My top reads of 2023? I’ve read forty books this year, a personal record, and a lot of them were BANGERS. It’s hard to choose my favorites from such an illustrious group, but I wanted to give a shout-out to four books that made this year special for me. Not all of them were published this year; this list is for books I read this year. I’ve already talked about my favorite smutty books of the year in this post, and some of them make a re-appearance here.
I’ve categorized my four favorites as follows:
My epic of the year (I only read one but it was spectacular)
My cozy of the year
The book that stole my heart
My book of the year
Epic of the year: Legacy of Brick and Bone by Krystle Matar
I don’t read much epic fantasy these days (my average read is around 300 pages), but having fallen in love with romantic fantasy in large part due to Matar’s Legacy of the Brightwash, I had no choice but to block out a month to read the almost 1,200 pages of Legacy of Brick and Bone. I’ll try not to repeat what I’ve said in my review, but this epic almost transcends bookness. It’s many books woven together, worlds and personalities brought together with such skill and finesse that the world around you dissolves for a few dozen hours as you inhabit this world. And what a world—gaslamp fantasy with an often Western feel, where magic, boxing, queer love, whiskey, and rebellion combine in a heady fog. Physically and emotionally brutal and tender, this book has Dickensian scope with Wildean sensibilities. Matar’s legacy in fantasy is secure.
Cozy of the year: Catnip by Vyria Durav
Gods, did I need this book in the year of our Lord twenty-twenty three. I reviewed it here, but let me just say how much I’ve thought about it since then. So many books make their bread and butter on the ever-present threat of death, and while this book does have moments of tension, it’s first and foremost a cozy book about a person discovering herself (as a catgirl) and building a safe, happy relationship (with an embodied AI) in space. The trans themes are done with a light, subtle touch, and the book is super affirming without any deep dives into trauma (not that those can’t be great—read about the next book on my list). The book is so playful, so joyful, and honestly, who doesn’t need that right about now?
The book that stole my heart: The Calyx Charm by May Peterson
The Calyx Charm rocked my world, plain and simple. I reviewed it here, and just seeing the cover gives me chills. This is the story of a trans girl with magical hair who fights to recover the power her father stole from her. It’s a romance, but it’s got heavy themes, seizing your heart right from the beginning and not letting go until the finale. There’s so much pain here, and so much joy too—the transfeminine experience is beautifully and thoroughly described by an author who weaves magic with her words. The love story and the fantasy plot are skillfully interwoven and both equally strong.
As a romance, it’s the most powerful transfeminine love story I’ve read, with a rich emotional landscape, exuberantly detailed sex scenes, and a thoroughly satisfying HEA. As a fantasy book, it’s got a great build, with clear stakes and rising tension and a big blowout that’s sure to please the most epic fantasy fan. And as a queer book, it creates a perfectly fleshed-out world, with unique terms for trans, cis, and nonbinary people, and a complex culture that’s not simply a mirror of ours or a wishful utopia.
This is a book I will definitely reread someday, when my heart is ready to be broken and healed once again.
Book of the year: The Demon of the House of Hua by Maria Ying
I’m a simple person with simple needs. I like short books about magical lesbians where the emotions are on point and the fantasy fucks as hard as the characters. Bonus points if some of those lesbians are nonbinary or trans.
Welcome to the Those Who Break Chains series by Maria Ying, the pen name of the dynamic duo comprised of Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Devi Lacroix.
I adored The Grace of Sorcerers, which I discussed in a comparison review with Shadow of Gorgon by Selene Tang here. I loved all the different romance plotlines in the book, all of them involving lesbians of various stripes. Even if the fantasy/action plot wasn’t my precise cup of tea, it was still great, and I knew I’d binge the whole series.
When I started The Demon of the House of Hua, a standalone novella in the series, I was distressed at first because WAIT THIS IS A SAD BOOK. It starts with a woman mourning her dead wife, living with the demon nanny who killed her wife to save their child. It’s complicated, and that’s not even the point—I was here to read a romance, and dammit, why am I crying in the first chapter? But then. Little by little. I saw what was happening.
This is a story of healing, of coming to terms with grief, of finding love after love. It’s a love story featuring two mature protagonists, which is not something I see enough of, and which fills me with immense joy. It’s also a story featuring some incredibly tender and inventive sex scenes that will live rent-free in my head for all of eternity. Without spoiling too much, here’s the line that sealed the deal for me:
It was like making love to a garden.
Game over, man. Book of the year.
The imagery used in this scene and in this book evokes an emotional intimacy that is, to me, the essence of the kind of connection I seek in a romance. Two bodies and hearts merging in ways I hadn’t imagined possible, not despite all they had suffered, but because of it.
To pack such a punch into 50 pages is a remarkable achievement, which is why The Demon of the House of Hua is my book of the year for 2023.