Introducing the Best SFF of 2022

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

By day, Leah Rachel von Essen is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. By night, she reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

There’s never enough time to read the flood of new books that hits shelves each year. And with so many best-of lists coming at the end of the year, it’s hard to decide who to listen to, which books to check out from your local library for the holiday season, which books you should make sure to buy with that post-holiday book money. Who do you listen to?

Easy! Listen to me.

Of course, it’s not actually that simple. I’m immersed in the book world. I’ve read reviews and dug into ratings and analyzed who I think are award contenders. I’m just one person, but I guarantee this list is sound: the 15 books that follow are the best that 2022 has to offer.

They feature book eaters and trans archivists, dig into near-future dystopias and vast, dark fantasy worlds. They include SFF from around the world. If you read these books, you’ll travel from under the sea among the octopi to the bright lights of a soul-stealing Hollywood to a cyberpunk far-future where even our memories are under constant surveillance.

There’s a book on this list for every reader — and I hope you find yours!

cover of The Book Eaters

The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

I love a good antiheroine, and Devon definitely qualifies. She was raised in a book-eater family on a diet of stories that reinforced the patriarchy, only to have her first child taken from her. When her second, a son, is born with a hunger for eating human minds, she runs. She’s not going to lose another child — she’s going to protect this boy at all costs, whatever it takes, and survive no matter the cost. It’s a powerful book about the incredible strength of possessive maternal love and the realities of finding a way to survive through trauma.

book cover of The Mountain in the Sea by Nayler

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

Finally, a superb science fiction novel that features the most intelligent and quietly terrifying creature of the sea: the octopus. In Nayler’s debut, scientist Dr. Ha Nguyen is flown into a privately owned island to help mega-corporation DIANIMA investigate what might be the first proven sign of advanced intelligence outside of humanity. Nguyen teams up with a startlingly human android and a scarred security agent to try and figure out whether the “sea monsters” of the archipelago are really as intelligent as they hope. Picture it like Arrival, but with octopi.

Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction cover

Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction Edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight

Because of the simple truths of traditional publishing, some of the absolute best science fiction and fantasy being published and translated is in short fiction. These Tordotcom collections are immensely valuable for encountering new, exciting writers and concepts from around the world. Read about dragons and climate change, folklore-infused tales of goddesses and love, sci-fi futuristic stories of androids and drought, and much more, in these 32 stories written by African and African diaspora authors.

Also worth a read for some superb international fiction: The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation from a Visionary Team of Female and Nonbinary Creators, edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang.

Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman book cover

Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman

Sometimes we don’t give enough love to the cozy, fluffier SFF in our midst. This book is a Meg Cabot–like love story between a transmasc vampire who lives in his archivist office, and the vivacious widow of a late queer sci-fi author who may or may not be a ghost. It’s a soft fantasy mystery with spicy queer sex scenes, and if that’s not enough to sell you on it, there’s also lot of quiet meditation and discussion of what it means to be gender nonconforming and what it means to occupy a body, as the protagonist deals with transphobia and workplace nonsense.

cover of Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy is thick, vivid, poetic fantasy on such a large and yet personal scale. I loved this sequel even more than his first, which itself made it to many best books of 2019 lists. It tells the story of the Moon Witch, Sogolon, and her life of violence, control, and chaos, from court dealings to monster battles, all with the chancellor Aesi as her arch-enemy. James’s prose is vividly stunning, but the true strength of this book lies in Sogolon’s journey, its magic, her need to survive, her repeated absolute heartbreaks.

cover of How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

No one would blame you if you couldn’t quite imagine reading about a plague right now. But if you’re going to make room for one plague book this year, make it this one. In 2030, an archaeologist finds the remains of a young girl who seems to have died of an ancient virus. As you might imagine, things go downhill from there. The novel unspools in a series of connected short stories as the Arctic Plague devastates the world. It ties humanity together, unpacking all the ways that we’re intricately connected to the rest of the world, and while it can be bleak — warning that many children die in this book — there’s something quietly hopeful in its portrayals of resilience and grief.

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo cover

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Picture this: Golden Age Hollywood. Ruthless, always looking for its next star. Now add magic to the mix and imagine that the cutthroat world operates on a system of handshakes and soul sales, and picture a young Asian girl named Luli who is determined to become a star, and is willing to do whatever it takes to do so. This sharp, chilly book is a stunning and sapphic book of fae-like negotiations and traps, of predatory directors and monsters lurking in every shadow, but is powered by Luli’s passion and fierce determination to succeed.

cover of Thrust

Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch

This weird novel needs to get more attention. A girl named Laisvė who lives in the flooded Brook discovers that she is a carrier: in other words, she can use talismans (like old pennies) to ride currents into other times. She takes the reader on a trip to meet a group of iron workers putting the Statue of Liberty together, and to meet the man who designed the statue. It’s a book that explores the big, serious issues of exploitation, climate change, and freedom through a rich web of kink, humor, and nature. There’s so much going on in this novel, and all of it comes together in such magnificent, incredible ways.

cover of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers recently won the 2022 Hugo Award for Best Novella for A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and this sequel shows the genius behind her cozy, hopeful, vivid world. Dex, a nonbinary tea monk, and Mosscap, the first robot to venture into the human world in generations, are going on a tour of Panga so that Mosscap can learn more about how humans work and what they need. This book builds on the world and asks questions that are philosophical and fascinating, picking apart a communal, anticapitalist world, all while still being a quick read.

book cover of The Temps by DeYoung

The Temps by Andrew DeYoung

This book flew under too many people’s radars, and I’m determined to fix that. What if you took a zombie apocalypse survival story and combined it with a workplace comedy pointing out all the absurdities of large corporations? That’s what you get with The Temps. When a toxic gas descends on mega-corp Delphi Enterprises, all the full-time employees are outside at a big outdoor meeting — and only a few hundred temps, who didn’t go, are left alive. As they try to figure out what to do next, they also start asking a question that quickly morphs into a big sci-fi mystery: what exactly did Delphi do?

cover image of The City Inside

The City Inside by Samit Basu

Indi is a huge online celebrity — and it’s up to Joey, her ex, to control her multi-reality streams and handle social media crises. She pulls in Rudra, a man who left behind his rich family. Together in Delhi, they end up confronting a whole mess of rising issues, from surveillance to the pain points of capitalism to systemic racism and prejudice. This is one darkly plausible near-future dystopia that you won’t want to miss. It’s a vivid cyberpunk book that digs into relatable anxieties about our world and where it’s headed, the overwhelming-ness of it, and the paths to resistance.

the cover of Last Exit

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

I really, really love a good queer found family story, and Gladstone has given us a stunning one. A team of five once traveled around America sealing off the rot so that it couldn’t corrupt our world. Ever since they lost Sal to the rot, it’s only been Zelda — everyone left but her. But when Sal’s voice starts whispering through the darkness, and the massive eldritch darkness on the other side of the cracks starts creeping through again, Zelda has to get the gang back together to see if they can save the world — and maybe even Sal too.

cover of The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monáe

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe with Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, and Sheree Renée Thomas

Monáe’s Dirty Computer film and album were works of queer, radical, cyberpunk genius, and in these five stories, she and her talented team of collaborators expand and dig more into that world. Some of the stories are vast — the Director Librarian uncovers a rebel plot to clog memory collectors — while others are more zoomed-in — an exhausted student discovers that time stops in her apartment pantry. It’s genius SFF that digs into queerness, gatekeeping, dystopia and hope. I’m rooting for “Timebox Altar(ed)” by Monáe and Thomas to win all the awards next year.

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel cover

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

I was eagerly awaiting the day that the trend of mythic retellings would reach the Indian epics, and Patel brings a richly feminist perspective to the story of Kaikeyi, a queen villainized in the traditional Ramayana for using two god-granted boons to banish Rama and make sure the crown goes to her own son instead. Patel writes Kaikeyi as a warrior in her own right, a powerful woman who is fighting against the rigged system of the gods, who just want chaos and bloody war and have chosen Rama as their hero. Fans of Circe should already be falling for Kaikeyi!

Book cover of Babel by R. F. Kuang

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

This book has taken the SFF world by storm, and I’m not surprised. All the blurbs compare it to dark academia darling The Secret History and modern fantasy classic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but it also takes on issues of colonization and imperialist injustice. Robin is a Chinese student pulled between Babel, the world’s center of translation and a utopia of knowledge, and the Hermes Society, which is trying to sabotage the silver-working that enables the British Empire to stay in power. He has to decide where his fight belongs, and how a colonial power can best be brought down.

Did I miss a book that should be on this list? Let me know all about it on Twitter.

Want more great SFF? Dig into our lists of great SFF in translation, or our list of 42 of the best fantasy novels from the last decade. And don’t forget to check out our picks for overall Best Books of 2022!