Here we go here we go here we go, the post I spend most of the year looking forward to writing: my top 10 new books of 2022, where “new” in this case means “I never read it before,” and as it turns out most of them are pretty new but the oldest book on the list came out in 1977. We have, for the first time in three years, returned to the original 10-book list, mostly because I read fewer books this year than I did in the last several years and I don’t want the list to get much past 10% of my reading. Fifteen out of 101 just doesn’t feel special enough, especially when you consider that I always throw an Honorable Mention at the end. Pick five of those if you like.
Also worth pointing out: this is the tenth of these lists, and part of me feels like I should do a top 10 of the top 10. That’s not coming before the end of 2022, though; it’s going to require a lot of thought and possibly some rereading. Previous years:
- The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2021
- The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2020
- The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2019
- The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2018
- The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2017
- The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2016
- The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2015
- The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2014
- The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2013
And, with no further ado, here we go:
10. Rust in the Root, by Justina Ireland. This was the most recent of my reads to be added to the list, as I just finished it a few days ago. I generally like to have a few days to see if the shine wears off a book (or, as will happen later, if a book improves in my estimation or not) but I don’t see this one falling out of favor anytime soon. I don’t recall off the top of my head if Justina Ireland has shown up on this list before, but this is a great example of her style: historical fiction with a supernatural twist, told from the perspective of a person of color.
In this case, it’s 1937, and the United States is still recovering from the Great Rust, a cataclysmic event where anything created with the aid of the magical art known as Mechomancy has suddenly fallen apart. This includes pretty much anything that has been constructed, so the effects are immense and wide-ranging, although some areas have been harder hit than others. There are other schools of magic beyond Mechomancy, and the main character has some strength in several of them, including Floromancy, the ability to transform plants and seeds into other things. Branches of magic beyond Mechomancy are frowned upon and sometimes flat-out illegal, and the fact that most of their practitioners seem to be people of color doesn’t help. Laura moves to New York City at the beginning of the book and takes a job with the Colored Auxiliary of the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps– sound familiar, by any chance?– and gets sent off to deal with a Blight, an area where the effects of the Great Rust are worse than usual. Much worse, as it turns out.
This is the first book of a series, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of it, especially as I want to know a lot more about this magic system and Ireland makes a point of only giving you as much information as you absolutely need to comprehend the story. I am, for example, dying to know why walnuts and okra seeds, specifically, are so important to Floromancy. She literally wears a bandolier full of seeds. Tell me mooooooooore.
9. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall. Sherlock Holmes is, in and of himself, a great argument for why awesome things can happen when copyright is allowed to expire. Affair is a not-very-thinly-veiled Holmes pastiche, crossed with H.P. Lovecraft, and if you know me you should already be smiling at the thought of me crawling over people and knocking over furniture in my rush to get my hands on this book. The main character, a military veteran named John Wyndham, takes up lodging at 221b Martyr’s Walk with a “consulting sorceress” named Shaharazad Haas. Wyndham’s war, by the way, was in another dimension, as opposed to, say, Afghanistan, and Ms. Haas has every bit of Holmes’ investigative acumen and invincible arrogance, combined with magical powers well beyond Holmes’ imagination. There are vampires and pirates. Wyndham gets to punch a shark at one point. It’s delicious.
The story begins with adapting A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel, but continues to branch off into its own mystery as it continues. I don’t know if this is intended to be part of series or not, but I would love to see more. This combination is just too irresistible for me; I loved this book.
8. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter. I have to imagine that it’s rather difficult to write autobiographies of academics. I have some evidence to this effect, as I’ve read a handful of biographies of professors and authors that basically boiled down to “he got this degree, then he wrote this, and then he wrote that, and that made some people mad, so he wrote that after that in response to this,” and a life that was lived by someone who was objectively interesting just becomes a long list of publication credits. Tolkien himself basically was a hobbit, and his homebody tendencies add to the problem, but somehow Humphrey Carpenter makes his biography every bit as interesting as the man it’s about. Tolkien’s friendship with C.S. Lewis is covered fairly extensively as is a lot of the detail and etymology that went into the writing of The Lord of the Rings, along with Tolkien’s obsession with internal consistency and detail, which once led him to correct some details in a reissue of The Hobbit and literally blame them, in the text, on Bilbo Baggins himself.
I was light on nonfiction this year, and there will be a handful of other books showing up in the Honorable Mention, but this one was definitely the standout. It’s not like I needed an excuse, as Tolkien has been a huge influence on my life and this book came out when I was a year old, so it’s actually kind of surprising that I never read it before now, but I read this in preparation to watch The Rings of Power and then never watched The Rings of Power. Oops.
7. Seed, by Ania Ahlborn. I called this book “deliciously fucked up” when I wrote my initial review of it in October, and I absolutely stand by that, as Seed wins this year’s award for Book Most In Need of Multiple Trigger Warnings for this year. In particular, if violence against and occasionally by children is going to be something that gets to you– if you are a parent, or really if you have ever even seriously considered becoming a parent, this book is gonna fuck with you. Whether that experience is something you’re interested in or not is your call; I spent the first night of the two it took to read this book with my skin crawling, and I figured out what the ending was going to be early on in night two and spent most of the rest of the read in slowly-mounting dread that I might have been right and desperately hoping that I was wrong.
I was not wrong. This book is somewhat predictable, generally considered a weakness, but that only increases its ability to screw with you. It’s about a generational curse, and family trauma, and there’s pet murder and car crashes and projectile vomiting and and all sorts of godawful shit and it’s beautifully written and it’s scary as all hell. You may wish you hadn’t picked it up when you’re done with it and you should read it anyway. I wish I could write this scary, and that’s the highest compliment I think I can pay the book. Just be glad it’s short.
6. The First Binding, by R. R. Virdi. What was that about short books? The First Binding is 832 Goddamned pages long. It’s a doorstop. You could kill small animals with it. You could probably kill medium-sized animals with it, although reading it would probably be a better use of it. It’s the first of a series, and I have not the slightest idea how many books are planned for it but this is gonna look great on the shelf assuming the author doesn’t develop a case of Rothfuss syndrome and never finishes it.
We’ll get back to the Rothfuss stuff in a minute, but it’s worth pointing out that this book initially wasn’t on my shortlist for 2022. I added it in this week after realizing that I was still spending a fair amount of time thinking about it, so it’s a book that I gave a five-star review to initially that has managed to grow on me since I first read it.
To be wildly unfair about it, The First Binding is The Name of the Wind, only with a vague feeling of Southeast Asia about it. Or, alternatively, it’s Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eater Chronicles but not in outer space. It is, in other words, a first-person autobiography-style story told by an old and vastly powerful being, with occasional jumps around in time and lots of references to stuff that’s going to happen later on in the series. And, honestly, Name of the Wind crossed with Asian cultural influences really will give you a damn good idea of whether you want to read this or not; I feel pretty comfortable saying that if you (at least initially, before 10 years of Rothfuss’ nonsense) liked NotW, you’ll like this, and you should give it a look. Just, uh, maybe think about it in ebook format unless you have strong forearms.
5. The Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao. I literally just now pre-ordered the sequel to this book, which unfortunately isn’t due out until August of 2023, but this is the first book on the list where drooling enthusiasm could legitimately be part of my talking about it, something that will be a theme for the rest of the list. (I never said this: in general, don’t pay too terribly close attention to the order of the books, except maybe for the top two, but I do feel like there’s a bit of a division between the top five and the bottom five. If I had waited until tomorrow to write this list they might have been in different order.) It also has, hands down and far away, the best cover of any of this year’s books, to the point that I had the wraparound without the text on it as my desktop background for a while after reading it.
Also, if you Google Xiran Jay Zhao, the author, they are wearing a cow onesie in the first pictures that will pop up, which is a reason to buy the book all by itself.
Right, the story: imagine Pacific Rim crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale: giant mechs beating the shit out of each other piloted by tiny, soft humans, only one of them has to be male and one has to be female and very frequently piloting the mech will lead to the death of the female pilot. Now make the main character one of those female pilots and make her hate men to a degree that is almost attractive. Wu Zetian is an amazing, fascinating character and even if she didn’t have the fascinating worldbuilding around her (and y’all know what a sucker for good worldbuilding I am) I’d want to read the book to know more about her. I read this back in January– I think it was one of the first books added to the shortlist– and I still think about it all the time. Absolutely madhouse brilliant. Go buy it.
4. Between Two Fires, by Christopher Buehlman. In a world where I had never read Seed, I’d start this off by talking about how amazingly fucked up Between Two Fires is and how I don’t read enough good horror novels, but I already wrote the bit about Seed, which is both scarier and more fucked up than Between Two Fires but somehow isn’t quite as good of a book. I think the difference is that Between Two Fires is a more complex story; it’s going to scare the hell out of you and gross you out and push some buttons that generally have DO NOT PUSH on them in blinking lights, but there’s more going on with this one than with Seed.
Anyway, it says “An Epic Tale of Medieval Horror” right there on the cover, and, well, yeah, that’s what this is, only the Middle Ages were kinda a horror story all on their own, and this particular book is set at the height of the Black Death, so it’s historical fiction about what very well may have been one of the worst times and places to be alive and human in history.
The main character is Thomas, a former knight who leaves a life of wandering the countryside stealing and looting and trying to avoid sudden, horrible death when he rescues a young girl from a band of men who are more or less just like him, and if you’re getting a hint that violence against children is part of this book, yeah, maybe roll with that? Only thing is, this kid might be a prophet of God, as she’s convinced that the plague is part of Lucifer rising up against Heaven, and hey, relative stranger, would you mind escorting me to Avignon so that we can do something about the impending literal end of the world? Pretty please?
So, yeah, maybe that’s what’s going on. Or maybe she’s just sick and delirious. Either way I’m sure it’ll be fine.
3. The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo. I was talking earlier about how certain things falling out of copyright protection led to (or at least could lead to) cool reinterpretations of the source material, and that leads to me wondering if The Great Gatsby is in the public domain yet. I can only assume that it is, as Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful makes no attempt whatsoever to hide the source material, right down to keeping all of the character names and locations the same. The mysterious Jay Gatsby is still the central driver of the book, his mansion is still across the bay in West Egg, and a certain green light and optometrist’s billboard are still there to be obsessed over by generations of English teachers.
The big difference? Vo’s Jordan Baker is a Vietnamese adoptee, and queer to boot, and she has a relationship going with not only her Gatsby lover Nick Carraway but also Daisy Buchanan herself. The book is thick with magic, too, although it’s fascinatingly expressed; where I’m usually a sucker for “magic systems” and worldbuilding and such this book has absolutely no interest in explaining things, and you’re just going to have to take that little vial of demon’s blood at face value, damn it, or (in one of my favorite scenes) the speakeasy that can only be accessed by crossing the same bridge three times in a row, or the paper doll that Daisy animates and sends to a social event that she doesn’t want to attend.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a big fan of Gatsby, which I haven’t reread in a while and need to get to, and the story of this book fascinated me from start to finish, but that’s not why it’s on the list. This book, more than anything else I read this year, is on this list because of the quality of the writing. I’ve read a couple of Vo’s books in the past and I didn’t quite realize she had this in her; the writing is beautiful, with sentences I wanted to lift off the paper and roll around in on nearly every page. It’s stunningly well-written, and even if you aren’t generally into speculative fiction or you haven’t read Gatsby you should allow yourself the pleasure of a night or two with this beautiful little book.
2. The Shadow of the Gods, by John Gwynne. I considered making it official that you were to consider both this and its sequel The Hunger of the Gods as both being in second place, since I read both books this year, but whatever, you get it. As you’ve no doubt figured out I read a lot of series fiction this year, more than I usually do even though that’s always been a big part of my reading diet, and this book is an amazing example of the grittier, slightly-more-reality-based side of fantasy literature. Slightly, mind you, as the cover of this one features an absolutely enormous dragon and the sequel has a wolf half the size of God on it, but it still feels like low fantasy for all that.
Shadow is Norse-themed, possibly post-Ragnarök-Norse themed, as there’s gods but they’re all dead, and the main characters are all phenomenal badasses and they all cart around lots of axes and seaxes (which is a dagger) and everybody’s cold all the damn time and there are letters like ð scattered through a lot of the words so you need to know to pronounce it like a -th. There are three main POV characters that the book cycles through, and by the end of the book none of them have even met yet although their stories have overlapped in certain ways; this was very clearly written as the deliberate first part of a trilogy and not a book that got successful so they greenlighted sequels.
This is not the most complicated nor the most literary book on the list. It is, however, an extraordinarily well-crafted example of a genre that I have loved since I was a kid, and discovering John Gwynne’s work was an amazing treat. I have another book by him that has been sitting on my shelf for a while because it’s the first book of a (completed) tetralogy and I strongly suspect I’ll be reading them close to back-to-back, so I’ve been waiting for the year to end, because I already have two books by this guy on my list and I can’t have two entire series. I loved it, and you should read it.
- Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R. F. Kuang.
This is the part where I inevitably get pissed at WordPress, which cannot be convinced that just because I have started a line of text with a 1 does not automatically mean that I am about to create an indented list. It can not be talked out of this. It cannot be edited. It barely makes any visual impact at all, and it nonetheless drives me insane.
Anyway. Babel represents the best minor thing that happened to me all year, which is that I got a pre-publication ARC and got to read it a couple of months before it actually got released. R.F. Kuang’s name is not going to be unfamiliar to anyone who has been around here for a while; her Poppy War trilogy is one of the greatest achievements in fantasy literature of the last ten years, and she is somehow only 26 or 27 years old. I believe all three of her previous books have made my top 10 list; the second one might not have but the first and third definitely did. Babel, in all its academic colonic title glory, has absolutely nothing to do with the Poppy War trilogy, and instead represents yet another alternate history, something I’m only just now realizing was absolutely the genre of the year for 2022.
Babel is set in the 1830s at the Institute of Translation at Oxford University, a giant tower that occupies most of the center of campus and very much does not exist in the real world. The main character, called Robin Swift because none of the white people in the book can be bothered to learn his real name, is a Chinese orphan basically kidnapped by an Institute professor and brought to England to serve as a translator for the Chinese language. This world’s entire magic system (there’s that phrase again) is based on translation, and the Institute has a death grip on the technology that this magic makes possible, so Robin, along with his three friends– an Indian Muslim and two women, one of whom is Black– are put in the position of wanting to be scholars and translators but having to literally participate in stripping cultural resources from their homelands in order to do it.
It’s magnificent. It’s angry and dark and complicated and fascinating and eventually it almost turns into an espionage novel– don’t miss the bit about the Translators’ Revolution in the title– and I thought the Poppy War books were wonderful but they feel like a warmup in comparison to how confident and assured the story Kuang is telling with Babel is. Dark Academia has become an interesting subgenre in the last few years, so if you’re into that, or historical fiction, or really just into good books at all, it is the best book I read this year, and you should have read it already, so get on that.
Honorable Mention, in No Particular Order, Except for One Book: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, by Riley Black; Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames, which you should understand as the unofficial #11 on this list; The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Serial Killer, by Dean Jobb; Leviathan Falls, by James S.A. Corey; Under the Whispering Door, by T.J. Klune; Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim; Bluebird, by Ciel Pierlot; The Architect’s Apprentice, by Elif Shafak; The Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikovsky; The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter; and Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.