In a year where genre stories of all stripes feel like they’ve dominated bestseller lists, you’d be forgiven for thinking that traditional fiction novels were over, or at the very least, suddenly passe.
Happily, we can confirm that neither of those things is true, and great fiction absolutely still exists. From historical fiction to mythological retellings to nostalgia-fueled tales of friendship and videogames, the best novels of 2022 quite literally contain multitudes.
Here are our picks for the best fiction novels of 2022.
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
On paper, the idea that a historical novel about the lives of a group of prostitutes in a Pompeii brothel is actually one of the year’s most strident tales of female empowerment seems as though it should be fairly ridiculous. But clearly, none of us saw Elodie Harper coming. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, her novel The Wolf Den
is an enthralling, exhilarating read from its first page to its last, rooted in both archeological fact and emotional truth.
A well-written and clearly deeply researched tale, Harper’s debut is both a fascinating story in its own right and an important reclaiming of the sorts of stories from history we far too rarely get to hear. Yes, The Wolf Den is brutal in its violence and unflinching in its depiction of the many horrors and indignities poor women, slaves, and other marginalized groups of this time must have faced. But it’s also like almost nothing else that exists in this genre at present, carefully drawing contemporary parallels that will feel deeply familiar in a world where modern women still must fight far too hard for autonomy, equality, and the right to feel both safe in and in charge of their own bodies.
Fully grounded and deeply engrossing, Harper’s novel gives a voice to precisely the sort of women who have never been allowed to speak for themselves before and whose stories have been left to languish on the sidelines of the history we prefer to remember. The Wolf Den is a thoroughly modern book telling an ancient and age-old story. —Lacy Baughter Milas
Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher
T. Kingfisher is the penname of children’s author Ursula Vernon, and it seems easy enough to see why she might want to keep the two lanes of her work from crossing over too much. Her fantasy books are shot through with both sharp humor and uncomfortable threads of pitch-black realness, dealing with issues that range from emotional trauma and domestic violence to standard folklore pacts and seemingly impossible quests. And this is also true of her 2022 novel, Nettle and Bone
, a bittersweet, razor-sharp, utterly perfect sort-of fairytale that clocks in at less than three hundred pages and packs the emotional punch of an epic three times its length.
From its ragtag group of heroes—which includes witches, demons, and resurrected bone animals—to its unflinchingly honest representation of the abuse and misogyny that makes much of its traditionally framed fantasy world go round, there’s a specifically wonderful alchemy at work in T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone that threads the thin line between humor, horror, and heart in order to create something that feels both fresh and utterly necessary. (This is the only book that has an entry on multiple Paste Books “Best of the Year” lists there’s a reason for that.) A true delight from the first page to the last, it’s a deeply feminist, fiercely funny fairytale that delightful and unexpectedly subverts so many of the tropes we typically see in stories like it. —Lacy Baughter Milas
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Vaishnavi Patel’s debut, Kaikeyi
, is a fierce and feminist reframing of the story of one of the most despised queens of Indian mythology, best known for pitting herself against the gods in the epic poem the Ramayana
. Essentially little more than a villainous stepmother in the original tale, the Kaikeyi in the poem jealously banishes Rama from the kingdom in the name of putting her own son on the throne. But this novel embraces a more nuanced depiction of her character, turning the famed queen from a spiteful, jealous wife into a budding revolutionary, a woman fighting to earn a place for herself in a world that tells her she is only valuable in relation to the men around her—in her status as someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. Refusing to be subservient or silent, she does her best to steer her own destiny, and while that may ultimately lead to some selfish and even painfully destructive mistakes, Kaikeyi
repeatedly places those choices in a much-needed historical and cultural framework.
From its complex politics and its willingness to explore complex questions about religion to its assortment of strong female characters and tragic feel, Patel manages to fashion a story that is as ambitious in scale and scope as the poem it takes its heroine from. —Lacy Baughter Milas
Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks’s historical fiction has encompassed everything from plague in seventeenth-century England (Year of Wonders
) and the Biblical King David (The Secret Chord
) to the first Native American to graduate from Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing). So no one will likely be that surprised that her latest novel, titled simply Horse
focuses on yet another fairly esoteric subject: the history of horseracing in America. Horse
deftly uses the story of a real racehorse in the antebellum South to explore the deep roots and long-tail impact of racism in America, weaving a fascinating tale spread across two timelines. Each is centered on a horse named Lexington, who serves as both a central character and a narrative linchpin, as Brooks intertwines the real-life 19th-century story of the record-breaking horse with the 21st-century discovery of his portrait and the two young Black men whose lives were indelibly impacted by their association with him.
A hard narrative swerve toward the end of the novel toes the line of melodrama but drives home the point that, as much as we’d like to believe differently, the poisonous legacy of slavery and racism is still alive and well in America today. But Brooks’ tale is at its best during the segments which both illuminate and explore the stories of the other Black grooms, trainers, and jockeys who all played a central role in the antebellum thoroughbred industry. These are the figures most often left to languish on the margins of history—an area that Brooks as an author is always keen to explore—but Horse is deeply interested in illustrating just how much of what we understand as the world of horse racing today is due to the stolen labor of these same men, many of whom’s names have been lost to time. —Lacy Baughter Milas
Elektra by Jennifer Saint
One of the most thrilling trends in publishing in recent years has been the rise of the female-focused mythological retelling, books that reevaluate and reassess some of Western literature’s most famous tales through a distinctly female lens and putting the spotlight squarely on the women who are often left to languish in the margins of men’s stories. From Madeline Miller’s Circe
to Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
and Natalie Hynes’ A Thousand Ships
, female authors are spinning heartbreaking and haunting new tales about these female characters we thought we knew and telling their stories from fresh perspectives. I know I’m not the only reader who can’t get enough of this particular vein of book, but there’s just something so poignant and necessary about these stories and the way they acknowledge the women that history has done its level best to forget (or, worse, denigrate).
Elektra, Jennifer Saint’s follow-up to her (also very good!) novel Ariadne, reframes the Trojan War as a specifically female story by grounding it in the distinct perspectives of three different but equally furious women: Clytemnestra, wife of Greek king Agamemnon who sacrifices their daughter on the altar of his own glory; Cassandra, the unheeded prophetess who can see the future but not stop it from coming to pass; and the titular Elektra, who comes of age over the course of the decade it takes Troy to fall.
On paper, the three women have little in common (despite one being the daughter of another), but in Saint’s retelling, their lives intersect and intertwine in thematically rich ways, as each tries to forge her own path in a world in which women are often denied the chance to have agency or voices of their own. These heroines rage at the dying of the light, refusing to go quietly into the fates that male authors like Euripides, Homer, and Aeschylus have set out for them, and though their endings remain as inevitable as always, for readers, the experience is a deeply cathartic one. — Lacy Baugher Milas
Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
While fans of her more recent adult work seem, on the whole, to be surprised by the innovative emotional and formal somersaulting of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
, anyone who’s at all versed in her YA work will immediately understand that everything she took such big teen-oriented swings at a dozen years ago—not just emotional themes and character types, but also temporally interwoven narrative devices, a deep interest in how people grow and change from childhood to old age, and a playfully circular theory of life—she’s pulled together into one expansive world with the emotional wallop that is this book
In a Los Angeles children’s hospital in the late 1980s, 11-year-old Sadie Green bonds with 12-year-old Samson Masur over the hospital’s game room copy of Super Mario. Years later, after a mysterious but decisive falling out, they reconnect in Boston, where Sam is studying math at Harvard and Sadie is studying videogame design at MIT. Galvanized by an audaciously simple game Sadie designed for an advanced Fall seminar that she passed him on a whim between semesters, Sam proposes they spend the following summer building a game together.
With the production help of Sam’s golden retriever of a roommate, Marx Watanabe, whose student production of Twelfth Night inspires their game’s inciting incident, the pair ends up creating a gentle adventure game called Ichigo, which so immediately and completely takes over pop culture that the three friends are able to build the videogame development company of their dreams. A dozen years, a second Ichigo, and at least three hard new fallings-out later, Sadie and Sam find themselves back where they started, on a train platform on the East Coast, passing a game demo between them as their latest freeze shows signs of a thaw.
That final detail might, in other reviews, constitute a mild spoiler, but in the case of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, it simply reflects the story’s central point, which is that life, at least up until the moment it’s decisively not, is just a recursive collection of new starts. You live a little; you fail a lot; you recover and try again. On paper—or, better yet, on the kinds of videogame screens both Zevin’s characters and her target readers are familiar with—this is an easy enough lesson to understand. But manipulated as it is by Zevin in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, the narrative not just jumping back and forth in the timeline of Sam and Sadie’s friendship, but bobbing and weaving through their (critically limited) perspectives on the same, it becomes utterly devastating. —Alexis Gunderson
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty
Tess Gunty’s debut novel The Rabbit Hutch
propels itself by setting up conflicts between people who are already on edge, exhausted, and afraid, and lets you see where the pieces will fall long before it topples them over. It centers on an apartment complex called La Lapiniere in Vacca Vale, Indiana, which is home to several floors of eclectic, lost people. The book is a complex of its own, subdivided into short chapters on each resident that have divergent styles, perspectives, and tenses, surveying each like a deconstructed Chris Ware comic. It often only becomes clear much later how one person is related to another. More important than their issues, however, are the strange ways each person silences them: through devotion to reality tv stars, animal sacrifice, medieval religious writing, and applying the residue of glow sticks to their own skin.
Others have compared Gunty’s debut to the work of Denis Johnson, but the author I think of is the French writer Georges Perec. Perec was a member of the Oulipo group of novelists, who wrote experimental works according to a series of predetermined constraints. Perec’s most famous novel is Life: A User’s Manual, an almost 700 page text about the inhabitants of an apartment building in Paris. Written according to the rules of the Knight’s Tour, the narrative moves around a 10×10 grid of squares (apartments), the order of which is given by the pattern of a knight’s moves on a grid; each chapter is one apartment’s story. Gunty’s writing is in contrast unconstrained. Chapters alternate between ten pages and half of one, swapping between characters at random. Characterization happens through accumulation. Gunty has a talent for short descriptions—she once describes the quality of sunlight as “morally puny”—and this extends to her characters as well: often with one offhand trait, you get the sense of exactly who someone is.
The Rabbit Hutch
is about people who live on top of one another and deal with the cast-offs of each others’ lives, but never interact. Everyone is trying to get out ahead of their own problems by connecting with someone somewhere else, whether that’s a reality tv star, a content moderator on the internet, a Benedictine abbess from a thousand years ago. But at its end, and at select few moments throughout, The Rabbit Hutchrelaxes this isolation and lets its characters relax into each other. In those moments, the narrative shines like a bag of glow sticks: industrial, dazzling, the sum of its disconnected parts. —Emily Price
Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
A sweeping, often heartrendingly bleak historical novel, Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut Four Treasures of the Sky
takes readers from the fishmarkets of China to the brothels of San Francisco and the drab mining towns of Idaho. The story follows Daiyu, a young Chinese girl named after a tragic literary heroine, who is kidnapped and brought to the U.S. in the late 1800s.
A painful realistic exploration of everything from human trafficking to the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the widespread prejudice against Asians in frontier America, Four Treasures of the Sky is by no means an easy read.
Yet Zhang still manages to build in delicate moments of beauty, from the intricate meanings hidden in stokes of Chinese calligraphy to the small kindnesses Daiyu and those like her manage to do for one another even in the midst of their own struggles and hardships. Her defiant optimism in the face of what the reader knows are impossible dreams—to find her grandmother, to confess her true feelings to the young man she loves and have them reciprocated—gives her character strength and meaning. And her refusal to give up, even in the face of terrible odds is as inspiring as it is tragic. Keep your Kleenex handy. — Lacy Baugher Milas
Book Lovers by Emily Henry
s Henry’s third romance to take place over a summer (like last year’s People We Meet on Vacation
) and second to exist in the Venn diagram of publishing folks’ seasonal wind-down (after her 2020 debut Beach Read
). But despite any surface-level similarities to the latter’s premise, in which romance author January Andrews and literary wunderkind Augustus Everett challenge each other to switch writing genres, Book Lovers
might as well exist in a different section of the proverbial bookstore.
Beach Read played into that rom-com Pavlovian delight that is watching opposites attract, but for so many of us that’s pretty unlikely. Even Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, with its slightly kinky enemies-to-lovers publishing dynamic that makes it a close comp to this, emphasizes the lovers’ every difference from height to attire to sunshine/grump personas. Book Lovers reassures readers that it’s OK to fall for someone who’s not just similar to you but is basically the male version of you down to every ruthlessly ambitious bone and unapologetic adoration for metropolitan life—that is, every “worst” aspect of you that compels others to leave.
I was at first skeptical of setting another novel in the publishing world, to the point where I don’t know how I would have reacted to a January/Augustus Easter egg, but about two-thirds through, it clicked: Beach Read subverts genre snobbery by way of the derision directed at anything written by women, but Book Lovers takes a red pen to supposedly universal romance tropes—again, not wholly excising, but figuring out how they can actually jibe with reality. —Natalie Zutter
The Half-Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
The first thing you should probably know about Natasha Pulley’s The Half Life of Valery K
is that it’s based on an event that actually happened: The 1963 Kyshtym disaster. This event was a radiation leak near the city of Chelyabinsk-40 that is categorized as the third worst nuclear disaster in human history, trailing only the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011 and the infamous explosion at Chernobyl in 1986. Why haven’t more people heard of this, you may ask yourselves? Well, part of the reason for that is that Chelyabinsk, and multiple other places like it, were known as closed cities, or atomgrads, fake towns whose residents couldn’t leave that were used to help cover up the Soviet Union’s nuclear program and hide their reactors in plain sight. Sounds like the plot of a novel, right? Well, Pulley pulls out all the stops to turn it into one.
While the story technically follows the titular Valery K, a scientist who is released from a Soviet gulag to work at the mysterious City 40. Desperate to avoid being executed, Valery doesn’t ask a lot of questions about the research work he’s being asked to do—theoretically help evaluate an ecosystem in a “nature preserve” that’s been intentionally contaminated with radiation to see how species develop resistance to it. But when he begins to notice irregularities in the data and suspects radiation levels are much higher—and more dangerous—than anyone is willing to admit, he must decide how far he’ll go to save the people himself and the innocents within the town. Full of layered, three-dimensional characters, uncomfortable ethics questions, and a forthright sort of frankness about the atrocities humanity is willing to commit in the pursuit of power, Pulley’s humorous, heartfelt, and occasionally horrifying tale will stay with you long after the last page —Lacy Baugher MIlas