This year’s offering of scifi and fantasy crime fiction leans heavily towards alternative history and near-future imaginings, but with plenty of bizarre and magical detours into the just plain weird. Speculative fiction can be a catch-all phrase in literary circles for anything that’s genre but that literary people like, but here, we’re using it unite an incredibly diverse set of takes paired together only through their shared interest in using crime and mystery tropes to advance and complicate their own takes on other genres. As usual, this list left me both happy and hollow inside, because I will never have time to read All The Books and you may see a few favorites from this year missing from the list. If I could sit in the corner and quietly read for the rest of my existence, I could still never get to all the titles I wanted to recommend, but alas, we have a but a short few years to make our lasting impact on this earth, and also, the world must be lived in, and not merely commented upon (as my therapist would say, but a bit less
Allison Epstein, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead
An evil vila, or shapeshifting spirit in Russian folklore, is the catalyst for this noir take on the Russian Empire just after their pyrrhic victory against Napoleon. As untold suffering grips the empire, and revolutionary fervor brews, a beautiful woman appears to a discontented prince and promises him the changes he so desires, if he will but follow her lead. She soon makes the same promises to a small group of dedicated fighters trying to reform (or overthrow) their current regime. Full of historical detail, Epstein’s alternate history brings together many aspects of Russian history for a novel that, while it may skip around in its inspirations, feels true to the thoughts and feelings of its time period.
Em X. Liu, The Death I Gave Him
A high-concept near-future locked-room take on Hamlet, The Death I Gave Him follows a family known for their futuristic medical breakthroughs as they face a dramatic crisis. At the start of the novel, the heir to the throne finds his father murdered, and suspects his uncle may be to blame. With the help of his trusty AI assistant, Horatio, he locks down the vast underground lab in which the family pursued their unholy discoveries, and attempts to discover who’s truly at fault.
Nathan Ballingrud, The Strange
Space Western!!!!!! Charles Portis meets Edgar Rice Burroughs in this ode to classic Westerns and science fiction. In The Strange, set in an alternate 1931, a young girl heads out from the Martian frontier outpost of New Galveston seeking vengeance against those who have threatened her father and their family’s precarious existence. Delightful in every way, The Strange lives up to the promise of its title (and then some).
Paz Pardo, The Shamshine Blind
Paz Pardo’s The Shamshine Blind is one of the more exciting debuts to hit in early 2023, a heady mix of high-concept speculative fiction, alternative history, and hardboiled detective fiction. In an alternate 2009, a new chemical compound that can elicit targeted human emotions has been weaponized in war and made ubiquitous for recreational purposes, upending the global and social orders. Amidst the new chaos, a small city enforcement agent gets put on the trail of a new product, a trail that points in the direction of a much broader conspiracy. Pardo’s novel is full of wit and wild invention and is sure to leave readers wanting more. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Editor-in-Chief
Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi, The Centre
(Gillian Flynn Books)
What would you do to be part of the most elite language academy ever established? And what would you be willing to keep secret? The Centre follows a struggling translator who learns of a place where people can go to become completely fluent in a new language in mere days of effort. She is determined to reap the rewards, but shocked when she begins to find out the dark secrets underpinning the secretive institution. A vicious and entertaining speculative satire of late-stage capitalism.
D. L. Soria, Thief Liar Lady
What if Cinderella was not, in fact, a dainty fan of the monarchy, but instead, a conniving revolutionary con artist fighting her way to the top of power in a divided kingdom warring over ancient magic? Also, what if her stepsisters and her stepmother were all really nice to her? And finally, what if the prince to whom she was engaged had a distractingly handsome and brooding foster brother with revolutionary potential of his own? D. L. Soria explores these possibilities and more in her delightfully fractured fairy tale.
Owen King, The Curator
In Owen King’s delightful new fantasy, The Curator, a revolution has upended a fantastical city in which cats are gods, conjurers are criminals, and the aristocracy uses fiendish means to hold on to their place in society. Meanwhile, a young woman seeks answers in her brother’s demise, and may find them in the ruins of a museum dedicated to investigating the most esoteric secrets. King’s novel feels like the heir to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, particularly one of my favorites, Night Watch.
Caitlin Starling, Last to Leave the Room
A scientist is performing dangerous experiments deep inside the earth that appear to be warping the very geography of her city. Meanwhile, her basement keeps getting deeper….and deeper…until one day, a door appears where there was once a blank wall. On the other side of the door is the scientist’s doppelgänger, and her perfect complement—cheerful when she is morose, friendly when she needs solitude. This book has brought me a delicious sense of unease, and Starling’s signature intricate world-building is once again on full display. Also, there are some A+ power reversals throughout the novel for fascinating take on how circumstance and fear determine morality.
Jinwoo Chong, Flux
Flux is full of surprises and difficult to describe. Three storylines slowly begin to converge into a tale of time-traveling corporate serial killers. Woven into all three stories is a connection to a 1980s detective show featuring a now-canceled star facing damning abuse allegations. If you like stories featuring neo-noir style, corporate corruption, and anything else that wouldn’t be out of place in a slightly more humorous version of the Blade Runner universe, then check this one out! Also notable as an exploration of queer and Asian-American identities.
Chris McKinney, Sunset, Water City
Chris McKinney’s Water City trilogy comes to a thrilling finale in Sunset, Water City, set in McKinney’s underwater Hawaiian citadel in a post-climate change future. Read this trilogy if you’ve ever wondered what a Philip K. Dick novel would feel like underwater—that sounds like a joke, but this is impeccable scifi noir and a stirring series for our times.