Top Lists · Year in Review

Tar Vol’s 2023 Recommended Reading List and Short Fiction Top Ten: Awards Season Edition

In December, I posted my 2023 Recommended Reading List, consisting of all my favorite things that were published in 2023. But who’s to say I can’t do it again in February? I’m not Locus, there’s no rule against two recommendation lists. 

I publish one list in December because that’s when people start swapping favorites. And I had many favorites to share! But what follows is two months of reading from everyone else’s favorites lists, leading to February annually being my heaviest and best reading month. And I want to share those too. So with Nebula nominations due this week and Hugo nominations soon behind, check out my updated 2023 Recommended Reading List (Award Season Edition). 

An additional 77 reads of 2023-published work has brought me to a total of 29 novels, 19 novellas, 56 novelettes, and 299 short stories (50 of them flash length). Many of my favorites are the same as they were before, but I’ve added items to the list in every category. For those who already read the first version of the list and don’t want to dig for new information, I’ve put the new items in italics while leaving everything in alphabetical order by author last name. 

While I only have one new entry each in the Novel and Novella sections, they are my favorite 2023 works in their respective categories, so please don’t miss those. I’ve added more to the shorter fiction categories, including at least one new “thing I have to try to make room for on my Hugo nominating ballot” in both Novelette and Short Story. 

For this edition of my Recommended Reading List, I’ve also included my personal 2023 Top Ten from works across all three short fiction categories. The Closing Thoughts section is also new to this version. 

As always, remember that I am just one reader, and while I read a lot of things, it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to what’s out there. And my tastes are idiosyncratic, so me not putting something on my favorites list doesn’t mean it won’t hit hard for other readers. But I read a lot of excellent fiction from 2023, and I hope this list helps others find new favorites. 

Hyperlinks go to full stories when available for free (mostly in the Novelette and Short Story sections) and otherwise to full reviews (mostly in the Novel section).


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.

  • Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, published in May 2023 by Pantheon. An absolutely brutal book that’s also the best thing I read in 2023. It’s the American prison system recast as a gladiatorial game, with a compelling main story and vibrant secondary perspectives covering everything from consumers to organizers to other prisoners. This is getting more play in litfic circles than sci-fi ones, but it’s undoubtedly sci-fi, and it’s excellent—for fans of death games, social commentary, and mosaic novels.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Nothing But the Rain by Naomi Salman, published in March 2023 by Tordotcom. Imagine taking Piranesi, but replacing the naive wonderment and magical infinitude with a stubborn curmudgeon and a small town with an army blockade. And you know what, it works. This short novella is a must-read for fans of epistolary stories and unreliable memories, poignant and gripping from start to finish.


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 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.

  • Ernestine by Octavia Cade, published in the March/April 2023 issue of Asimov’s. It’s a girl and a ghost at the end of the world, only the ghost has a single-minded focus on making the girl grow potatoes so she won’t starve. A small-scale story, for all that it’s the end of the world, but a heartwarming one that’s a lot of fun to read. 
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Time Marked and Mended by Carrie Vaughn, published in January 2023 by (now Reactor). 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.

  • On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo, published in October 2023 by (now Reactor). A period piece about small-time bank robbers escaping pursuit using a shifting series of questionably-real pathways. As always, Vo’s facility with the language is exceptional, and this one is a ride from start to finish.

  • Defective by Peter Watts, published in April 2023 in Life Beyond Us. A first contact story about creatures so alien that all communication breaks down, and the lead’s desperate attempt to avoid the military solution. A fascinating build with a hard-hitting ending. 

  • Deep Blue Jump by Dean Whitlock, published in the September/October 2023 issue of Asimov’s. A sci-fi child trafficking story that’s just as weighty as it should be, but offering a glimmer of hope in its focus on the relationship between the tween lead and the smallest child in her group of captives, as they focus on surviving both the present and the 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 nearly 50 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 Tarvolon 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.


  • 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.

  • Memories of Memories Lost by Mahmud El Sayed, published in October 2023 in khōréō. The story of alien invaders who tax memory is poignant and remarkable in its detail work–from how giving up a mediocre night of karaoke leads to losing a favorite band to the inability for anyone to remember anything meaningful about alien encounters. It’s a story that hooks the reader quickly with the setup and then builds tension as the lead wonders just what the giving up of a family heirloom will cost.
  • Kɛrozin Lamp Kurfi by Victor Forna, published in October 2023 in Apex Magazine. A very literal story about stories, as the narrator attempts to rescue a child trapped in a story. The shifts back and forth through reality and various changing narrators can be disorienting, but a reader who doesn’t mind a little confusion is treated to some fantastic storytelling with a strong central core and a powerful ending.
  • 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.

  • Forever the Forest by Simone Heller, published in April 2023 in Life Beyond Us. It’s a first contact story written in second person from the perspective of trees. It’d be hard to find a description more my speed, and it’s executed wonderfully, with the narrator slowly coming to grasp the myriad miscommunication and building to a touching emotional climax.
  • 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.

  • Kwong’s Bath by Angela Liu, published in August 2023 in khōréō. The second khōréō piece that made my shortlist with a story of memory and diaspora, this one telling of a girl having received the ticket to a better life, but at the cost of the memories of her home and family, told in large part through a series of ghostly visits from ancestors and friends. Devastating and deeply personal. 

  • 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.
  • The Rain Remembers What the Sky Forgets by Fran Wilde, published in Uncanny in May 2023. The story of a funeral disrupted by an unnatural avian disturbance, told through a series of interviews and diary entries collected by a local newspaper. Simultaneously a fantasy, a family drama, and a period piece about the political battle over sustainable fashion, and successful on all fronts.


Honorable Mentions

  • The Invoker and Her Quartet by M.H. Ayinde, published in April 2023 in Kaleidotrope. This has such the feeling of a Beneath Ceaseless Skies piece that I had to double-check the publication–it’s a secondary world fantasy about a magical succession crisis, the rift it created within families, and how they moved forward. Plenty of flawed characters, but in a human way, and with hope of redemption.
  • 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.

  • The Dog Star Killer by Renan Bernardo, published in April 2023 in Life Beyond Us. A Brazilian grows up with single-minded focus on rescuing a mother who never returned from exploring a strange celestial phenomenon. But the rescue mission can’t consume an entire life, and it forces her to balance her long-standing goals and a burgeoning relationship. It’s a story that grabs the reader from the start and delivers the kind of deeply personal tale I so often love.
  • Deep Blue Neon by Jana Bianchi, published in April 2023 in Life Beyond Us. Another Life Beyond Us story by a B-named author about a single-minded Brazilian explorer. Look, I didn’t name them, but both stories are good. This is a compelling epistolary tale of the woman who made first contact, with all the risks and sacrifices along the way. 
  • 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.

  • Secondhand Music by Aleksandra Hill, published in September 2023 in Analog. A talented young violinist recovering from the loss of her arm is given the opportunity to receive a life-changing prosthesis—but the gift comes with strings attached. A lovely story about art and setting your own path. 
  • The Secret History of the Greatest Discovery by Valentin D. Ivanov, translated by Valentin D. Ivanov, published in April 2023 in Life Beyond Us. I usually don’t go in for stories that are mostly science problems, but this does such a beautiful job of capturing the wonder of discovery, and the setting of a summer astronomy camp in 1980s Eastern Europe is bursting with life.
  • 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.

  • Nairuko by Dennis Mugaa, published in April 2023 in Fantasy Magazine. After their people were nearly wiped out, a small group of Kenyan survivors use the magic in their blood to profit from conflict but can never escape the guilt over the failures to save their families. An undoubtedly magical story, but at root a hard-hitting and emotional story about guilt and powerlessness, even in people with incredible powers.
  • 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.

  • Nextype by Sam Kyung Yoo, published in November 2023 in Strange Horizons. A young girl’s parents give her a neural implant to help her navigate a world with fierce competition for desirable careers, but it’s years later before she realizes just how much she’s lost. There’s a quality setup, a gut punch, and enough denouement to leave the reader with something to hang onto.
  • Set Yourself on Fire by Sam Kyung Yoo, published in September 2023 in Fantasy Magazine. An abusive relationship tale with a fantasy twist, skillfully told in a heart-wrenching second-person narrative.
  • 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.

Short Fiction Top Ten

The novels get plenty of love, so here are my ten favorite stories of 2023 in the other three categories. Each comes in at less than 100 pages, and they’re presented in alphabetical order by author. I loved everything on this Recommended Reading List, but these ten stand above the crowd: 

  • A Short Biography of a Conscious Chair by Renan Bernardo (novelette)
  • Memories of Memories Lost by Mahmud El Sayed (short story)
  • Window Boy by Thomas Ha (short story)
  • Day Ten Thousand by Isabel J. Kim (short story)
  • Zeta-Epsilon by Isabel J. Kim (short story)
  • Old Seeds by Owen Leddy (novelette)
  • Nothing But the Rain by Naomi Salman (novella)
  • If I Should Fall Behind by Douglas Smith (short story)
  • To Carry You Inside You by Tia Tashiro (short story)
  • On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo (novelette)

Closing Thoughts

  • This is my biggest short fiction reading year so far, and so perhaps it should be no surprise that it’s the biggest list I’ve ever had of authors who appear at least twice on my annual favorites list. People who write two stories I love will often write more, so I’ll be keeping an eye on M.H. Ayinde, Renan Bernardo, Thomas Ha, Isabel J. Kim, Naomi Kritzer, Ray Nayler, Carrie Vaughn, and Sam Kyung Yoo. 
  • As Hugo nominations approach, I’m mining this list for nominations, but I’m also keeping my eye on the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Unraveller by Frances Hardinge is eligible for the Lodestar, and as authors in their first two years of professional publication, Coda Audeguy-Pegon, Kelsey Hutton, Angelia Liu, and Tia Tashiro are eligible for the Astounding. It’s a big list, and I haven’t memorized the list of which magazines count as professional publications, so if I’m missing a new writer, please let me know. 
  • I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how to support the short fiction ecosystem when I don’t have the capacity to subscribe to 15 different magazines. I do plan on maintaining subscriptions to my favorite magazines, like Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus, but I’m going to hunt down the Patreons (or equivalent) of magazines that appear multiple times on my favorites list. Leading the way this year (among magazines I didn’t read cover-to-cover in 2023) are khōréō, Apex Magazine, and the regrettably departed Fantasy Magazine (which I’d convinced myself in 2022 I didn’t like—go figure!), with three appearances each.  
  • While we’re talking about awards, I’d like to shine a light on the small group of people consistently publishing short fiction reviews. There aren’t many, and they’re all treasures. While A.C. Wise and Charles Payseur are with Locus now, Maria Haskins continues to publish extensive lists of beloved short fiction every month on her personal blog. And while short fiction reviewers don’t get a lot of love, I’ll remember that when nominating for Best Fan Writer. 
  • Speaking of the small group of consistent short fiction reviewers, I am one of them! I have never mentioned my own eligibility for Best Fan Writer, because I’m a small-time blogger who doesn’t engage with the biggest visual media franchises and doesn’t do high-level genre criticism—I have no illusions about ever making a shortlist. But I also don’t want to self-reject, and I’m working hard to be the kind of fan writer I want to see, reading diversely across subgenre, length category, publication type, race, gender, and national origin, and sharing my favorites with readers who might love them. I didn’t write much other than reviews in 2023—though perhaps the EPH Explainer was more timely than I thought—but I reviewed novels ranging from Hugo winners to obscure indies, and I brought both magazine reviews and short-fiction round-ups every month, all year. While I’m obviously much more enthusiastic about my favorites, I aspire to write reviews that will help each story find the right audience, even if that audience has different tastes than mine. If anyone has enjoyed my reviews and short fiction recommendations enough to spend a nomination slot on Tarvolon, I would be truly honored. 

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