My favorite reading challenge is winding down, and for the third consecutive year, I have completed a pair of Bingo cards. I’ll talk more about my themed card in a while (probably after April 1), but today, we’re looking at my first totally unplanned Bingo card. Sure, I went through the recommendation threads last April, because those were a blast, and I planned my themed card, but apart from that, I just read what I read and then checked this week to see if I could make a full card. And perhaps one or two squares are a bit of a stretch, but I did indeed make a full card.
Continuing the bit from the last two years, I have rankings, ratings, mini-reviews, and cliffhanger notes. Do keep in mind that the rankings are just for fun and shouldn’t be taken as gospel. After all, I intentionally excluded anything I rated below 14/20, so the worst of this card is very far from the bottom of my year of reading. And it can be hard to rank books with the exact same score. I have a 20-point scale and not a 50-point scale precisely because sometimes opinions can only get so fine-grained. Ask me again next week, and I may order 16 through 22—or 2 through 5—totally differently.
Anyways, I read some great stuff, let’s get to it. Links in titles go to my full reviews (except for short stories, in which they go to the actual short story):
1. “Falling Off the Edge of the World” by Suzanne Palmer, “Two Spacesuits” by Leonard Richardson, “In the Time of the Telperi Flower” by David-Christopher Galhea, “The Bone Stomach” by Ziawa Jande, “The Empty” by Ray Nayler.
Categories: Short Stories, Published in 2022, Book Club (hard).
Mini-Review: It’s common for Five Short Stories to end up on top of my list because I can just cherry-pick some of my favorites of the year. But all five of these are free—two will be discussed as part of the April 5 session of r/Fantasy’s Short Fiction Book Club—and I highly recommend checking them out.
Cliff Severity: Short stories may have ambiguous endings, but they don’t tend to end on cliffhangers.
2. The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler.
Categories: Standalone (hard), Published in 2022.
Mini-Review: The plot description may sound like Michael Crichton, with an undersea first contact intertwined with high-stakes hacking and an AI-run slave ship, but the storytelling is anything but. It’s extremely contemplative—on the nature of consciousness and of humanity’s treatment of the Other—and written in such a way that it only gets better upon reflection.
Cliff Severity: There’s plenty of uncertainty at the end, but it feels like a story that’s meant to end on some uncertainty and not one that’s waiting for a sequel.
3. Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated by Philip Gabriel.
Categories: Published in 2022, Mental Health (hard), Standalone (hard), Indie Published (hard), Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (hard), BIPOC Author, Family Matters
Mini-Review: The pacing of a school novel, but without the school, Lonely Castle in the Mirror stars a group of tweens whose individual traumas have kept them out of their local middle school but who find each other in a portal world. A slow read but an easy one, this dives brilliantly into adolescent mental health, making it not just my favorite YA novel of the year, but one of my favorite 2022 novels full stop.
Cliff Severity: Another standalone?
4. Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang.
Categories: Historical SFF, Standalone (hard), Revolutions and Rebellions (hard), BIPOC Author, Published in 2022, Family Matters
Mini-Review: This one is an actual school novel, set in a fantasy Oxford whose translation magic powers the British Empire, and provides an unflinching portrait of colonialism. And as fascinating as the linguistic magic was, the highlight for me was a lead character grappling with a place that has given him his heart’s desire but that will never fully accept him as one of their own—nor will they refrain from using his gifts against his native land.
Cliff Severity: If I keep reading this many standalones, it’s gonna ruin the whole cliff severity bit.
5. Dust and Light by Carol Berg.
Categories: Family Matters (hard), Book Club (hard), Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (hard), Mental Health (hard).
Mini-Review: If you’ve read Carol Berg, you know to expect tight focus on a lead who will go through absolute hell before coming out on the other side. This one sets up a neat puzzle with a lead whose magic art gives him knowledge others would like hidden, and there’s no lack for danger along the way.
Cliff Severity: This is a duology and should be read as such. The cliffhanger isn’t as bad as others I’ve read, but it still sets up a major step into the unknown.
6. Neom by Lavie Tidhar.
Categories: Non-human Protagonist, Indie Published (hard), Published in 2022, Mental Health, No Ifs Ands Or Buts
Mini-Review: It’s a short novel that flits through a surprising number of perspective characters, feeling more like mythology in a futuristic context than like a traditional sci-fi (never mind the robot main character). But it’s a beautiful and touching read that deserves more attention.
Cliff Severity: Reads like a standalone, even though there’s at least one other novel (Central Station) and other stories in this universe.
7. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan.
Categories: Book Club (hard), Revolutions and Rebellions (hard), Historical SFF (hard), Anti-hero, BIPOC Author, Family Matters.
Mini-Review: This is Chinese historical fiction with a thin veneer of magic, but both the magic and the politics are secondary to an exploration of several characters who don’t fit into their culture’s expectations of their gender. It’s intensely character-driven and altogether fascinating.
Cliff Severity: This is a duology and leaves plenty to do for the second book, but there’s enough payoff in the first to make it feel worthwhile by itself.
8. Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo.
Categories: BIPOC Author, Cool Weapon, Published in 2022, Revolution or Rebellion.
Mini-Review: Traveling companions swap larger-than-life stories during their time on the road. And then they experience some larger-than-life stories. Despite the mortal danger, this feels like a small-scale piece, and it’s a gorgeous one.
Cliff Severity: This is the third book in a novella series that’s explicitly meant to be readable in any order. The main characters carry over, but there’s no cliffhanger.
9. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers.
Categories: LGBTQIA List, Book Club (hard), Family Matters, Non-human Protagonist (hard), Mental Health (hard).
Mini-Review: And here is an undoubtedly small-scale piece, as a group of people from various non-human races have to deal with unexpectedly prolonged proximity after an emergency leaves them bunkered down together at a rest stop in space. Recommended for fans of character-driven sci-fi, especially ones who don’t mind the society-scale problems left unresolved while the small-scale problems are addressed.
Cliff Severity: Again, this is part of a series, but many characters come and go—this one feels readable as a standalone.
10. A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow.
Categories: Award Finalist, Book Club (hard), Author Uses Initials, Cool Weapon.
Mini-Review: How do you rate a very fun, fast-paced fractured fairy tale that you’ll blow through in no time but forget about in a month? It’s hard for me to call this an essential read, but it is so good at what it does, with a lot of humor and a few moments of real poignancy.
Cliff Severity: Another novella series where each is meant to be readable as a standalone.
11. Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin.
Categories: Weird Ecology (hard), Self-Published (hard), No Ifs Ands Or Buts, Family Matters.
Mini-Review: This is a giant hunk of epic sci-fi/horror/romance, as a woman crash-landed on an inhospitable planet tries to find her brother, while a military leader and his squad seek to retrieve the secrets from a disappeared ship, and an even greater danger lurks underneath it all. This takes some patience, but the payoff is real—a well-deserving winner of the first SPSFC.
Cliff Severity: The main plot resolves, but in a way that asks a whole lot of questions of the sequel.
12. The Last Gifts of the Universe by Rory August.
Categories: Self-Published, Published in 2022 (hard), Standalone (hard), Family Matters, Mental Health (hard).
Mini-Review: A fun sci-fi story about excavating dead civilizations—to hopefully find the secrets behind their death—turns into an exploration of grief with a surprisingly touching romantic subplot. Strong (and short!) character-driven space opera.
Cliff Severity: Standalone!
13. City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Categories: Antihero, Standalone (hard), Mental Health (hard), Revolutions and Rebellions (hard), Published in 2022.
Mini-Review: A mosaic novel about a revolution in a weird fantasy city, with a whole host of wildly self-interested characters working at cross-purposes. The writing is engrossing and the politics are fascinating, although there aren’t many characters who are especially sympathetic.
Cliff-Severity: Another standalone!
14. Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki.
Categories: Wibby Wobbly Timey Wimey (hard), Book Club (hard), Standalone (hard), No Ifs Ands Or Buts (hard), Family Matters (hard), BIPOC Author.
Mini-Review: The tight character focus on a trans violinist running away from home makes this worth the read, as do the lush Californian setting and outstanding descriptions of both music and food. A sci-fi subplot and an ending that’s more than a bit too neat detract from the overall package, but the strengths are enough to make this well worth the read.
Cliff Severity: Another standalone!
15. The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, March/April 2023, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas.
Categories: Two or More Authors (hard), Five Short Stories (hard).
Mini-Review: 16 stories, along with some poetry and book reviews, and nearly all of them are good. The Black Mirror-like “Piggyback Girl” and the whimsical “The Weremouse of Millicent Bradley Middle School” stand out from the rest, but there are a couple entertaining fairy tales, an excellent piece of sword-and-sorcery, a novelette about a cat buying a dragon, and plenty more fun.
Cliff Severity: More short stories—some of these actually connect to existing universes (including the Neom world), but they’re readable on their own.
16. The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik.
Categories: Urban Fantasy, Features Mental Health, Family Matters, Published in 2022.
Mini-Review: Pays off on so many of the seeds planted in the first two books, with more than one absolutely outstanding sequence featuring edge-of-your-seat tension and buckets of thematic depth. But it’s a bit uneven, with a slow and frustrating start and an ending that felt a little too neat. Definitely worth the read for fans of the first two but probably isn’t for anyone who didn’t enjoy A Deadly Education.
Cliff Severity: Last book in a trilogy, so it ends things. You can’t really start here though.
17. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
Categories: Published in 2022, Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey, Family Matters.
Mini-Review: I expected beautiful prose and excellent character work across all four timelines, and I got good prose and good character work. Some of the pandemic sections felt a hair too on-the-nose, but there was plenty to get me invested. The science fiction elements generally worked fine, though it’s not a book that really breaks new ground on plot. Overall, it’s a solid read, though not one where I totally understand the “best of the year” hype.
Cliff Severity: This is readable as a standalone, but I have been told it is loosely connected to other books in the same world.
18. The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse.
Categories: Shapeshifters (hard), Author Uses Initials (hard), Family Matters (hard), Award Finalist (hard), Revolutions and Rebellions (hard), Book Club (hard).
Mini-Review: This is structured almost like four related novellas, with each section rising to its own climax before skipping ahead to the next step in the character’s journey. The main character progresses nicely, and there’s enough plot development to make for an intriguing setup, though there’s plenty left to do in the sequel.
Cliff Severity: Another one that makes a lot of progress but leaves lots and lots of work for the second in the duology.
19. Dead Silence by S.A Barnes.
Categories: Set in Space, Book Club (hard), Mental Health (hard), Standalone (hard), Published in 2022 (hard), Author Uses Initials, No Ifs Ands Or Buts.
Mini-Review: This promises a haunted house in space and delivers a haunted house in space. Even as a relative horror neophyte, I was able to predict most of the plot, but the atmosphere is good enough to make it a plenty engaging read regardless.
Cliff Severity: Standalone!
20. Dead Star by Simon Kewin.
Categories: No Ifs Ands Or Buts, Self-Published, Set in Space (hard), Revolutions or Rebellions (hard), Family Matters.
Mini-Review: This is a fast-paced, planet-hopping adventure about digging into the secret history beyond the sudden and mystifying rise of a small religious sect to galactic hegemony. The villains are a bit over-the-top, and I’d have liked to see more of the story in the first book, but it’s short and very hard to put down.
Cliff Severity: This is the worst cliffhanger on the card. It reaches a waystation on the full trilogy arc, but so many of the driving questions are left for the sequels.
21. Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire.
Categories: Revolutions and Rebellions, Book Club (hard), LGBTQIA List, Mental Health (hard).
Mini-Review: It’s a really touching found family story in which a horse-loving intersex protagonist finds a home in the portal world of the Hooflands, but with a rushed and uninspiring revolution filling out the plot. The description of childhood bullying and cultural expectations of femininity calcifying as early as elementary school are all too real and expertly done. And if the ending doesn’t maintain the level of quality, the beginning is still enough to recommend it.
Cliff Severity: Deep into a full series, but I believe it’s meant as an alternate entry point. I’m not sure I buy it as an alternate entry point, but the story is mostly self-contained, with the inevitable connection to the rest of the universe.
22. A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark.
Categories: Set in Africa (hard), Urban Fantasy (hard), Shapeshifters (hard), Book Club (hard), Author Uses Initials (hard), BIPOC Author.
Mini-Review: Stunning worldbuilding, mediocre mystery plot. Like many of the 15/20 stories, there’s a five-star element and a three-star element mixed together. Here, the magic-infused, steampunk alt history Cairo is the true star, carrying a mystery that’s otherwise the dashing protagonist jumping from action sequence to action sequence.
Cliff Severity: It’s a detective story in a world where the same detective has other stories. No problem reading it by itself.
23. The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente.
Categories: Author Uses Initials, Book Club (hard).
Mini-Review: This is an expansion of an award-winning novelette with a fascinating and unique narrative voice. It takes place on a floating trash island after climate disaster, and like many climate stories, relies heavily on worldbuilding. For me, the worldbuilding wasn’t enough to sustain full power over novella length, but the main character’s narration kept things interesting.
Cliff Severity: This is an expansion of a previous novelette and can easily be read alone.
24. The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez.
Categories: Cool Weapon, Published in 2022, BIPOC Author, Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (hard), Shapeshifters, Mental Health (hard), Family Matters (hard), Revolutions and Rebellions (hard).
Mini-Review: Gorgeous prose and a stunningly creative narrative structure buttress a fairly straightforward central story long on violence and…well, long. Unlike some stories higher on my own list, it’s very easy for me to see why some have this as their top story of the year—it takes risks and has a few elements that are absolutely knocked out of the park. But it’s just too long to live on prose and structural experiments alone, and the characters and plot are competently drawn but not quite riveting. Put simply, there’s some exceptional work here, but there are too many slow spots.
Cliff Severity: Standalone!
25. Rose/House by Arkady Martine.
Categories: Name in the Title, Standalone (hard), Mental Health (hard), No Ifs Ands Or Buts.
Mini-Review: Apparently I haven’t read many stories with names in them this year, so I have to use the name of an AI house to fill out the card. It hurts me to squeeze out an entry that would’ve easily been top ten in A Desolation Called Peace, but unplanned Bingo can be capricious. At any rate, this one looks like a locked room murder mystery but reads more like a fever dream. It’s a beautiful fever dream with lots of meditation in personhood, but it’s also hard to know just what to take away in the end.
Cliff Severity: Standalone!
Lessons from unplanned Bingo:
- I thought this would be easy, and I suppose I successfully completed the challenge with literally zero advanced planning, so pats on the back for me. But I had to stretch for a couple squares that I noticed in late March hadn’t been obviously filled—particularly Weird Ecology and Name in the Title. I think my choices fit the squares, but I hadn’t noted them down as fits in the immediate aftermath of reading.
- As usual, there were a couple subjective squares that could be filled by seemingly everything. Does anything I read not address mental health and family? Perhaps not. Or perhaps I wasn’t strict enough defining those squares (though my ultimate choices were excellent fits, if I do say so myself).
- On the other hand, I don’t read much urban fantasy, antiheroes, or books with cool weapons. Or a whole lot with shapeshifters, though I was surprised to see them arise more than once. Award Finalist was also tricky, as I read so many books that were currently up for awards—after all, I led the Hugo Readalong and judged for SPSFC—and I had no way of knowing at the time whether they would win.
- Unplanned Bingo didn’t really take away my enjoyment of Bingo. The logic puzzle at the end is fun, but it’s the brainstorming thread at the beginning that makes this my absolute favorite reading challenge.
- In using the same template as my recap post from last year, I was able to notice a few interesting coincidences. For instance, I had an R.F. Kuang novel 4th and my Self-Published square 12th two years running. But in general, my scores were higher this year. Either I’m getting soft with my ratings, or I’m finding more and more good books.