Narrowing these down was harder than giving the Sun frostbite. I need you to know that.
The Generation Killer by Adam Simcox
Sequel to last year’s fantastic debut The Dying Squad, about dead coppers investigating their own murder, the Generation Killer takes the crime-with-a-supernatural-edge format of the first one and decides to expand it to a criss-crossing global adventure featuring samurai battles, demon battles, serial killer confrontations and train crashes, sort of like a ghost James Bond, all the while developing the ambitiously crafted world of purgatory and keeping the horror elements of the first. It’s so ambitious it shouldn’t work, but it soars rather than falls flat on its face.
The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan
One of last year’s smash fantasy debuts, this tale of a lawman with the powers of a judge, jury and executioner in a Germanic Roman Empire slowly succumbing to religious extremism and political corruption hits hard on many levels. Of particular note though was the brilliant characterisation of lawman Vonvalt, a man of iron slowly melting his morals; the subtle political allegories to modern times (complacent liberal empires being bashed by extreme waves) and Swan’s pinpoint writing which wrings all the tension out of some truly memorable, and in one case mind-meltingly heartbreaking scenes. It singlehandedly made Swan into a big beast, which is the most stupid sentence I will write today.
A Dowry of Blood by S. T. Gibson
A revisionist tale of Dracula through the lens of his brides, it combines, the way that horror does so well, the supernatural with deep themes, in this case a stunningly accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship and the hold a charismatic, powerful man has over the females he is in control of… until one day he isn’t. It’s addictive storytelling, told in beautiful prose with themes you can really get your teeth into (sorry).
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
The Cartographers is a contemporary fantasy thriller book about maps, and how much you will love this depends a lot on how thrilled you are by that sentence (I am thrilled). Actually, that’s not quite true, because even those not fascinated by the beauty and potential of maps will find a lot to love in this story, which is an example of storytelling in its purest form. But it also has a lot to say about the power of place and space and art and science, and it does so with breath-taking aplomb.
The Trials of Ashmount by John Palladino
I really enjoyed this self-published fantasy debut, about a medieval continent with Roman vibes on the brink of war and a deadly magic school, partly because of its pleasing grimdarkness, partly because of the memorable worldbuilding and some scene-chewing characters, but mainly because of its magic system, which is one of the most gloriously imaginative of recent years, essentially summarised by “use magic, lose years”. But much, much cooler than that. I am very excited for the sequel, out this year.
The Maleficent Seven by Cameron Johnston
Sometime you just want over the top entertainment. Basically the Magnificent Seven but with genuinely evil monsters making a last stand against a bigger enemy, this book is ridiculous and ridiculously good fun. That’s not to say there’s not more to chew on here, as each of these villains who’ve come together to save the world for their own nefarious reasons are different levels of bad, and working out which ones are more sympathetic and heroic is half the fun in this book, and you might well start questioning your own morality when you end up defending half of them. Or you’ll just give in to the unrelenting chaos and gore, one of the two.
The Skin by J. E. Hannaford
Stories about selkies – if you don’t know what they are, Google it, I’ll wait – are increasingly common these days. But this one is a cut above the rest. Set in a future world where seas have reclaimed a lot of the land, and nautical human societies mix with what is left of ancient sea creatures of legend, this book blew me away through the strong narrative voice of the selkies – human one moment, alien the next – and the incredibly imaginative mix of folklore and maritime biology, as well as how much you end up caring for the motley crew out to save aforesaid creatures of legends. The sequel is amazing too. One of those great examples of an author and book that came out of nowhere to make a mark on my year.
The Long Nights by Tom Mock
I’m still not sure what the Long Nights is – urban fantasy? Psychological Horror? Noir Thriller? But I know that I loved the genuinely poetic noirish prose (more Chandler than Hammett), the deliciously dark atmosphere, and the surrealistic Bradbury-esque escapes into the mind. A stunning debut from a writer to watch.
Leech by Hiron Ennes
Is Leech the most original book released in 2022? You’d be hard pressed to argue with this. With a narrative voice of stunning… originality (can you spot my theme here), this mix of gothic and body horror with post-apocalyptic sci-fi is astoundingly well written, and sneaks up on you with subtle themes about identity and trauma, ending up in one of the most intellectually satisfying books of the year which also gives you multiple descriptions of things coming out of orifices. Did I mention how original it is?
Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn
A self-published fantasy, this introduced me to a truly original voice in the fantasy world. This Old West tale of a substance with a thousand uses, the mining of which has created a ghettoised, strange Wild West world, this is a brilliantly imaginative tale but the real USP of Chorn’s work is her prose, which is poetic and lyrical in a way rarely seen in the fantasy world – emotional descriptions and imagery taken straight from Romantic poetry with extra levels of heartbreak. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I was astounded by it. The sequel I’m currently reading shows me this was not a one off but a prose style that is going to keep my jaw dropping for years to come.
The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias
Brutal, disgusting, over-the-top, in one case utterly obscene; if you like your horror mild to moderate then look away now, because Gabino Iglesias doesn’t hold back. This horror tale, about a man going into the dark and supernatural underworld of the American southwest border in an attempt to provide for his family and losing his soul in the process – is full of righteous anger, but also deeply poetic and poignant. It’s a shotgun blast in the face, but it’s worth taking the buckshot. Just don’t read it before bed.
Sundial by Catriona Ward
Is Catriona Ward the best horror writer in the world today? This book feels like her attempt to answer that question in the affirmative after the phenomenal, genre-busting achievement of 2021’s Last House on Needless Street. I didn’t think she could better that, but she has. This deeply dark tale of family toxicity and the everyday evil deep within ourselves is just so deliciously twisted and narratively inspired that I read it all with a grin on my face and a deep wish to somehow leech Ward of her writing ability for myself. It's just amazing. It really is. Please read it if you haven’t. Now. I’m serious. Stop reading this. Go!
Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson
Illborn. What can I say about Illborn? This self-published fantasy debut came roaring out the traps just before 2022 began and took a bunch of people by surprise by being unbelievably brilliant. It’s massive, but don’t that let that fool you; this chonky 700 page read, about four people with supernatural powers in a medieval land on the brink of religious war, goes by quicker than a cheetah on a moped. The prose is simple, the storytelling is astounding, and the characters are so memorable that each of their POVs will be your favourite. I wrote in my original review that this could be one of the best fantasy series of the modern era when it’s completed, and I stand by that prediction. We’ll find out more when the sequel hits this month.
Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman
My first foray into the horror back catalogue of the man who wrote one of the best fantasies of modern times, last year’s The Blacktongue Thief, this was a joyful and crazy and intense experience. Once I’d got over some of the monstrous images in this tale of a fallen knight and a young woman wandering plague (and demon) infested medieval France – and some of these will haunt your soul in your every-waking moment – I appreciated the astounding character work and poignancy in certain scenes, which somehow mesh perfectly with the fabulous comic dialogue. It’s a garish and creepy and beautiful masterpiece; a sensory overload which I’m still thinking about months later. Oh, and stone babies. God save me from the stone babies.
The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
Is there a better fantasy writer in the world than Naomi Novik currently? Golden Enclaves rounds out the Scholomance Trilogy, a series that if you hadn’t read it might just sound like a dark version of Harry Potter but, once you have read it, gives you one of fantasy’s great witty, conflicted characters in Galadriel, one of literature’s great messed-up romances in her and Orion, and a fantasy world built in astounding detail that says more about race and class and privilege and morality than almost any book, speculative or otherwise, of recent times. The imagination and worldbuilding at work here is like almost nothing I have seen in the genre. I shouted FUCK a lot during this series, no doubt loudly disturbing neighbours. I regret nothing.