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The end of the year is nearly upon us again. I am truly amazed by all the outstanding speculative fiction published during 2023. I can’t remember another year when I’ve read so many new books that I felt so passionately about. With this post, I’d like to share my list of favorite books released during each month of 2023. I hope you will find something here to love as much as I did!

January – Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee

Untethered Sky

Blurb: From World Fantasy Award-winning author Fonda Lee comes Untethered Sky, an epic fantasy fable about the pursuit of obsession at all costs.

Ester’s family was torn apart when a manticore killed her mother and baby brother, leaving her with nothing but her father’s painful silence and a single, overwhelming need to kill the monsters that took her family.

Ester’s path leads her to the King’s Royal Mews, where the giant rocs of legend are flown to hunt manticores by their brave and dedicated ruhkers. Paired with a fledgling roc named Zahra, Ester finds purpose and acclaim by devoting herself to a calling that demands absolute sacrifice and a creature that will never return her love. The terrifying partnership between woman and roc leads Ester not only on the empire’s most dangerous manticore hunt, but on a journey of perseverance and acceptance.

Fonda LeeReview: Untethered Sky is Fonda Lee’s delicate coming-of-age novella inspired by Persian and Arabian folklore, featuring two beasts from Middle Eastern mythology: manticores and rocs.

With Untethered Sky, Fonda Lee shows her maturity and versatility as an author. Her writing is precise and poetic. Combined with its gentle didacticism, Untethered Sky has the feeling of a classic folktale.

Untethered Sky is a beautifully crafted gem of a novella, which reinforces Fonda Lee’s standing as one of the most talented authors in fantasy today. The Middle Eastern-inspired setting is an ideal backdrop for Lee’s tale, which gently interweaves fantastical elements in this graceful story about the nature of humanity, our relationships with each other, and humankind’s place in the natural world. Fonda Lee’s understated approach is the perfect vehicle for this moving novella about rising from tragedy to find one’s true calling.

Read my full review here.

Read my interview with Fonda Lee here.

February – The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

The Salt Grows Heavy

Blurb: From USA Today bestselling author Cassandra Khaw comes The Salt Grows Heavy, a razor-sharp and bewitching fairytale of discovering the darkness in the world and the darkness within oneself.

You may think you know how the fairytale goes: a mermaid comes to shore and weds the prince. But what the fables forget is that mermaids have teeth. And now, her daughters have devoured the kingdom and burned it to ashes.

On the run, the mermaid is joined by a mysterious plague doctor with a darkness of their own. Deep in the eerie, snow-crusted forest, the pair stumble upon a village of ageless children who thirst for blood, and the three ‘saints’ who control them.

The mermaid and her doctor must embrace the cruellest parts of their true nature if they hope to survive.

Cassandra KhawReview: Cassandra Khaw’s new novella, The Salt Grows Heavy, is a darkly beautiful nightmare brought to life, which will drive a dagger through your heart and leave you begging for more. The Salt Grows Heavy is narrated by a mermaid who, as in The Little Mermaid, has become mute for her royal human partner. But in Khaw’s tale, the mermaid loses her tongue in a bizarre ritual of autosarcophagy that promotes spousal fealty and obedience.

The Salt Grows Heavy is equally grotesque and enchanting. Cassandra Khaw’s writing is immaculate, with every word carefully chosen for maximum impact. The lyricism of her prose is juxtaposed with the horrifying imagery of the story, which includes detailed scenes of bodily mutilation and consumption of human flesh. For all its horror, The Salt Grows Heavy is also a touchingly restrained love story.

The Salt Grows Heavy is a truly mesmerizing story and one of the finest works of horror and dark fantasy I have ever read, dripping with a gruesome and disquieting passion.

Read my full review here.

Read my interview with Cassandra Khaw here.

March – Looking Glass Sound by Catriona Ward

Looking Glass Sound

Blurb: Looking Glass Sound is the newest twisty psychological horror novel from Catriona Ward, the internationally bestselling author of The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial.

In a lonely cottage overlooking the windswept Maine coast, Wilder Harlow begins the last book he will ever write. It is the story of his childhood summer companions and the killer that stalked the small New England town. Of the body they found, and the horror of that discovery echoing down the decades. And of Sky, Wilder’s one-time best friend, who stole his unfinished memoir and turned it into a lurid bestselling novel, Looking Glass Sound.

But as Wilder writes, the lines between memory and fiction blur. He fears he’s losing his grip on reality when he finds notes hidden around the cottage written in Sky’s signature green ink.

Catriona Ward delivers another mind-bending and cleverly crafted tale about one man’s struggle to come to terms with the terrors of his past…before it’s too late.

Catriona WardReview: Looking Glass Sound is Catriona Ward’s deeply unsettling literary horror that will lure readers in with its charming coming-of-age façade but leave them entangled in a web of metaphysical dread. From the retro cover design to its late 1980s northern Gothic setting, Looking Glass Sound is dripping with nostalgia for a simpler time that may never have existed.

As the novel opens, we read the unpublished memoir of Wilder Harlow, a sixteen-year-old boy whose uncle has died and left his parents a cottage on the Maine coast. But the rural New England town is also home to a serial killer known as the Dagger Man of Whistler Bay who takes threatening Polaroid photos of children as they sleep. Wilder’s summer becomes inexorably linked to the story of the Dagger Man, as illusory friendships are shattered and his parents’ troubled marriage hurls toward inevitable divorce.

The psychological horror deepens as Catriona Ward weaves layers upon layers of uncertainty to the story. The lines between reality and fiction slowly blur as Wilder descends deeper into existential crisis, making the reader question everything they believed.

Much more than a standard horror novel, Looking Glass Sound is Catriona Ward’s ode to the power of the written word. The reader becomes entranced by her prose and entangled in her circular narrative of metaphysical horror. Put simply, Looking Glass Sound is a multilayered masterpiece of speculative fiction and proof that a horror novel can reach the greatest of literary heights.

Read my full review here.

April – A Woman of the Sword by Anna Smith Spark

Blurb: A Woman of the Sword is an epic fantasy seen through the eyes of an ordinary woman. Lidae is a daughter, a wife, a mother – and a great warrior born to fight. Her sword is hungry for killing, her right hand is red with blood.

War is very much a woman’s business. But war is not kind to women. And war is not kind to mothers and their sons.

Review: Anna Smith Spark’s novel, A Woman of the Sword, presents a devastatingly authentic portrait of depression, including both the inner anguish and its impact on loved ones. Lidae, the lead protagonist, never feels that she is good enough and, despite her best efforts, cannot feel the joy of motherhood as her mental state spirals downward into overwhelming anguish. Her grief and traumatic experiences leave open wounds that never seem to heal.

anna smith spark

A Woman of the Sword is a tragic masterpiece, reaffirming Anna Smith Spark’s reign as the queen of grimdark. Her new novel is a must-read for grimdark fans, and especially for parents.

Read my full review here.

Read my interview with Anna Smith Spark here.

May – The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence

The Book That Wouldn't Burn

Blurb: A boy has lived his whole life trapped within a vast library, older than empires and larger than cities.

A girl has spent hers in a tiny settlement out on the Dust where nightmares stalk and no one goes.

The world has never even noticed them. That’s about to change.

Their stories spiral around each other, across worlds and time. This is a tale of truth and lies and hearts, and the blurring of one into another. A journey on which knowledge erodes certainty, and on which, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, blood will be spilled and cities burned.

Mark LawrenceReview: The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is the work of a veteran author at the peak of his powers. Mark Lawrence has taken his craft to the next level yet again. His writing is witty and heartfelt, with several laugh out loud moments and many more that pulled at the heartstrings. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn somehow encapsulates all of Lawrence’s previous work while also being wholly unique.

The Book That Wouldn’t Burn covers a lot of ground, offering a meditation on human society in the information age, the seductive nature of lies, and the intrinsic danger of knowledge in the absence of wisdom. But at its core, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is Lawrence’s self-described love letter to books and the buildings where they live.

Read my complete review here.

Read my interview with Mark Lawrence here.

June – Buzzard’s Bowl by John Palladino

Buzzard's Bowl

Blurb: Cedain continues to collapse.

Ashmount’s destruction shatters the Magicai while the culprits responsible continue sabotaging the world. All the while, the next season of Buzzard’s Bowl begins and Edelbrock, in his constant fight for survival, desires a vengeance he can only find in the arena.

Seradal and Villic find themselves in the middle of a war between Remeria and the Camel Clans, and may end up on opposing sides, while the threat of Calrym looms over all of them.

At the behest of the woman he loves, Demri finds himself thrown into the Elkavich, a not-so-secret order of Magicai who are intent upon fixing the world.

Ashen, a former urchin rescued by a noble with selfish aspirations, works to dismantle the nobility of Calrym.

Death is assured to all who walk the world, the only unknown is when they will perish.

Review: John Palladino takes his craft to new heights in Buzzard’s Bowl, the second volume of his grimdark fantasy series, The Tragedy of Cedain. I am delighted to see how Palladino has grown as a writer since publishing his first novel, The Trials of Ashmount. Palladino already showed great promise with his debut, and he has made all the right moves.

Palladino gleefully embraces the best of grimdark fantasy in Buzzard’s Bowl, which reads in many ways like an irreverent version of A Game of Thrones. Palladino shares Joe Abercombie’s talent at developing broken, morally complex characters, George R.R. Martin’s epic worldbuilding and well-paced story arcs, Scott Lynch’s incisive humor, and the raw emotional impact of Anna Smith Spark. Buzzard’s Bowl firmly establishes John Palladino as one of the most exciting new voices in the grimdark fantasy community. I eagerly await the next volume of his Tragedy of Cedain series.

Read my full review here.

July – The Edan Trilogy by Philip Chase

The Edan Trilogy

Blurb: The Kingdom of the Eternal will awaken when the Way of Edan holds sway over all of Eormenlond. So say the prophecies. With unrivalled power in the gift, the Supreme Priest Bledla leads Torrlond and its mighty army to convert rival kingdoms by the sword and by the fang.

Among the gathering resistance is the sorceress Sequara, whose mission is to protect her island and her Andumaic faith from the Torrlonders’ aggression.

As holy war looms over the kingdoms of Eormenlond, a chance encounter bestows a terrible curse upon a young man. Dayraven’s curse may decide Eormenlond’s fate. But first, with the help of unlikely friends, he must survive the shattering of his world.

Philip ChaseReview: (Yes, I’m cheating a bit here by choosing three books instead of one and using their average release date—but the entire trilogy is just SO GOOD!)

Reading The Edan Trilogy by Philip Chase is a transcendent experience that distills the best of fantasy ranging from classics such as Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings through modern masterpieces like The Name of the Wind.

Taken as a whole, the Edan Trilogy is a modern masterpiece, a lamentation as timeless and beautiful as the stained glass depicted on each of its three covers. With the Edan Trilogy, Philip Chase proves that fantasy can achieve the highest echelon of literary greatness while delivering a gripping story, epic in scope and deeply personal in its impact.

Read my full review here.

Watch my discussion with Philip Chase here.

August – The Shadow Gate by L.L. MacRae

The Shadow Gate

Blurb: Opening the shadow gate is the only way Fenn’s memories can be restored—and with them, his life and family.

It could also destroy the world.

Guided by dragon spirit Hassen and manipulated by the Myr, Fenn fights the corruption spreading through Tassar—and himself—in an attempt to find his family. Separated from his allies and unable to trust even his own mind, the arduous journey takes its toll.

Far from home and reunited with her sister, Calidra battles to keep her loved ones safe. But when the fickle loyalties of dragon spirits shifts, and darkness lurks around every corner, running from her fears is no longer an option.

And in the far south, consequences of the past catch up with those fighting for their freedom.

LL MacRaeReview: The Shadow Gate is Book Two in the Dragon Spirits series by L.L. MacRae, following up on her excellent first volume, The Iron Crown, which was a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s 7th Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO7).

Grimdark fans will find much to love in The Shadow Gate, which takes the series in a decidedly darker direction. L.L. MacRae also presents an intriguing treatment of gray morality across several of her characters, including the lead protagonist, Fenn, an amnesiac who is trying to recover his lost memories and locate his family, if he still has one. Fenn learns that he is touched by an ancient evil known as the Myr, and he might be playing an unwitting role in their return to the Realm of Tassar. MacRae adeptly builds layers of complexity in Fenn’s character, who is both a sympathetic and potentially dangerous lead.

Overall, The Shadow Gate is a spectacular dark epic fantasy. The Dragon Spirits trilogy will conclude with Book Three of the series, The Broken Sword.

Read my full review here.

September – The Words of Kings and Prophets by Shauna Lawless

the words of kings and prophets

Blurb: The sequel to the critically acclaimed The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, The Words of Kings and Prophets is the powerful new historical fantasy novel by Shauna Lawless.

Ireland, 1000 AD. Gormflaith is unhappily married to Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, and although a queen she struggles with her limited position. As an immortal Fomorian with the secret gift of magic, Gormflaith has a burning desire: to find and destroy the hidden fortress of her sworn enemies, the Descendants, who seek to kill her kind at all costs. She begins to use her magical powers, and discovers she is more skilled than she ever realised… but can she control what she will become

Meanwhile Fódla, the Descendants’ healer, mourns her banished sister but clings to life as the guardian of her young nephew. She seeks a place of safety for them both, but he has secrets of his own that could threaten everything, and Fódla must do all in her power to keep him hidden from those who would use him for evil.

When a mysterious man comes to King Brian’s court, his presence could spell disaster or deliverance for both Gormflaith and Fódla – and for Ireland herself. For he is Tomas, an ambitious immortal with few scruples – and he will do anything to see his plans become reality.

Soon, mortals and immortals alike are drawn towards a bitter conflict that could decide the future of Ireland and all her people.

Shauna LawlessReview: The Words of Kings and Prophets is the second book of the Gael Song trilogy by Shauna Lawless, which combines Irish mythology, fantasy, and real Irish history from just over 1000 years ago. Lawless’s writing brilliantly transports the reader to 10th century Ireland while remaining accessible and compulsively readable. Think of it as an Irish version of A Game of Thrones.

Shauna Lawless amplifies the emotional wreckage of her debut novel, The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, with this second volume of her trilogy. Be warned: in The Words of Kings and Prophets, Lawless will be harvesting your tears en masse by page six.

The Gael Song trilogy is highly recommended for fans of fantasy, mythology, historical fiction, and medieval enthusiasts.

Read my full review here.

October – Shadows of Nyn’Dira by H.C. Newell

Shadows of Nyn'Dira

Blurb: Deep within the forests of Nyn’Dira, darkness rises, and Neer finds herself hunted at every turn. Fleeing from relentless enemies and vicious creatures of darkness, she embarks on a treacherous journey through the dangerous woodlands in search of strength and salvation.

As the humans push further into the forbidden lands, the Nasir and his men close in, finding strength in the blood of the innocent. With the balance beginning to shift, Neer is caught in a war she was never meant to be in, and is forced to make a decision that could change the tides of fate, or cause it all to collapse and burn.

HC NewellReview: H.C. Newell mines new emotional depths in Shadows of Nyn’Dira, the third entry in her dark epic fantasy series, Fallen Light. Shadows of Nyn’Dira builds upon her already strong worldbuilding and character development from the first two books of the series, Curse of the Fallen and The Forbidden Realms, as well as her masterfully written novella, The Banished.

The lead protagonist of the Fallen Light series is Nerana Leithor, or Neer for short, a young woman who possesses forbidden magical powers. Neer is relentlessly pursued by the religious rulers of the human-controlled territories, who vilify her for her magical abilities.

Shadows of Nyn’Dira expands upon H.C. Newell’s world in every way, with increasingly powerful magic, deeper lore, and more extensive worldbuilding revealing a rich history and complex culture. Shadows of Nyn’Dira is H.C. Newell’s finest work to date, a dark emotional masterpiece that delivers high-stakes fantasy action with intricate, immersive worldbuilding and plenty of unexpected twists that kept me glued to the pages.

Read my full review here.

November – The Blood Stones by Tori Tecken

The Blood Stones

Blurb: His name is not worthy.

A traitor is executed, his name ripped away from history. Now the kingdom stands on the brink of a succession war that could bring the country to its knees. Forces stalk the darkness, moving pawns into place in a deadly game.

Gehrin and his brothers were not meant to witness the execution, but now they find themselves trapped in the center of a political quagmire. When Gehrin faces the loss of everything he knows, will he also lose himself?

To the south, tribal warlords clash in an endless cycle of violence. Syndri, the daughter of a chieftain, kills for the honor of her people. An alliance with a foreign queen offers the power to unite the tribes, but at what cost?

Someday, history will remember them as legends.

Tori TeckenReview: Tori Tecken pours a lifetime’s love of fantasy into The Blood Stones, the masterfully written first volume of her new dark epic fantasy series, Legends of the Bruhai.

Tori Tecken writes like a seasoned veteran in epic fantasy, hooking me from the first page. Her writing is compulsively readable and polished to perfection. Tecken has a knack for writing the perfect ending to each chapter, making it virtually impossible to set the book down.

The Blood Stones is epic fantasy par excellence, Tori Tecken’s love letter to the genre and a tour de force of worldbuilding and character development that will capture your imagination from the first page and keep you guessing till the very end.

Read my full review here.

December – The Folly by Gemma Amor

The Folly

Blurb: From Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Award nominated author Gemma Amor comes an atmospheric gothic mystery that will haunt you long after the final page is turned.

Morgan always knew her father, Owen, never murdered her mother, and has spent the last six years campaigning for his release from prison. Finally he is set free, but they can no longer live in the house that was last decorated by her mother’s blood. Salvation comes in the form of a tall, dark and notorious decorative granite tower on the Cornish coastline known only as ‘The Folly.’ The owner makes them an take care of the Folly, and you can live there. It’s an offer too good to refuse.

At first the Folly is idyllic, but soon a stranger arrives who acts like Morgan’s mother, talks like her mother, and wears her dead mother’s clothes. Is this stranger hell-bent on vengeance, in touch with her restless mother’s spirit itself, or simply deranged? And, most importantly, what exactly happened the night Morgan’s mother died?

An atmospheric nod to The Lighthouse, with hints of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, played out on a lonely, Cornish backdrop, The Folly is visceral mystery and family drama, a dark examination of love, loyalty, guilt and possession that draws on the very real horror of betrayal by those closest to us, by those we love the best.

Gemma AmorReview: The Folly is Gemma Amor’s brooding Gothic mystery that evokes the best of both Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.

The Folly opens with forty-three-year-old Morgan as she retrieves her father from prison. Morgan’s father was sentenced in a high-profile trial for the murder of his wife but is now being released following an appeal and eventual retrial. The isolation of prison is replaced by the disquieting loneliness of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gemma Amor channels Daphne du Maurier’s dark, poetic writing style, perfectly capturing the atmosphere and tone of Rebecca. Like du Maurier, Amor explores themes of personal identity and isolation, while slowly revealing hidden secrets and motivations.

Following up on her back-to-back masterpieces, Full Immersion and The Once Yellow House, the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Award nominated author Gemma Amor apparently can do no wrong. The Folly is an understated Gothic gem from one of today’s most exhilarating voices in speculative fiction.

Read my full review here.

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

Top 12 Favorite Books of 2023

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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