The Year in Review 2022 by Colleen Mondor
I average three books a month reviewed for Locus, occasionally managing to squeeze in a fourth. Of the 40 or so books I read for the magazine in 2022, several impressed me either for their twisty surprises, unique stories, or the sheer beauty of their writing. In no particular order, here are my favorite reads of the year, each of which I heartily recommend.
Rebecca Ross’s fantasy A River Enchanted begins with a somewhat familiar premise: the protagonist must return to his small-town home after years pursuing success in the big city. Jack Tamerlaine is summoned back to the island of Cadence, where he served as bard, to find who or what is responsible for the disappearance of several local girls. He soon rekindles a relationship with a childhood rival, this time transformed to romance, as they try to use his music to communicate with the island spirits in the hopes of gaining insight into the lost girls. Getting to the bottom of the mystery means uncovering a host of long-held island secrets which soon draw in multiple other characters all with their own intriguing stories. How Ross brings all of them together makes for a great big immersive novel that is notable for its many compelling relationships (romantic and otherwise) and wonderful world-building. A second book in the duology, A Fire Endless, is due in September.
The Moth Girl appears to be a book about unlikely superpower transformation as the main character, teen athlete Anna, is affected early on by the strange disease lepidopsy which causes its victims to ‘‘float’’ (fly) through the air. Author Heather Kamin is not writing an adventure novel here, however, but rather an intriguing exploration of chronic illness. Anna quickly finds herself grappling with various symptoms which mimic moth behavior, including attraction to light, sugar cravings, and uncontrolled floating. Moving through various treatments, meeting other kids with lepidopsy, and coming to terms with the radical transformation to her life the disease commands, all force Anna into one of the more intense coming-of-age situations I’ve read in a long time. Kamin notes in an afterword that she was diagnosed with lupus as a teenager and her intimate knowledge of chronic illness infuses every aspect of Anna’s experience. A thoughtful, smart approach to a situation often overlooked in YA literature, The Moth Girl considers how a person’s world can change in an instant and the struggle to find a way to adjust to the new reality over which they will never exert full control.
Alex Jennings dives deep into the musical, literary, religious, and even meteorological history of New Orleans for his majestic and exciting novel The Ballad of Perilous Graves. In this vividly depicted battle for the soul of the city, three children, led by a delightful character based on Pippi Longstocking, must take on all manner of mysterious forces, including nine ballads who now walk the streets in powerful, often vengeful, form. At the same time, a parallel plot follows a missing artist and his cousin, who may both be key to city’s survival or downfall. Grounded in the family love and friendship, The Ballad of Perilous Graves is the very definition of sparkling and spirited reading experience. Alex Jennings has done something wondrous with this novel, and I am most excited to see what he comes up with next.
Anna Carey follows up her dark, near-future reality show send-up This Is Not the Jess Show with This Is Not the Real World, a continuation of that goes deeper into the ugly truth behind the protagonist’s celebrity career. Following the revelations in the first book, series star Jess is now in hiding from the nefarious production company which filmed her for years without her consent as she lived a false 1990s life for the world to watch and enjoy. Aided by her parents, who starred on the show, the company gave Jess a fake sister, who fake-died, fake friends, fake pets, and a fake love interest who became real and helped her to escape. In This Is Not the Real World, he is forced back by the company back onto the set, and Jess then chooses to return and expose the production’s dark machinations once and for all. Alternately funny and disturbing, Carey’s duology lays bare the dirty underbelly of reality television by taking its appeal toward along a likely natural progression. Get out the popcorn for this one, and then take a long hard look at your own watching habits as you read.
Anna-Marie McLemore continues their tradition of gorgeous writing with the magical fantasy Lakelore. Teens Bastián and Lore know that local stories about the town beneath the local lake are true because they have seen it, but even they cannot imagine the significance of the power that fuels it. As their own secrets, fears and struggles draw the magic out and onto the local streets, the two friends fight to accept themselves and each other in a world that all too often denies and even threatens their very existence. Along with some loyal friends and loving families, an engaging subplot concerning a haunted house, and a wonderful look at the practice of crafting papier-mâché alebrijes, Lakelore is a luxurious and expansive reading experience. I remain, as always, exceedingly impressed both by McLemore’s sophisticated writing and complex characters.
I opened up Lisa Stringellow’s A Comb of Wishes expecting an adventure with a scary mermaid – and while that certainly is part of the story, it is most definitely not the point. Grief-stricken over her mother’s death, 12-year-old Kela commits a spontaneous act and steals something that, unfortunately, belongs to the aforementioned scary mermaid. Possession of the comb permits a wish and Kela, of course, wishes for her mother to be alive again. This is not a Pet Semetary plot however, so don’t expect a murderous family reunion. Instead this novel is about what happens when you get what you want but doing so turns the world a bit on its axis, and nothing is quite right no matter how badly you want it to be. While the mermaid is still angry and Kela is still sad, now everything else is very very wrong, which is a huge problem. What surprised me about A Comb of Wishes though was that while I enjoyed Stringfellow’s blend of Caribbean folklore and realistic portrayal of grief, it was Kela’s best friend Lissy, who stands by her through every second of their changing realities, that grounded the plot. Mermaids are exciting, but two girls racing across town as they track down the truth and trust in each other is the real stuff of magic, something Stringfellow knows and does a great job of exploring here.
Set in the year 1991, Fraternity is a boarding school novel about a group of friends who find themselves in possession of a formidable book of magic that provides big returns but quickly leads to a dangerous and deadly set of circumstances. Zooey and his friends at Blackfriars School for Boys are members of a secret gay club, the Vicious Circle, which provides them with a safe place from their classmates’ homophobic attacks. The magic book, an ‘‘arcane occult text’’ stolen from the headmaster’s office, includes spells that make their lives easier, but in using it they are playing with fire and when the bullying gets out of control, the temptation to strike back with the magic becomes impossible to resist. As the book’s true owners assert their power, the Vicious Circle finds itself under a damaging spotlight and here author Andy Mientus’s historical accuracy for the AIDS era shows how painfully savage the era could be for gay teens. Fraternity is, without a doubt, one of the most frightening, honest, and sincere books I have read in a long time. Mientus should be lauded for what he has accomplished here, in crafting a classic high school drama with a magical twist, he has also gifted teen readers with a harrowing peek into our country’s dark past that must never be forgotten.
Finally, Emma Seckel’s post-WWII drama The Wild Hunt takes readers to one of the Shetland Islands, where residents are under siege from flocks of birds, (or creatures that look like birds), known as the sluagh who are believed to carry the souls of the dead. Leigh Welles grew up on the island and struggled there through the war years but left for the Scottish mainland when Germany was defeated. Now back home after her father’s sudden death, she is forced to deal not only with family issues, from her mother’s abandonment to her brother’s difficult wartime secrets, but also the sluagh’s increasing attacks on the local population. With thousands of more souls walking the land in the wake of the war, the creatures are erratic and enraged and threatening the living. Leigh and an old friend, a shattered Royal Air Force pilot seeking solace in his childhood surroundings, find themselves drawn into the mystery of a missing young man and the unsettling way that everyone seems to be accepting the sluagh’s violent behavior. Dark, disquieting and steeped in period atmosphere, The Wild Hunt is both rich historic fiction and mesmerizing fantasy. The sections involving Iain, the RAF pilot, are quite gripping, but how Leigh’s own wartime experiences fit into the plot are also affecting. Tracking the mystery keeps the plot moving forward, and the sluagh are creepy as hell, but Leigh and Iain hold everything together; reading the way to their happy ending was one of a literary highlight for me last year.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2023 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.