A List of My Favorite Speculative Fiction Novels (2023)

This is the second of two favorite book posts, following my overall book list that went up yesterday. This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality. I rarely move books significantly from year to year unless I happen to have read the book that year, though it did happen with Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I bumped up a bit this year relative to the books around it. In general, the tier breaks are more significant than the specific ranking within a tier.

A few stats:

  • Oldest: 1937 (Starmaker)
  • Newest: 2023 (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi)

Tier 5
40. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
39. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
38. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wexler (2013)
37. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
36. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
35. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
34. Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer (1983)

Tier 4
33. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
32. The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart (2020)
31. The Final Strife, Saara El-Arifi (2022)
30. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
29. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)
28. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
27. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)

Tier 3
26. Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2021)
25. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
24. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
23. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
22. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
21. Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

Tier 2
20. Jade City, Fonda Lee (2017)
19. A Master of Djinn, P. Djeli Clark (2021)
18. A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019)
17. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
16. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
15 The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, S.A. Chakraborty (2023)
14. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
13. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
12. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
11. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
10. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
9. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)

Tier 1
8. Babel, R.F. Kuang (2022)
7. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)


The following section is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. Several caveats apply to this list. First, I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list. Second: where an ongoing series ranks depends in part on my estimation of the most recent books. There is one first-book-in-a-series on the list above that I loved as a standalone, but was less impressed with how the series developed.

Tier 3
19. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
18. The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
17. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
16. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
15. Machineries of Empire, Yoon Ha Lee
14. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu
13. Shades of Magic, V.E. Schwab

Tier 2
13. The Expanse, James S.A. Corey
12. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
11. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
10.The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
9. The Daevabad Trilogy, Shannon Chakraborty
8. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
7. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson
6. Teixcalaan Series, Arkady Martine

Tier 1
5. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

Tender is the Flesh

The cover of Agustina Bazterrica's Tender is the Flesh, depicting the bottom half of a woman's face and the top half of a bull.

“After all, since the world began, we’ve been eating each other. If not symbolically, then we’ve been literally gorging on each other. The Transition has enabled us to be less hypocritical.”

Ordinarily I start novel reviews with a plot synopsis before offering any editorial comments or analysis. This is the way of reviews. Sometimes a non-fiction book warrants an anecdote of some sort that leads into the review, but discussion of novels generally requires insight on the plot to be meaningful.

I will get to the plot of Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh in a moment, but, before I get there, I want to make something very clear: this might be the most disturbing book I have ever read.

Tender is the Flesh follows Marcos, a man who has spent his entire career in the meat industry in an unnamed South American country that I suspect is meant to resemble Bazterrica’s home country of Argentina.

A virus deadly to humans swept through the animal kingdom at some point in the recent past. Animals could carry the disease without ill-effect but any human who ate contaminated meat or was scratched by an infected animal would die. Overnight, governments worldwide exterminated all animals that had a chance of interacting with humans. Humanity went vegan by necessity, much to the dissatisfaction of most people. Meat consumption, after all, is more a political statement than a biological necessity.

(Bazterrica includes a correct detail that humans often turn to meat for Vitamin B12, but it is a poor explanation for what happens in the novel given both that there are synthetic means of producing the nutrient and that people do this because humans can’t produce it.)

It was the first public scandal of its kind and instilled the idea in society that in the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.

Old taboos start to decay in this new zoologically-deficient world. People consumed other people in secret at first. Immigrants, migrants, and other marginalized people began to disappear, prompting cynical whispers that the virus was nothing more than a conspiracy to curb overpopulation. But norms change and, soon, human meat is an accepted part of people’s diet, with distinctions made between human cattle without names and citizens, the latter of whom can only be eaten in special circumstances. By the time that we meet Marcos, his career has changed from operating his family’s cattle slaughterhouse to being a manager at a slaughterhouse for the euphemistically-named “special meat” industry.

While he removes his soaked shirt, he tries to clear the persistent idea that this is what they are: humans bred as animals for consumption. He goes to the refrigerator and pours himself cold water. He drinks it slowly. His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world. There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.

There are two ways to talk about Tender is the Flesh: the setting and the plot. Both are disturbing.

The greatest part of the horror in Tender is the Flesh builds out of the setting. I found that the inciting virus required a suspension of disbelief since its mechanics seemed rather improbable, but from that one point Bazterrica spins out a richly-imagined dystopia that is altogether too plausible given that its basic realities are transposed directly from the world of industrial meat, just adapted for humans. Thus we are given a tour of the breeding where the First Generation Pure grow up in captivity, their vocal cords removed “because meat doesn’t talk” and where impregnated females are often maimed so that they can’t kill the fetus so that it isn’t born into the hell, and to the processing centers where they are sedated, stunned, and killed.

But if the industrial side of special meat processing serves as the focal point of the novel, Bazterrica also introduces the “normal” sides of special meat consumption through parties held by Marcos’ sister Marisa and the seedier elements of the black market trade in human flesh. In a particularly grotesque examples of the latter, Marcos visits a particularly perverse establishment where, for a surcharge, a client can pay to eat the woman he had sex with and where celebrities can pay off their debts by signing themselves over to be prey in hunts.

The unrelenting bleakness of the setting only serves to underscore the trauma of the plot. Marcos’ wife Cecilia has recently left him, broken by the death of their baby Leo after years of trying to start a family. At the start of the novel, Marcos is simply going through the motions of life and trying to watch after his dying father, but things change when he receives the expensive gift of a First Generation Prime female to raise as domestic head. Marcos himself helped write the strict regulations governing domestic head since the meat industry has to keep a division between full people and meat people for the fiction to continue to exist and the idea of eating one’s own children is too horrific to contemplate. And yet, Marcos decides to first name this FGP Jasmine, then to bring her into the house, and, eventually, has sex with her in a way that suggests that he is trying to create a genuine relationship. When Jasmine becomes pregnant, the question seems to become whether one or both are going to suffer consequences from the regulators who keep trying to pry into what Marcos is hiding.

I will not reveal the final twist, but it was both shocking and perfectly in keeping with this bleak world.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the trauma that pulses through nearly every character. Marcos, for instance, spends most of the novel going through life in almost a fugue state, which, in turn, colors the rest of the story. But this trauma plays out in the person of the nihilistic butcher, the tender-hearted job applicant at the processing plant, and a sister who seems to be disassociating from the reality of what she eats. The only ones who seem unaffected, Bazterrica suggests, are the sociopaths.

But this is a novel pregnant with ideas, such that other social commentaries dance beneath the surface of the trauma. Most obvious is the critique of industrial farming that inflicts so much of the trauma. Unsurprisingly, Bazterrica has talked about how her transition to vegetarianism informs, even while saying that meat informs her identity as a participant in a carnivorous society. Likewise, this commentary is bound up in a larger discussion of capitalistic consumption. Not unlike in our own world, meat in the novel serves is the ultimate marker of social status, whether one has access to it or whether one becomes it. The have nots are consumed first and all human flesh is transactional. Thus the reader is invited to consider where they might exist along this spectrum.


I finished Tender is the Flesh in April, but the end of semester busyness interfered with sitting down to write this. In the weeks since, I reread Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which my students loved more than I could have anticipated, and read Robert Graves I, Claudius, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man. I didn’t much care for I, Claudius, but I anticipate writing about the latter two books. I am now reading Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science and Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.


The cover image of R.F. Kuang's Babel, a tower rising above Oxford with white birds in flight.

“But how does this happen?” he continued. “How does all the power from foreign languages just somehow accrue to England? This is no accident; this is a deliberate exploitation of foreign cultures and foreign resources. The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not. It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism.”

“Pamphlets. They’d thought they could win this with pamphlets.

He almost laughed at the absurdity. Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”

I didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War as much as most people I know. I wrote back in 2019 about how her voice and literary styling impressed me at the same time as I found myself frustrated by how much of the plot was taken directly from the headlines of the history of east Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which meant that I didn’t bother reading either of the sequels. However, I also speculated that the book would have been stronger had she abandoned the fictional world for the real one and expressed my interest in what Kuang put out subsequently.

Kuang did exactly what I had hoped for in her latest novel, Babel, or the necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. The result was not only a brilliant fantasy novel, but also perhaps my favorite campus novel.

Babel is principally the story of Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton whose mother died in a Cholera epidemic in 1829 who comes into the care of Professor Richard Lovell, who whisks him off to England. Lovell rears Robin in his household for years, drilling him in Latin, Greek, and Chinese with the sole ambition of gaining him admission to the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, colloquially known as Babel, where Lovell is a professor.

This institute, which is housed in a tower at Oxford, is the radiant hub of Britain’s colonial empire. Scholars working at Babel discovered the latent power in the slippage in translation that they can inscribe onto bars of silver. With the right semantic links, British silver can do anything from create swift-moving transit to reinforce buildings to power weapons of war. They only require a steady supply of silver and a roster of fluent linguists.

“Professor Playfair put the bar down. ‘So there it is. It’s all quite easy once you’ve grasped the basic principle. We capture what is lost in translation—for there is always something lost in translation—and the bar manifests it into being. Simple enough?’

Upon making his way to Oxford, Robin joins the three other students who have been selected for admission to Babel, Ramiz Rafi Mirza (Ramy) from Calcutta, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti, and Letitia Price (Letty), a white woman whose father was an admiral in the British navy. The quartet settles into a routine, supporting one another during the grinding years of coursework. During this period, all four suffer what we might term micro-aggressions even though their affiliation with Babel insulates them from the worst effects of racism and sexism. However, it is also in this period when Robin meets Griffin, Professor Lovell’s previous ward and likely Robin’s half brother. A former student at Babel himself, Griffin introduces Robin to the Hermes Society, a secretive association of people dedicated to resisting Babel’s power. Before long it becomes clear that there is only one path forward: Robin and his friends must seize Babel and thus the means of magic production.

Babel is a fictional history, and Kuang notes in her author’s note that she moved certain chronological details to meet narrative needs, but it is also set against very real historical events and phenomena. The British Empire is a given, and the climactic events appear against a backdrop of the Opium Wars, but Kuang also introduces historical personages and linguistic texts omitted from most textbooks, which gives the setting the texture of reality.

At the same time, Kuang uses this story to address the very nature of the academy, without resorting either to the secretive cultishness of The Secret History or the (in my opinion) mean-spirited satire of Lucky Jim. Rather, the pages of Babel are filled with the characters immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in college. Lovell’s stern and reclusive scholar who wants to be engaged with the grand affairs of the day is one archetype, but so too is the female scholar who has to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition and junior researchers who sympathize with radical social movements but also have to keep their heads down to receive promotion. I laughed aloud at a scene where the energetic senior professor who puts on a show in lectures and arranges the security measures at the tower that can kill or maim expresses his outrage that they can no longer reveal exam results with a ritual where students attempt to enter the tower: those who fail trigger the tower defenses. This sort of erudite bonhomie in class juxtaposed with a cruelty around exams and “qualifications” is altogether too common. Thus, with Babel, Kuang offers an incisive portrait of an institution that claims to be a progressive meritocracy while perpetuating a structure that is fundamentally conservative.

Then an interlude chapter told from Letty’s point of view opens with this sentence:

Letitia Price was not a wicked person.

The chapter goes on to dissect all of the problems with white feminism in just a few pages.

Put simply, Babel is a triumph, blending a clever magic system with a specific time and place, and themes that allow Kuang to speak to the present moment.


This is the first of several posts on that I read in late 2022 when I became chaotically busy (I finished Babel in October). I read a bunch of good books in the intervening period, so my goal over the next few weeks is to get caught up.