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Best Speculative Novels of 2023

November 21, 2023 by in On Books

Books are my favorite gift, both to give and to receive. So as the holidays approach, here is a list of some of the best novels I’ve read this year, ranging from hard sci-fi to swash-buckling fantasy to stunning literary fiction.

Some were newly published this year, and some were just new to me. I hope you enjoy.  And don’t forget to support your local, independent bookstore! 

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Naylor

An octopus species that has evolved its own language. A marine biologist and lonely android who want to save it.  And a giant tech company eager to kill for their secrets. That’s the start of this incredible novel that wasn’t only my favorite of the year, but the most thought-provoking work of fiction I’ve read on the nature of intelligence and consciousness. Ever. 

So many science fiction novels create worlds where alien contact and communication is taken for granted. Author Ray Naylor instead takes a hard look at how difficult communicating is even across human cultures and what it would mean to try to understand a creature that shares little to nothing in common with us. Set in a near-future world of worsening climate change, the story questions if it’s even possible for us to study a species without exploiting or destroying it–especially considering we are simultaneously destroying ourselves.

Despite this unflinching honesty, I never found the novel depressing or preachy. In fact, the way Naylor manages to hold onto hope, humor and humility while exploring such a deep well of Big Ideas is something I think we could all learn from. I’ve already read the novel twice now, and I’m sure I will return to it yet again when my own spirits are flagging.     

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

I first heard about this atmospheric novel during an interview with its author, when she jokingly comped it as “The Abyss with lesbians.” I remembered the old movie – with its creepy underwater vibes – and was intrigued. Turns out, the novel is much, much better.

Its premise is simple: A scientist goes on an exploratory submarine mission to the bottom of the ocean and comes back … changed. It’s told from the dueling point-of-views of the scientist and her wife, who senses something is deeply wrong.

I’m normally a wimp when it comes to suspense and horror, but the gorgeous prose and creeping dread in this novel was excruciatingly perfect. The story is almost gothic in its focus on mood and emotion, a portrait of a body and relationship unraveling more than a genre tale of what exactly happened in the deep (although there is eventually some clarification there, too.) I highly recommend.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

You know you’re enjoying a book when you’re driving down the road, hit a stoplight and ask yourself, “Would it really be so bad if I took out my phone right now and read just one more paragraph on my Kindle?”

Don’t worry, I didn’t. But I wanted to.

Author N.K. Jemisin—she of the Broken Earth trilogy fame—applies her same wisdom and withering side eye to this contemporary fantasy. The book imagines that New York City is not just a place, but a living, breathing person locked in a fight for his survival against a giant Lovecraftian tentacle monster from another dimension who hates everything NYC stands for.

When the NYC avatar falls into a coma, a group of strangers suddenly find themselves embodying the spirit of NYC’s boroughs and must find a way to fight off mind-controlling fungus, giant spiders, zombie cops, killer Starbucks, 911-dialing Karens, entitled art-scene dudebros (and possibly each other!) to save themselves and their city.

If all that sounds a little wild … it is. But the novel is grounded by its smart commentary on racism, sexism, and gentrification in the United States. And because Jemisin is a master, you’ll enjoy the rollercoaster ride as much as I did.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

The most surprising thing about this beautifully crafted time travel novel is how simple, almost spare, it is in its execution.

I found it effortless to read, despite its multiple timelines — the book jumps from Vancouver Island in 1912 to pre-pandemic 2020 to a moon colony in the far future — recounting a strange mystery involving a violin heard playing through the centuries.

How does author Emily St. John Mandel manage this understated portrait of grief, loneliness, and love? Her chapters are short (in fact, one, at only twelve words long, was more of a poem that left me breathless). Her characters are vivid, and her settings starkly contrast, so there’s never any doubt where you are or who is speaking. The mystery-esque plot sweeps you along and each storyline turns like a gear, until suddenly the whole thing makes sense, and you see the gilded clock that has been tick, tick, ticking in the background all along.

Although the novel is at turns eerie, quiet and sad, the ending left me content with the knowledge that heartbreak is a price well worth paying in the name of loyalty and love. 

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

I picked up this novel because I was in dire need of some humor and because I’ve grown tired of hero quests starring farm boys barely old enough to wipe their own butts.

This novel features a motley crew of monster-hunting mercenaries who have grown old, fat and drunk in their retirement but are forced to pull themselves together to save the daughter of one of their bandmates.

On one hand, it’s a fun, witty read that spoofs middle age and will satisfy the appetites of anyone who loves classic fantasy adventures involving sword fights, dragons and vengeful gods. Even better for a reader like me – whose appetite for battle scene after battle scene is tempered these days – it also introduces a fascinating bad guy and executes some refreshing twists on old formulas, including questioning why there are so many monsters in the world that need killing in the first place. All of this has me wondering if the rest of the three-book series might be even better than its strong start.  

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