I did not read as much as I usually do in 2023, and a lot of the books I read came out in earlier years. Therefore this is a list of the best books I read in 2023 rather than a list of the best 2023 releases I read. For clarity I have included the year of publication after each title.
This year I’m also taking a feature from Kaetrin’s lists and quoting from each of the books, although in my case it isn’t favorite bits I’m quoting, but opening lines. I feel that an opening line should at the very least intrigue. Only you can judge if these do that successfully for you.
Red Sister (and its sequels, Grey Sister and Holy Sister) (2017 / 2018 / 2019) by Mark Lawrence
It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.
I discovered Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy this year, though the books were published between 2017 and 2019. These books blew me away. Set on a world where the sun is dying and resources are scarce, the books follow Nona Grey from age 9 to 19 or so.
We meet young Nona after her best friend is hanged. Both were sold as children for their magical powers and Nona’s are more considerable than anyone realizes. In defense of her friend, Nona nearly killed the son of a powerful man and was sent to her execution. But Nona is rescued by an abbess from a convent that trains girls to belong to a warrior and assassin order. Sister Glass sees something in Nona, though she is uneducated and half-wild.
After her arrival at the convent Nona makes friends as well as an enemies. She is too direct to have a good grasp on the machinations that surround her. But she is fiercely loyal, and once she makes a friend, she is a friend for life. She also hides most of her powers because they are terrifying and she wants friends; she doesn’t want anyone to be terrified of her. Some whisper that Nona is the prophesied Chosen One; others see such a belief as heresy. I loved the unconventional way the book played with that trope.
Red Sister is a coming-of-age fantasy for adults. We see Nona come into her power, develop a better understanding of the world around her, and form tight friendships that serve as both her vulnerabilities and her strength. Mark Lawrence writes women impressively well, and the assassin convent setting lends itself to strong female characters. Although there are some slow sections, the books are often action packed and riveting, and they have fascinating world-building as well as massively engaging characters. There are queer elements but romance isn’t the raison d’etre here, which is as it should be, given Nona’s age. The books do get dark but Nona survives and the series ends on an uplifting, hopeful note. I would recommend these to readers who enjoy Ilona Andrews and K.D. Edwards, and anyone else who likes books full of action, protagonists full of heart, and an indelible world.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (2022)
Before Mazer invented himself as Mazer, he was Samson Mazer, and before he was Samson Mazer, he was Samson Masur—a change of two letters that transformed him from a nice, ostensibly Jewish boy to a Professional Builder of Worlds—and for most of his youth, he was Sam, S.A.M. on the hall of fame of his grandfather’s Donkey Kong machine, but mainly Sam.
I probably live under a rock not to have read this book sooner, since it became an unlikely runaway bestseller in 2022. It’s the tale of an on-again, off-again friendship that begins when a boy and a girl meet at a hospital. Sadie and Sam’s friendship eventually turns into a business partnership after they develop a popular and well-regarded video game together. When their friend Marx becomes involved in the project as their producer, the seeds of tension between Sadie and Sam are planted.
The book follows not just the development of Sadie and Sam’s friendship but also the development of the video game industry, and this allows it to be both intimate and wide-encompassing in a way I associate with multigenerational sagas or war sagas, though it is not really a saga. At heart it’s a very personal story of a boy and a girl whose very innocent friendship is tested when they grow up and all the messiness of early adulthood enters their relationship.
There’s diversity here–Sam’s background is Korean, Sadie’s Jewish, and Marx’s Japanese, and the book is own voices on the first two scores. It’s rare to see a competitive friendship portrayed as well as it is in the book, with both the sweet, supportive aspects and the edgy flaws on display. For a while there I really wanted to shake one of the characters. But there are heartwarming moments, angry moments and sad moments, as well as a couple of really creatively written chapters, and the book grabbed me from the very beginning. As I read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, I felt a lot of worry about whether it would end well or not. To those who like spoilers, I’ll say that–
Ascending (2018) and Bright Shards (2020) by Meg Pechenick
Phoebe Oliver said, “Divided by Stars. God, I used to love that show. What was the opening line again? ‘The Vardeshi have a saying …’”
I said, “‘A story has a thousand beginnings, but only one ending.’”
A generation ago, the Vardeshi, humanoid aliens from an advanced race, visited Earth with an eye toward a cultural exchange but quickly changed their minds. But unbeknownst to them and to Earth’s leaders and military, a professor recorded them and deciphered their language patterns in the hopes that he would be chosen as a cultural ambassador should the Vardeshi ever return to Earth.
Decades later, when he realizes he’s too old for such a mission, he decides to train one of his graduate students, and he chooses the bright and open-minded Avery Alcott. Avery studies hard all summer and when she has grasped the language and there is nothing more to learn, she feels bereft. But then the Vardeshi return, and they choose Avery for a dangerous mission. A mission that will test her to her limits but also open up new vistas–and friendships–for her.
The first two books in the Vardeshi Saga (book three isn’t out yet) were recommended to me by author Meredith Duran (a friend) and what a good recommendation it was. Together the two books comprise the beginning and the middle of a space opera featuring Avery and the crew of the ship she serves on. I don’t want to say too much because this is one of those books it’s best to go into not knowing a lot, but one of the strengths of the series is how approachable it is. It’s the kind of writing that even people who don’t read much science fiction might enjoy. Avery is easy to root for, warm, dedicated and competent, even if it takes every ounce of her skills and hard work to keep up with everything she encounters. The latter only made me care about her more.
How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black (2020)
A prince of Faerie, nourished on cat milk and contempt, born into a family overburdened with heirs, with a nasty little prophecy hanging over his head—since the hour of Cardan’s birth, he has been alternately adored and despised. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned out the way he did; the only surprise is that he managed to become the High King of Elfhame anyway.
I don’t know how much to say about this short novel. I can’t decide to what degree it would stand alone for those readers who haven’t read The Cruel Prince and its two sequels (The Wicked King and Queen of Nothing) because I did read them (in 2022, otherwise they would be on this list) and I loved them (not so much the first one, but each book was better than the last).
This sequel / epilogue to the trilogy is entirely in the POV Cardan, the eponymous (formerly) cruel prince. It serves as a kind of coda to the series–Cardan is well in love with Jude and has already redeemed itself when this tale unfolds, though there are flashbacks to his childhood and teen years. The book feels different from the rest of the trilogy because it’s about an unloved boy’s childhood and a young man’s love. The stories in the title (those Cardan learns to hate, I won’t spoil the reason) concern a man who wants to make his fortune and marry well–a common motif of fairy tales and one that serves as a contrast to Cardan’s own story. But the child Cardan is also impoverished, only in his case it’s in the way the people around him treat him and think about him.
How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories takes place concurrently with the Folk of the Air trilogy, as well as a little bit afterward, and seeing how far Cardan has come and how much he loves Jude now is heartwarming and sexy. It’s also short and elegant, and the storytelling motif is delightful. Then again, the story-within-a-story trope is one of my favorites. But this is also one of the best examples of it that I can think of. And I loved seeing Cardan hold his own against a powerful enemy without Jude there to protect him. His ultimate triumph–all by himself, despite his feelings that he is useless in a fight–was as clever as he is.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
The tall and dour noncom wore Imperial dress greens and carried his communications panel like a field marshal’s baton. He slapped it absently against his thigh, raking the group of young men before him with a gaze of dry contempt. Challenging.
2023 was also the year that I finally got around to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Miles is disabled in a society that won’t tolerate disabilities, so it’s a good thing that he’s not only the son of Barrayar’s former regent but also smart enough to think circles around everyone else around him. The books follow him from conception (more or less) to… well, I don’t know yet, since I haven’t gotten there. In this one Miles invents a mercenary fleet on the fly, one that somehow becomes real to everyone but himself. It’s a kind of Ponzi scheme where the currency is belief in him. But what if Miles doesn’t believe in himself?
I have read five of the Vorkosigan stories so far, and The Warrior’s Apprentice is my favorite of these five because it is hilarious as well as occasionally dark. Having read seven of Bujold’s other works previously, all of them serious, didn’t prepare me for the humor. But though the book had me in stitches at times, there were times when Miles was crushed and I was crushed for him.
I do have a couple of caveats–Miles comes across as significantly older than his age, and there’s some internalized ableism in his POV and in another disabled character’s. But that is offset somewhat by the fact that one of the main points the stories make is that he is more effective than most able-bodied people. I love to read about smart and capable characters, and even though Miles stumbles once or twice here, he’s still far smarter and more capable than anyone around him.
Translation State by Ann Leckie (2023)
The last stragglers in the funeral procession were barely out the ghost door before the mason bots unfolded their long legs and reached for the pile of stones they’d removed from the wall so painstakingly the day before. Enae hadn’t looked back to see the door being sealed up, but sie could hear it for just a moment before the first of Aunt Irad’s moans of grief rose into a wail. One or two cousins heaved an experimental sob.
Enae hadn’t cried when Grandmaman died. Sie hadn’t cried when Grandmaman told hir she’d chosen the time to go. Sie wasn’t crying now.
I’ve been a fan of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels for years, and this year I caught up on two other SF novels of hers, Provenance and Translation State. Provenance was good but Translation State was even better. The novel follows three characters: Enae, who is sent on a diplomatic mission mostly to be gotten out of the way, and does her job too well, Qven, who is a teen-equivalent Presger translator, a species engineered to serve as a bridge between humans and the terrifying Presger, and Reet, an adoptee whose mysterious origins are at the center of this unusual book. I’ll be frank, at first I was really freaked out because there is some violence and body horror, as well as cannibalism.
I might have skipped the book if I’d known that, but I would have been missing out if I had, because I ended up liking it quite a bit, and Qven, who put me off so much at first, ended up being my favorite. As with The Warrior’s Apprentice, I did not expect how funny this book got. I don’t associate Ann Leckie with humor, but I laughed out loud more than once. But this is also a book about belonging and finding your place in the world, and that aspect of it was touching.
Magic Claims by Ilona Andrews (2023)
“Well, of course it blew up, Kate.” It was a beautiful September morning. I sat on a big log cut from a beached tree. A fire blazed in front of me, laid out in the firepit on the beach. Beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the sandy shore. The water was an opaque aquamarine, the sky was a beautiful blue, and the flames in front of me were ruby red, fed by the mix of herbs and magic. About two feet off the ground, the fire faded into an image of my aunt.
In Magic Claims, Kate, Curran and their young son Conlan are offered a new place and begin to form a new pack, only the place they were offered is under attack and will only be theirs if they can save its people, and Kate can only protect their land if she claims it. But we all know that claiming can be dangerous…
If you haven’t read the Kate Daniels series before, this probably isn’t the place to start, but hie thee to the bookstore (or the library) and get a copy of Magic Strikes because given how popular the series is, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it (yes, I’m recommending skipping the first two books, they didn’t work as well for me). If, however, you have been following Kate for 10+ books, you’ll know what you’re getting.
I liked how tight this book was; the Andrews writing team fit a lot into a short novel, and just when I thought this series might be played out, they have breathed new life into it. Kate and Curran still have great chemistry ten or so years into their relationship, and I love Conlan. There is, as usual, action and snappy humor, but as always Kate herself is the star of the show. She is strong, charismatic, warm, quick-thinking, and to sum it all up, perhaps the best action heroine of the urban fantasy genre. I oftentimes end up feeling I should be giving these books even higher grades, because within the urban fantasy genre the authors are in competition only with themselves and very few others IMO.
What about you, readers? Have you read any of these books, and if so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear about your own reading experiences with these books.
Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven novels in romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Examples include novels by Ilona Andrews, Mary Balogh, Aster Glenn Gray, Helen Hoang, Piper Huguley, Lisa Kleypas, Jeannie Lin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Naomi Novik, Nalini Singh, and Megan Whalen Turner. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.