Martha Wells' self-named Murderbot is an outstandingly compelling protagonist in her several novellas and Network Effect, the first full-length novel. It hates emotions and yet has so many of them. It has broken out of a slavery and torture and is loath to trust humans, and yet finds a human family that it has many of those emotions about. The novels are about found family, and what it takes to gain trust in relationships, but Wells also builds a complex universe in which capitalism in space is still the greatest evil (it also fits in perfectly with Elon Musk's brand-new idea of indentures servitude to make it to new galactic shores). In Stina Leicht's Persephone Station, the scarred veterans of an old conflict are reunited in a mission to support the original inhabitants of a planet that is about to be colonised by a greedy corporation, while an artificial intelligence in a human body discovers what it means to interact with humans and to navigate the politics of colonialism and resistance. Also, almost everyone is queer.
In Arkady Martine's Teixcalaan series, now comprising of the novels A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace, the titular empire considers itself humanity - the word for world is the city, an imperial language that makes it impossible to event think about Teixcalaan in any other terms. One of Martine's protagonists is Mahit Dzmare, from a station outside of empire, a station eager to maintain its own independence, who comes to the city she has always dreamed of and loved as an ambassador. Not unlike Baru, if with less direct violence and force, Mahit has spent her entire education on learning about the empire, but once arrived, she realises that regardless of how well she speaks the language of empire, she will never truly be able to achieve the fluency of those born into it - especially in a world that expresses everything in verse, and maintains its imperial memory through poems (Ortus Nigenand would be so happy, or maybe, considering the amount of competition, stressed). The two novels also navigate what it may mean to conserve memory through shared consciousness, as Mahit arrives in the imperial cities with the incomplete memories of her predecessor making themselves heard in her brain (again, not unlike Baru and Harrow, but maybe functionally more like a Trill, including the struggles of an incomplete integration). With a Teixcalaani attache, Mahit investigates the death of her predecessor, and stumbles across something that will change the future of both the empire and her station. The second novel contemplates what it would mean to make meaning not just out of small differences, but out of massive ones, and to find common ground without a shared language, purely through the power of the newly invented field of exolinguistics.
This year also brings together three books that feel like they communicate with each other: Shelley Parker-Chan's She Who Became the Sun, Tasha Suri's The Jasmine Throne, and C.L. Clark's The Unbroken. All three are stories of empire, told from different perspectives - The Jasmine Throne and The Unbroken split between the ruler and an the rebellious resistance, She Who Became the Sun a breathtaking re-imagining of a historical figure who makes an unlikely rise to the centre of power. All three are unforgiving in showing the violence of rule, but their protagonists are what makes them outstanding.
The generation ship in An Unkindness of Ghosts has been travelling for 300 years, and the society onboard has dissolved into extreme class-stratification, driven by racism, excused by religious dogma. Rivers Solomon compelling hero Aster discovers her mothers research that could change the journey of the ship and topple the cruel regime that hurts the people she cares about.
Solomon's new novel, Sorrowland, follows Vern, who escapes a cult to raise her twins by herself in the woods while her body transforms. Vern discovers that the cult she escaped - a black separatists commune that has created a community to escape racism, but have been undermined early on by the FBI, and used for medical research - has many dark secrets, as her body transforms and she finds a new family that helps her return and defeat the evil that lurks there. It's a novel about control, misogyny and transformation, with an absolutely riveting main character.
In Ryka Aoki's Light From Uncommon Stars, a famous violinist had made a deal with the devil to deliver 7 talented students in exchange for fame and eternal life - but when she meets a young trans woman with incredible untapped talent, her willingness to sacrifice her wanes over time. She also befriends the owner of a local donut shop whose family is way more than they appear to be. This is a fantastic story that, when it cares deeply about music, reminded me weirdly of how Richard Powers writes about it in the great The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations (Aoki writes just as poetically about food), mixed with the old literary concept of a deal with the devil and a background story about intergalactic refugees making a new home among non-galactic immigrants. A stunning novel written by a poet.
It fits in with Sara Flannery Murphy's Girl One, which is about a group of women that teamed up with a non-sanctioned scientist to realise the possibility of parthenogenesis, but as Josie, one of the girls born without a father, begins investigating the disappearance of her mother, she realises that the contribution of the scientist was mainly patriarchy and greed, that the women themselves did the work but were never regonised for it, and have suffered terribly to prop up the ego of the great man. It's a thriller - a road movie, a romance, and a superhero story all in one.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic is a visually, imaginative tour de force through a haunted mansion and through the horrors of white colonialism. Morena-Garica finds a pitch-perfect metaphor: a fungus that lives underneath and in the walls of a Gothic mansion that an English mining dynasty has built in the forest far from urban centres, that grants a skewed and incestual eternal life to the patriarch, at the cost of the local workers and non-white women. The protagonist attempts to rescue her cousin from her marriage into this family, but she soon experiences the effects of this monstrous literal colonialism.
I didn't even start to read Young Adult Fiction until I was well out of that age group, but now that I do, I wish I had had access to these books earlier, they would have made me feel less alone and more connected during my school days. Katie Heaney's Girl Crushed is one of the best I've read: it's about the end of a relationship, and a main character who is desperate to prove that she is over that first big love, but finds that sometimes the lines aren't as clear, that sometimes going backwards is just as good as going forwards if it is for the right reasons. The novel also features two lesbian bookstore owners who add cultural references more close to my heart (do the kids still listen to Le Tigre and the best break-up song of all time, Sleater-Kinney's One More Hour? I hope so.).