When I turned in my 2022 Fantasy Bingo card, I promised I had a second themed card in the works. Well, it’s ready, perhaps my most ambitious theme in three years of participating in this reading challenge. In addition to the usual challenge of filling 25 squares with books by 25 different authors, I added two challenges: (1) use only books I’d rated 14/20 or higher, and (2) use only books that nobody else used for this year’s Bingo challenge.
Of course, I had no way of knowing whether (2) would be successful. I could make educated guesses, but I couldn’t predict who would use what books. But now that the cards have been turned in and the anonymized raw data released, I can see just how successful I was in my challenge. And, though I didn’t manage a full Hipster Mode card, I have to say I was pleased by how close I got. So let’s check out the card, complete with information on how each book would satisfying 2023 Fantasy Bingo squares. As always, links go to full reviews in the case of longer works and to free copies of the work in the case of short fiction.
A Book from r/Fantasy’s Top LGBTQIA List: Treason’s Shore by Sherwood Smith
Hipster: No, used in one other card (for LGBTQIA List).
2023 Squares: Sequel (hard), Coastal (hard), Multiverses (hard), Book Club.
Mini-Review: The fourth book in the Inda Quartet is more of the same in a character-driven epic fantasy series that is perfect for readers looking for a fairly dark world but a core group of good-hearted characters trying to bring some light, with a heavy emphasis on politics and navies.
Weird Ecology: Things They Buried by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson
2023 Squares: Horror (hard), Self-Published (hard), Coastal Setting.
Mini-Review: A genre blend perhaps leaning more on the horror than anything else, Things They Buried is a long but tense tale of two damaged leads excavating both the psychological and physical horrors left behind by the inventor who had once trafficked them. The leads can be hard to like, but the side characters are excellent.
Two or More Authors: Clarkesworld, October 2022
2023 Squares: Five Short Stories .
Mini-Review: I find something to like in Clarkesworld almost every month, but the October 2022 issue was really exceptional, with more than half the stories marked at 16/20 or higher in my spreadsheet. My personal favorites were M.L. Clark’s novelette about a rescue mission on a planet of arachnoid biocomputers and Alan Kubatiev’s weird bird-ruled totalitarian dystopia.
Historical SFF: Lone Women by Victor LaValle
Hipster: No, one other reader (used for POC Author).
2023 Squares: Horror (hard), Published in 2023, Mundane Jobs (hard).
Mini-Review: It’s Gothic horror in a harsh frontier setting featuring a Black lead starting a homestead with nothing but the clothes on her back and a box containing her family’s deadly secret. It’s tense and atmospheric, with challenges both social and fantastical contributing to an all-around excellent novel. Good for the other person who read it, even if they interfered with my theme.
Set in Space: The View From Infinity Beach by R.P.L. Johnson
2023 Squares: Young Adult (hard), Self-Published (hard).
Mini-Review: A fast-paced YA adventure sci-fi on a space station, where a group of teenagers find themselves the only ones willing to stand up to an occupying force from Earth. The secondary cast is a bit shallow, but it’s exciting throughout.
Standalone: Three Grams of Elsewhere by Andy Giesler
2023 Squares: Self-published (hard), Published in 2023, Features Robots.
Mini-Review: A powerful empath living out his last days in a Wisconsin retirement community is roped into an investigation of the murders of nearly every other high-profile empath of his generation. There’s a folksy, first-person narration that very much captures the voice of an old man telling a story the way he wants it to be told and a powerful emphasis on the importance of empathy.
Anti-Hero: Captain Wu by Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster
Hipster: No, used by five other people (four for Two or More Authors, one for Self-Published).
2023 Squares: Title with a Title (hard), Self-Published (hard), Queernorm Setting.
Mini-Review: An extremely short novel that feels more like a TV pilot, with plenty of entertaining action sequences, a fun ensemble cast, and absolutely zero attempt to provide plot resolution. It’s a lot of fun—especially if Firefly is your style—but doesn’t stand alone at all.
Book Club OR Readalong Book: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer
2023 Squares: Mundane Jobs (hard), Book Club.
Mini-Review: A cross between sword-and-sorcery and epic fantasy, with a stunning mountain setting and a harrowing chase that opens up into an epic plot with broader stakes. Despite being more a reader of epics, the adventure sections really stand out as exceptional.
Cool Weapon: The Sharing Knife: Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold
2023 Squares: Sequel (hard), Published in the 00s (hard).
Mini-Review: The fourth book of a fantasy romance series in a frontier setting, with the main romance well-established at this point. It nicely balanced focus on the relationship, the fantastical dangers, and overcoming barriers between the leads’ two cultures. A Bujold book is always going to be a good read, and this is no exception.
Revolutions and Rebellions: The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan
2023 Squares: POC Author (hard), Published in 2023 (hard), Mundane Jobs (hard).
Mini-Review: A mosaic novel about a meritocratic, tech-filled dystopia in what is now Bangalore, with perspective characters changing every chapter and some truly powerful portraits of ordinary people trying to maintain their status in a society that ruthlessly punishes its bottom performers.
Name in the Title: The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny by R.A. Lafferty
2023 Squares: Mundane Jobs (hard), Magical Realism/Literary SFF (hard), Angels and Demons.
Mini-Review: An epistolary slipstream alt history about an idyllic twentieth century in which the World Wars were mere fictions composed by the title character…until society starts confusing the fictional and the real. A deeply weird but often funny book with some incisive social commentary.
Author Uses Initials: Exin Ex Machina by G.S. Jennsen
2023 Squares: Self-Published (hard), Robots (hard).
Mini-Review: A fast-paced cyberpunk mystery where the lead’s attempts to recover her lost memory sees her uncover a plot that puts her entire people at risk. Sometimes the pacing can be a little too fast, but it’s a lot of fun.
Published in 2022: One Arm Shorter than the Other by Gigi Ganguly
2023 Squares: Indie Published (hard), POC Author (hard), Novella (hard).
Mini-Review: Three short stories with small-scale conflicts and a strong flavor of magical realism are tied together by a novelette that explains the strangeness and opens a broader plot, all centered around an uncanny electronics repair shop in Delhi. The short stories are really excellent if you have a taste for magical realism, though I think I preferred the early air of mystery to the explanation that ties them all together.
Urban Fantasy: March’s End by Daniel Polansky
2023 Squares: Multiverses (hard), Published in 2023, Features Robots.
Mini-Review: On the surface, it’s a portal fantasy about a family that must protect a magical world from the wave of chaos that threatens to end it. But really, it’s a story about family drama, skipping throughout the timeline to show how family members became estranged and whether they can work together when the fate of a world requires it.
Set in Africa: Infinity Gate by M.R. Carey
Hipster: No, used by one other person (for Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey).
2023 Squares: Published in 2023, Multiverses (hard), Mundane Jobs (hard), Features Robots.
Mini-Review: A gripping introduction to an epic trilogy featuring a multiversal war between organic creatures and AIs, with a deep dive into the scientist, the rogue, and the teenage leporine that will play key roles in the outcome.
Non-Human Protagonist: Dog Country by Malcolm F. Cross
2023 Squares: Self-Published (hard)
Mini-Review: It’s a war novel set in a futuristic world with genetically modified dogs serving as soldiers. But the war itself isn’t the selling point—what makes this book so worth reading is the deep dive into the life of a neurodivergent lead suffering PTSD and trying so hard to integrate into civilian life.
Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey: Sweep of Stars by Maurice Broaddus
2023 Squares: POC Author (hard).
Mini-Review: The opening entry in an Afrofuturist space opera, featuring a large cast and intricate character work. Probably could’ve used more fleshing out of the plot, but it’s a short novel that puts pieces in place for major happenings in the sequel.
Five SFF Short Stories: “Fostering” by Ray Nayler, “Old Seeds” by Owen Leddy, “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” by Mathew Kressel, “Off the Map” by Dane Kuttler, and “Your Space Between” by Marie Croke
2023 Squares: Five Short Stories.
Mini-Review: As always, this is one of my favorite squares, and for this card, I just cherry-picked some of my favorite pieces that I hadn’t heard much chatter about. Four of the five are available free online, and I highly recommend checking them out.
Features Mental Health: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones.
Hipster: No, used by three other people (all for POC Author).
2023 Squares: Magical Realism (hard), Horror (hard), POC Author, Novella.
Mini-Review: A deeply personal story of a twelve year-old processing growing up without a father by trying to make contact with his father’s ghost, written in such a way that you’re never really sure what’s real and what’s in his head. I felt like I was missing half the cultural context to really be blown away, but it’s well-written and there are some extremely poignant passages.
Self-Published OR Indie Publisher: The Gallant by Janny Wurts.
2023 Squares: Self-Published (hard), Novella (hard), Mythical Beasts (hard)
Mini-Review: A dense, layered prose style tells a story of love, treachery, and adventure, in the rich setting of The Wars of Light and Shadow series. It’s an entertaining story with a main thread that’s pretty easy to follow, but there are plenty of subplots that will come alive on careful reading.
Award Finalist, But Not Won: They Made Us Blood and Fury by Cheryl S. Ntumy
2023 Squares: POC Author, Self-Published (hard).
Mini-Review: Faced with a dwindling supply of magical Lifeblood, the Anyi clan activates the weapon they’d hidden in the consciousness of an apprentice weaponsmaker, who is none too pleased with having her mind hijacked. The story feels a little too straightforward early on, but it gets some fascinating complexity near the ending, setting up for a promising sequel.
BIPOC Author: The Blue, Beautiful World by Karen Lord
2023 Squares: POC Author (hard), Coastal Setting, Mundane Jobs (hard), Published in 2023, Sequel (hard).
Mini-Review: The third entry in the Cygnus Beta series but designed to be read as a standalone, with a pop star using his influence to build an Earth-based coalition that will be ready for the inevitable first contact, then a time skip to see the results. The first half is fascinating, with great worldbuilding and a tight character focus. The second wraps up major plot points but feels like it could use more fleshing out.
Shapeshifters: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
Hipster: Probably not—one other person used it for Shapeshifters, though there’s no way to know whether they read the novel or the novella of the same name.
2023 Squares: Mundane Jobs (hard), Features Robots, Coastal Setting, Literary SFF (hard), Novella (hard).
Mini-Review: A novel made of three novellas stitched together, with excellent prose and a puzzle box of a plot that eschews the genre’s typical narrative conventions. The opening piece could stand alone as a dark coming-of-age story, although there’s plenty of musing on identity and colonialism that sees further explanation in the next two. It’s followed by a mystifyingly mystic myth and a final piece that challenges the reader to follow the main character in trying to assemble epistolary fragments into something meaningful. A challenging work, but a rewarding one that I’m willing to bet would be even more rewarding upon reread.
No Ifs, Ands, or Buts: One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve by M. Shaw
2023 Squares: Mundane Jobs (hard), Novella (hard), Horror (hard), Indie Published.
Mini-Review: A story of two halves of a cadaver who get up off the mortuary slab and try to live together has the aesthetics of horror, but the heart of the story is a compelling portrait of a toxic (fraternal) relationship. A spare writing style makes this less of a visceral read and more of a thoughtful one.
Family Matters: Age of Order by Julian North
2023 Squares: Young Adult, Self-Published.
Mini-Review: A fast-paced and entertaining dystopian YA story about a girl with seemingly supernatural athletic abilities who wins a scholarship to an elite private school and finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy much deeper and more dangerous than she could’ve believed. Not a story that breaks new ground, but a quality entry in the dystopian YA subgenre.
- I had dreams of a year mixing backlist titles, SPSFC reads, and ARCs to craft a card with 25 excellent, obscure books, and let me tell you it was harder than I thought. Using only books I rated 14/20 or higher meant I could only use my very favorite books from SPSFC, and many of those (looking at you two, Iron Truth and The Last Gifts of the Universe) were popular enough to be read by others. I found a few obscure ARCs that I loved, but then I kept telling other people to read them, and a few people listened. And my backlist plans kept getting squeezed by competition reading and shiny new objects. At the end of the year, it was a struggle to fill out a full card, and I didn’t have many options to swap for something like Captain Wu which just fit too many squares to be a good Hipster Mode choice.
- That said, 19 of the 25 squares were books that weren’t used in any of the over 800 other Bingo cards. And 24 squares on my card included books that nobody else used for the same square. Curse that Shapeshifters square!
- I was very proud of successfully finding unique options for one of what I considered the two hardest squares for hipster mode: LGBTQIA+ List and Book Club. Picking off a defined list is always limiting, and when it’s a defined list that’s specific to the subreddit that hosts the Bingo challenge in the first place, finding an option no one else will use is even trickier. But The Whitefire Crossing was a winner. I tried to get by with a sequel for the LGBTGQIA List, but one other person read Treason’s Shore.
- There were a few books that struck me as being remarkably excellent fits for the spirit of the square. It’ll be hard to top The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny for Name in the Title, and while I didn’t mine the Bingo data for word counts, it would’ve been tough to find a No Ifs Ands Or Buts title longer than One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve.
- Looking ahead to 2023 Bingo, if there’s an MVP on this card, it may be The Blue, Beautiful World, which fits five squares, three of them hard mode.
- That said, this confirms my belief that 2023 Bingo will be my hardest yet. Not a single one of these 25 books fits more than five squares, and there are six 2023 squares that didn’t pop up once on this card: Druids, Bottom of the TBR, Middle Eastern Setting, Myths and Retellings, Superheroes, and Elemental Magic. I expect Myths and Retellings to be fairly doable, but the others will be tricky.