Year in Review · Top Lists

Tar Vol’s 2023 Recommended Reading List: Holiday Edition

It’s that time of year again. People are buying holiday gifts, Nebula nominations are open, the New Year is just around the corner, and bookish spaces are being flooded with “best of the year” lists. It’s one of my favorite times of the year for finding new things to read, and it’s a wonderful time to talk about your favorites, so I was inevitably going to throw my hat into the ring with my own 2023 Recommended Reading List.

As always, let’s start with the caveats. First of all, everything on this list was published in 2023. If I read something good this year that was published in another year, I probably wrote a glowing review of it, but it’s not on this list. Second, this list represents me, not the genre writ large. My tastes are idiosyncratic, and I was only able to read a tiny portion of the incredible volume of science fiction and fantasy to be published this year. In total, I read 24 novels, 18 novellas, 48 novelettes, and 236 short stories (49 of them flash fictions) that were published in 2023. That feels like a lot, but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s out there. If your favorite thing isn’t on my list, there’s a good chance I just haven’t read it (but feel free to send me a recommendation!). Additionally, this has been the first year in my “subscribe to some magazines” project, so I’ve read everything in ClarkesworldGigaNotoSaurus, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, with my reading in other venues being much spottier and driven by seeing recommendations from others. So it should be no surprise to see those three venues very well-represented on my favorites list—I read them a lot, and they published good things.

One last point before we jump in to talking about my favorite books: this list is in alphabetical order by author last name. This is the most common way I’ve seen other lists organized, and it’s easier to compare lists when they’re organized in the same way. Thus, relative position on my list has no correlation with perceived quality.

So let’s get to my recommendations!


I’m splitting up these categories using the Hugo Awards definitions, so the novel category consists of stories greater than 40,000 words in length. Links go to full reviews.

  • Blade of Dream by Daniel Abraham, published in July 2023 by Orbit. The sequel to Age of Ash tells the same epic story from the perspective of a barely-mentioned side character from the opener. A very slow build—even slower than Abraham’s usual—with a very personal focus, but a fascinating way to tell an epic, and an excellent book overall.

  • Infinity Gate by M.R. Carey, published in March 2023 by Orbit. The opener to a multiversal epic sci-fi trilogy does just what you’d hope: introduces three compelling characters and one series-spanning conflict, sets them on a collision course, and delivers enough plot progression to justify its existence as a novel instead of a prologue.

  • The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty, published in February 2023 by Harper Voyager. It’s an adventure fantasy on the high seas with a stunning 12th century Arabian setting, a compelling older protagonist with meaningful commitments to family and religion, and an absolutely delightful narrative voice. Perfectly readable as a standalone and enough fun to win over my curmudgeonly anti-action heart.

  • Three Grams of Elsewhere by Andy Giesler, published in May 2023 by Humble Quill. Speaking of my anti-action heart, this is a book that’s perfect for it. A series of murders provides the inciting incident and enough plot progression to give the book some shape, but it’s all about the theme and the narrative voice. The octogenarian Midwestern lead is captured perfectly, and the consistent focus on the value of empathy is refreshingly countercultural.

  • Unraveller by Frances Hardinge, published in January 2023 by Amulet Books. Another theme-heavy book, this is a YA adventure with plenty of mystery to drive the plot, an uncanny forest setting, and some excellent reflections on trauma, recovery, guilt, punishment, and vengeance.

  • Starling House by Alix E. Harrow, published in October 2023 by Tor. As I’d expect from Harrow, this delivers lovely prose and an engaging plot with suppressed history and some dastardly rich white men. A haunted house in a creepy Kentucky town set the mood while keeping the story much closer to Gothic fairy tale than to horror.

  • Lone Women by Victor LaValle, published in January 2023 by One World. Another small-town Gothic novel, this one features a lone Black woman fleeing the death of her parents to homestead on the Montana frontier with only the clothes on her back and the monstrous contents of her steamer trunk. Deliciously tense and deeply thematic.

  • He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan, published in August 2023 by Tor. Two self-loathing characters spiral deeper and deeper, with profound effects on the balance of power in Mongol-occupied China. Readers of She Who Became the Sun know to expect a lot of darkness, but it’s hard to look away from this conclusion to the duology.

  • Blood Over Bright Haven by M.L. Wang, published in July 2023 by M.L. Wang. In some ways, this provides the counterpoint to Three Grams of Elsewhere, providing a stark picture of when empathy just isn’t enough. It’s a heart-pounding novel about a woman trying to break into the all-male elite in research magic and uncovering secrets that shock her to the core. The first twist isn’t too surprising, but it sets the table for a thrilling finish with intense themes.


Using the Hugo definitions, the novella category includes works between 17,500 and 40,000 words. Again, the link goes to a full review.

  • The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar by Indra Das, published in June 2023 by Subterranean Press. At its heart, this is a literary-leaning coming of age story about the experience of an immigrant in a new land who barely remembers their parents’ home. But in this case, the parents’ home is a magical realm of dragon riders. A bit light on plot, but the lovely prose and characterization more than make up for it.

  • Prompt by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey, published in November 2023 in The Digital Aesthete. An aspiring director gets accepted to stage a play for Prompt, the AI theater with a reputation for making or breaking careers. On the shorter end for a novella, but with a high-stakes intensity that begins in the opening paragraphs and never lets up.


Using the Hugo definitions, the novelette category includes works between 7,500 and 17,500 words. Links go to free copies of the stories, where available.

  • The Weremouse of Millicent Bradley Middle School by Peter S. Beagle, published in the March/April 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story of an urban legend becoming all too real, with a witchy and vindictive math teacher terrorizing her students, who must either grovel or find a way to fight back. Sometimes a story just doesn’t have to break new ground to be an utter delight.

  • A Short Biography of a Conscious Chair by Renan Bernardo, translated by Renan Bernardo, published in the February 2023 issue of Samovar. A very slow-paced bit of magical realism, with a family drama played out from the perspective of sentient furniture. A quiet, but beautiful story that builds to a powerful emotional conclusion.

  • Anais Gets a Turn by R.T. Ester, published in the January 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A simple story with an audacious premise: the world has become sentient and is causing chaos trying to beat itself at tic-tac-toe. One secret society is trying to hack the game to deliver a win and bring it all to an end. Throw in a compelling character backstory and a smooth narration and you have an all-around excellent story.

  • Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea by Kelsey Hutton, published in the February 2023 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. This is a story about the British Empire and the First Nations with the serial numbers filed off. But it’s a really good story, with the lead’s magical dress-making not enough to make her grievances heard. There’s magic, diplomacy, reflections on family and commitment, and plenty of dramatic tension.

  • The Year Without Sunshine by Naomi Kritzer, published in the November 2023 issue of Uncanny. Near-future sci-fi with an uplifting bent, with a community in Minnesota learning to work together after disaster knocks out so many of the services they rely on. A great story for fans of problem-solving and community-building.

  • Old Seeds by Owen Leddy, published as the January 2023 issue of GigaNotoSaurus. Simultaneously an intriguing puzzle story—the lead must figure out why terraforming AIs on a lonely planet are in dispute—and a heart-wrenching reflection on meaning, beauty, and what gets squeezed out in the pursuit of efficiency.

  • The Passing of the Dragon by Ken Liu, published in September 2023 by Tordotcom. A beautiful and heartfelt story about an artist coming to grips with the world deeply misunderstanding their work. Lovely and thought-provoking.

  • Reconciliation Dumplings and Other Recipes by Sara Norja, published as the December 2023 issue of GigaNotoSaurus. The story of uncovering forgotten history told via a series of family recipes and background anecdotes. Perfectly-paced, with enough plot movement to satisfy readers who want to see true growth, all wrapped in a delicious package perfect for fans of cozy fantasy.

  • Down to the Root by Lisa Papademetriou, published in the October 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A story of spacefaring and encountering vastly different cultures, neglecting neither the quiet nor the dangerous moments in a beautiful and poignant tale with deeply personal stakes.

  • An Ode to Stardust by R.P. Sand, published in the February 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. The Station Commander in a mining moon struggles to understand the enigmatic local species in a way that parallels her father’s difficulty understanding her chronic pain. Plenty of thematic depth and a devastating conclusion make for a story very much worth reading.

  • Introduction to the 2181 Overture, Second Edition by Gu Shi, translated by Emily Jin, published in the February 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. Styled as the nonfiction introduction to an in-text book about cryosleep, it’s an idea-driven sci-fi that explores the costs and benefits of the hypothetical technology through a series of vignettes about individuals affected by its use. Plot-light, but still manages to generate heartfelt character moments.

  • Time Marked and Mended by Carrie Vaughn, published in January 2023 by Tordotcom. A remarkably engaging bite-sized space opera, with a mystery that fits perfectly in the novelette form but hints at more adventures, both past and future.

Short Stories

Let’s face it, using the Hugo definition of “less than 7,500 words,” short story is by far the most crowded category on the list. If you include flash fiction (works under 1,500 words), I read twice as many short stories as I read novelettes, novellas, and novels combined. So while a novella will make my Hugo nominating ballot by getting marked down as 17 or higher in my ratings spreadsheet (it’s a 20-point scale, it’s idiosyncratic, I know), even an 18 is no guarantee for a short story.

If I were to judge short stories by the same measure as the other categories, my recommended list would be 33 items long. That’s a totally reasonable number of favorites when I’ve read so many stories (arguably, it’s actually a bit low, but my struggle to engage with flash fiction affects the overall numbers), but even with bullet points and bolded titles, that would be a dizzying wall of text. And so I’ve broken this category into the best of the best and the honorable mentions. The latter category is heavy on Stuff Tar Vol Likes—and if you don’t know me, that tends to be small-scale, emotionally affecting stories with personal stakes—and consists of the stories that I found to be very effective and engaging but not quite at the “drop everything and read this now” level. I highly recommend all of them, and if they were novellas, they’d be going on my Hugo ballot, but life isn’t fair, so here we are. The former category mostly consists of the stories I’ve been shoving in people’s faces all year—the ones that make me mad that I only have five slots available on the Hugo nominating ballot. There are a couple that made the former list mostly because of their quality as conversation pieces, and one because it’s the literal only flash fiction that stuck with me this year. But it’s an arbitrary division, and I reverse the right to make it arbitrarily.

Again, links go to free copies, where available.


  • Over Moonlit Clouds by Coda Audeguy-Pegon, published in the March 2023 issue of Apex Magazine. A story about airline passengers trapped with something dangerous, it’s a tragedy from the word “go,” with a response that’s worse than the initial danger and plenty of parallels to mundane, real-world evil. This would be a fantastic story from a veteran author, but it’s absolutely stunning as a debut.

  • Once Upon a Time at The Oakmont by P.A. Cornell, published in the October 2023 issue of Fantasy Magazine. There’s an apartment building in New York City full of weird time shenanigans. And yet the paradoxical elements of time travel are mostly backdrop to a touching interpersonal story and a shockingly rich portrait of a place that isn’t really in a time. Throw in a satisfying ending, and this one is truly excellent.

  • Window Boy by Thomas Ha, published in the August 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A pulse-pounding, horror-tinged dystopian tale written from the perspective of a sheltered rich kid who knows almost nothing about the world other than what is shared in polite company. His furtive nighttime conversations at his window with a boy from well outside his social circle give the barest glimmer of the world’s true horrors, tantalizing the reader with their own imagination to fill in the gaps, while putting the lead in position to make a decision whose enormity he can hardly grasp. An excellent story that demands a reread.

  • Any Percent by Andrew Dana Hudson, published as the May 2023 issue of GigaNotoSaurus. Part litRPG, part union story, this tells of a warehouse worker fleeing the hardship and tedium of real life by trying to speedrun his way to becoming the richest person in the world in a popular simulation game. It’s a fascinating story, with enough of a dive into game mechanics to help the reader understand the strategy behind the main character’s pursuit, while keeping a firm enough foot in the real world to maintain the feel of a truly character-driven piece, with thematic weight but without eschewing that vital glimmer of hope.

  • The State Street Robot Factory by Claire Humphrey, published in the March 2023 issue of Apex Magazine. A small-scale, near-future sci-fi featuring a Chicago man selling miniature robots out of his apartment to pay for a functional set of legs. Very personal in scale and with a blend of frustration and hope that makes a tale feel real without just being depressing.

  • Day Ten Thousand by Isabel J. Kim, published in the June 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. Nearly impossible to describe, but excellent in the sort of way that really demands a reread. It loops across multiple times and stories—from prehistoric single combat, to a college reporter processing the suicide of a classmate, to a young man in the far future learning he possesses some remarkable DNA. It’s meta and disorienting, telling the same stories over and over in various ways and from various angles, with reflections on storytelling interspersed and at least one line that’s lived rent free in my head for six months.

  • Zeta-Epsilon by Isabel J. Kim, published in the March 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A heartfelt piece about a man raised from birth to provide a human bridge to the ineffable mind of a starship. It opens with a puzzle box—why did Zeta commit suicide, and why didn’t Epsilon prevent it?—before diving into Zeta’s childhood, his intense connection with the ship, and the aspects of his life that became untenable. It’s a fascinating story with emotional depth and even a pinch of humor. This one is the whole package.

  • Better Living Through Algorithms by Naomi Kritzer, published in the May 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. The second time Kritzer appears on my favorites list doing uplifting near-future sci-fi, this is an “AI improves your life” story in the spirit of “Cat Pictures Please,” but one that feels truer to the complexities of the world in 2023.

  • Off the Map by Dane Kuttler, published in the January/February 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The heart-wrenching story of a single mother trying to support three children on her own, with an intrusive technostate constantly looking over her shoulder and judging her fitness, this has plenty to say about parenting and societal corruption, and it’s one of the most emotionally intense stories I read all year.

  • LOL, Said the Scorpion by Rich Larson, published in the May 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A story about tourism in impoverished communities that literalizes the metaphor of the invisibility of the local population, to dramatic effect. This has been overshadowed by Better Living Through Algorithms and a Bot 9 novella sharing its table of contents, but it’s arguably the best of the bunch—not a happy story, but a hard-hitter.

  • Highway Requiem by T.R. Napper, published in the May/June 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A story about one of the last truckers in Australia after the industry has been mostly automated, it explores so many nuances of both the social benefits and harms that come out of the transformation of transportation, while still managing to be a deeply personal, emotionally affecting tale. It’s neither neat nor happy, but the worldbuilding is excellent, and the lead’s yearnings and anxieties come through the text in force.

  • Serenity Prayer by Faith Merino, published in the July/August 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I moved this one up from the honorable mentions in recognition of my own biases–of the nearly 50 flash fictions I read this year (thanks, F&SF), this was the only one I rated five stars. If something can hit me like that in a form I usually dislike, it deserves some recognition. There are echoes of Shirley Jackson’s famous “The Lottery,” with lovely prose and an incorporation of the title prayer that makes it feel thoroughly its own.

  • If I Should Fall Behind by Douglas Smith, published in the September/October 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This tale of a teenager with the ability to see possible futures is all about the narrative voice, with an idiosyncratic but compelling prose style that puts the reader right in the lead’s head. The plot—mostly being chased by people opposed to tampering with possible futures—is well-done, and the conclusion is satisfying, but the voice is what makes this one exceptional.

  • Timothy: An Oral History by Michael Swanwick, published in the October 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. This takes an old trope that I thought had been played out for decades—what happens when a male enters an all-female society?—and breathes new life into it. The oral history format is wonderfully executed, providing little snapshots into various corners of a society that sees itself as utopian and yet maintains a toxic celebrity culture and has no real place for gender or sexual minorities. It’s a piece that asks more questions than it provides answers, but it’s a fascinating read that’s wonderfully structured, a throwback executed in such a way that it doesn’t feel old.

  • To Carry You Inside You by Tia Tashiro, published in the November 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. The tale of a woman with a brain chip that allows her to upload other consciousnesses into her body, which—after anti-chip regulations destroy a promising acting career—she uses as a surrogate for the dead, using her body to house the consciousnesses of the departed for short meetings with their surviving family and friends. Covering one particularly fraught surrogacy job, interspersed with flashbacks and political background, it’s impressive how much ground this covers while maintaining its emotional core and never feeling overstuffed. It’s an extremely impressive story, and a shockingly impressive debut.

Honorable Mentions

  • Piggyback Girl by M.H. Ayinde, published in the March/April 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The Black Mirror-like premise involves an influencer signing a contract allowing her followers to literally see through her eyes. That sets the stage for some excellent social commentary and gripping tension as the lead sees the ways out closing and her panic levels rising, all leading to a devastating conclusion.

  • Timelock by Davian Aw, published in the July 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. Told in second-person to one of the few natives left on a notorious party moon, it features a lead frequently caught on the fringes of a neighbor’s time-stopping parties. A reflective story that is always poignant and sometimes tragic, it’s a great read for fans of quieter sci-fi who don’t mind trying to wrap their heads around layers and layers of frozen time.

  • A Conjure-Horse in San Ouvido by Ferdistan Cayetano, published in the May/June 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A blend of African-American mythologies and complicated war stories, leaning into the mystical while delivering some intensely satisfying emotional beats.

  • The Mub by Thomas Ha, published in the November 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A short and unsettling piece about an artist who picks up an unwanted traveling companion. The story never explicitly states whether these mubs are creatures of fantasy or science, but the way they prey on creativity is hard not to associate with the current AI discourse. It’s not a story that’s going to answer a lot of questions, but it’s gripping and unsettling, an excellent read for those who don’t mind some uncertainty.

  • For However Long by Thomas Ha, published in July 2023 in khōréō. A quiet and beautiful piece about family and relocation, as the aging mother of a Martian immigrant reflecting on the distance between them, and how similar it feels to her own cross-country move decades earlier. The second-shortest piece on this list, but as someone living hundreds of miles from my own family, it hits home.

  • The Laugh Machine by Auston Habershaw, published in November 2023 in The Digital Aesthete. A surprisingly poignant piece about an AI comedian, trained on the last generation of human comics, trying to figure out why one of the regulars keeps coming back if she isn’t going to laugh. It certainly brings a chuckle or two, but it’s the heart underneath that makes it worth the read.

  • The Narrative Implications of Your Untimely Death by Isabel J. Kim, published in the January 2023 issue of Lightspeed. This piece about a reality TV show with a longer-than-lifetime contract has just the right combination of very meta cultural observation and poignant emotional moments, tied together by a fascinating premise.

  • The Five Remembrances, According to ST-319 by R.L. Meza, published in the September 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A classic “combat robot breaks from its programming and acts with heart” story that sucks the reader in from the beginning, despite the familiar premise. And it only gets better as it progresses from the throes of battle to the immediate aftermath to the long-term aftermath.

  • Hermetic Kingdom by Ray Nayler, published in November 2023 in The Digital Aesthete. Set in the world of the acclaimed “Winter Timeshare,” but readable on its own, it’s a story about the consciousnesses of the dead working alongside bots to run virtual reality games and simulations, focusing on the human cogs in the machine and their efforts to make the best they can with the hands they’re dealt. It’s excellent.

  • The Job at the End of the World by Ray Nayler, published in August 2023 by Tordotcom. A bittersweet, small-scale, near-future sci-fi in which we follow a professional rebuilder, traveling from fire to flood to storm to help put the pieces back together, all the while saving up for a life of his own. There’s a lot more reflection on life and the world than a true main plot, but it’s excellent nonetheless.

  • Torso by H. Pueyo, published in November 2023 in The Digital Aesthete. A memorable and intense story of an abuse survivor working feelings of fear, anger, and shame into grotesquely beautiful ceramics, and the AI assistant trying to keep her from destroying them all.

  • What Remains, the Echoes of a Flute Song by Alexandra Seidel, published in the July 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A post-human who communicates only in music wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape and happens upon an unmodified human waking from stasis. It’s not especially plotty, yet the characters, their attempts to communicate, and their dual separations from any who may have been their fellows are utterly engrossing. A beautiful and emotional piece.

  • Going Time by Amal Singh, published in the February 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A simple concept wonderfully executed, with a dystopia that the reader can recognize in a heartbeat but that leaves the lead totally in the dark, with the whole story slowly building the tension while waiting for the other shoe to drop.

  • Upgrade Day by RJ Taylor, published in the September 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. The tale of a man who signed his afterlife over to a tech company in exchange for funding of his career as an aspiring chef is sweet but far from easy, with a heartfelt family relationship and plenty of reflection on making difficult decisions while feeling the alternatives disappear by the year.

  • Silicon Hearts by Adrian Tchaikovsky, published in November 2023 in The Digital Aesthete. A very topical story of humans fine-tuning language models to make as much money as possible writing fiction, it’s set apart by the humor suffusing the entire story, along with a clever ending that makes it something more than sheer satire.

  • A Meal for Frederick by Nick Thomas, published in the July/August 2023 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Another small-scale, emotionally heavy piece with understated SFF elements, it starts with the ambiguously magical feeding of a plastic-bag-and-masking-tape homemade dragon, before finding its center as a story of hope and family amid bouts of ill-health, big and small. It’s beautiful and it’s touching.

  • Vast and Trunkless Legs of Stone by Carrie Vaughn, published in the June 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. A first contact story that manages to stay small-scale and personal, as the extraterrestrial visitors demand to see a sole interlocutor, one without high political position, for a quiet conversation that may or may not be a test of an entire planet. This is exactly my speed, and Vaughn writes it wonderfully.

  • Bird-Girl Builds a Machine by Hannah Yang, published in the November 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. This story draws the reader immediately into the strange relationship between a young girl and her mother, with the latter’s life focused almost entirely on building an elaborate and mysterious machine. That sense of strangeness and mystery is enough to easily sustain the tale’s scant 3,000 words, building to a finish with real emotional resonance and a sense of resolution that feels just perfect for the mystery at hand.

  • The Haunted by Mathilda Zeller, published in the Fall 2023 issue of Irreantum. A ghost story that turns on Mormon theological distinctives is admittedly pretty niche, but it’s such a wonderfully heartfelt tale of growing up in a compelling but deeply flawed local religious community.

Final thoughts

  • The first thing I do after making this list is checking for names that appear more than once—those are prime candidates for further reading. This year, it’s Thomas Ha (three times), Isabel J. Kim (three times), Naomi Kritzer (twice), Ray Nayler (twice), and Carrie Vaughn (twice). Four of the five are authors I’d read and loved in the past, so perhaps not big surprises, but it’s good to know they’re still hitting.

  • Also prime candidates for further reading are authors whose debuts have made my favorites list. As far as I can tell, that includes Coda Audeguy-Pegon and Tia Tashiro. Incidentally, those two and Kelsey Hutton (second year) are eligible for nomination for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

  • It’s still too early for Hugo nominations, but since I already mentioned the Astounding, I should also note that Unraveller is eligible for nomination both for Best Novel and for the Lodestar Award for best Young Adult Novel.

  • I mentioned at the outset that the list would be heavy on the three magazines that I read most regularly this year. I don’t have a great answer for how to find short fiction without regularly reading magazines. That’s a topic that deserves a full post—expect to see one in January.

  • Did I get lucky with novels this year, or was I big softy? Hard to say.

  • Perhaps I got unlucky with novellas, but I found a couple excellent ones that weren’t published by Tordotcom. Take note.

  • This list will doubtless need an update in two months after I’ve used everyone else’s lists to blow up an already bursting TBR. If you read something great, drop me a recommendation and I’ll see if I can squeeze it in.

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