. It’s very possible that Helen touched another world when she vanished, and it’s also possible that her disappearance was Benjamin’s fault. The whole novel has a surreal and uncanny feel about it, evoking real-life stories of unexplained disappearances, particularly those blamed on faeries. It’s a quick read, and worth the time for fans of the strange, unexplained, and unsettling.
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
I can truly say that I’ve never read a novel structured in quite this way before, but it absolutely works. The point of view flows seamlessly from character to character throughout this dense, epic secondary world fantasy. The story moves backward and forward through time, with a framing narrative of a character recalling the stories their grandmother told them about the Old Country, a realm of gods, magic, warriors, and horrors. The focus dips in and out of the narrative within the narrative, with the worlds overlapping occasionally and informing each other. There are interjections throughout both narratives that function almost like a Greek chorus, giving an alternate perspective on events as they occur. It could be distracting, but it absolutely works, creating a story that is rich, layered, detailed, and breathtaking. My description likely isn’t doing it justice. Just go read it. It’s dark and lush and queer and beautiful and I’m in awe of how the whole thing comes together.
Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E. Cooney
Speaking of dark and lush and queer and beautiful, Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E. Cooney is all of those as well. Lainie Stones is a necromancer from a line of executioners and torturers who happens to be deathly allergic to violence, which is highly inconvenient given her heritage and line of work. She also happens to be favored by the goddess of Death, and sought after by the Blackbird Bride and all her wizards, making violence hard to avoid as she seeks to protect herself and her family. The worldbuilding is gorgeous and intricate, and reading the novel is like eating a sumptuous dessert. Saint Death’s Herald, the sequel, was just announced, and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!
Spear by Nicola Griffith
This is a quick read, but a very worthwhile one, as Griffith spins a fresh take on Arthurian legend, centered on Peretur (Percival), a young woman raised alone in a cave by her mother who eventually ventures out to seek her fortune in Caer Leon and the service of King Artos. It’s a wonderful queer reimagining that like Wrath Goddess Sing feels like reading a true secret history of well-known stories. As an extra bonus, it’s also gorgeously illustrated by Rovina Cai whose work is always stunning.
So there you have my further recommendations and favorite reads from 2022. And these books only represent a fraction of the incredible volume of work published last year, so much of which is fun and amazing and delightful and absolutely worth your time to read.
One thing that going through the judging process for the World Fantasy Awards really drove home for me is how much deserving work is out there in a given year, and how hard it is to select just five finalists in each category. As I said at the top of the post, there are so many works worthy of recognition, and even with everything we did get to consider for the awards, there’s also work out there that we didn’t see. So if you’re an author/publisher/editor, make sure your work gets in front of award judges whenever possible, and if you’re a reader, keeping shouting out the works you love. Only a select few things can make the final ballot for any given award in any given year, but there are countless other amazing works to read out there that deserve attention!