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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Year in Review: Most Underrated books of 2023

With only 10 spots on my favourites-list each year, there are bound to be more that deserve a shout-out. None more so than the books that haven’t gotten a lot of love or publicity through other channels. That’s where one of my favourite posts of the year comes in: my Most Underrated Books of 2023. I’ve rated all of them 4-stars or higher, yet at the time of writing all of them have less than 1000 ratings on Goodreads. We’ve got some indies as well as some traditionally published novels, spanning a range of genres, so hopefully there’s something here for everyone.



Rating: 4.5/5 stars


Starting off the list strong, we have the start of an independently published fantasy series that took me by complete surprise. The Wickwire Watch, on paper, has some elements I don’t typically jive with (cheek-child-protagonist in an adult fantasy story, steampunk-ish elements, very British humor…). It somehow combined all those elements into something utterly unique and completely charming. The best way I can describe this, is if Locke Lamora had a little brother who happened to be British… The story follows young orphan Ink, who accidentally pickpockets the wrong item of the corpse of a deadman: a watch with strange magical qualities… Now he’s haunted by dark Spektors and his only chance of survival lies with a group of rogue fugitives from law. From here, a wild mix of horror, thrills, humor, and a strangely cozy found-family story follows. I’m in the middle of the third book as of writing this, and can happily say the series holds up so far.



Rating: 4/5 stars


Once we’re at it, let’s stick with that historical-London setting for a while, but move the clock to the Elizabethan era. Here we have The Ghost Theatre, another historical fantasy novel that took me by surprise. In this, a messenger girl with the unfortunate ability to foresee the future in the patterns of birds, teams up with an underground theatre-group, performing politically activistic plays under the London night-skies. As their hallucinatory performances incite rebellion among the city's outcasts, Shay forms a special bond with their leader against backdrop of the plague and a London in flames.If I compare The Wickwire Watch to Lies of Locke Lamora, I have to compare The Ghost Theatre to The Night Circus, but with a slightly darker European vibe. Although I have to say I didn’t love it as much as I did Erin Morgenstern’s masterpiece, it’s a strong contender for everyone looking for something with a similar vibe.



Rating: 5/5 stars


At number three, we have our first middle-grade read. Released less than 6 months ago, I still have hope this will take off among the masses, but I’m happy to help it along. Greenwild was an absolutely delightful tale that ticks a lot of my middle-grade-boxes. It follows 11-year old Daisy, who’s eccentric mom goes missing on a supposed research-trip to the Amazon Rainforest. Looking into the disappearance, Daisy uncovers the secret life her mum has kept from her for years: a life as a botanical witch in a hidden place where Green Magic is real. What follows is a tale of plant-magic, family, friendship, adventure and a magical school.

If Hogwarts had only Hufflepuffs and Herbology classes, it would look something like this. I can’t wait for the second book in 2024, to see where this magical adventure takes us from here.



Rating: 5/5 stars


Another magical middle-grade adventure deserving of a lot more love, is The Secrets of Haven Point. I read this as a sensitivity-read on the topic of disability in middle-grade and fell in love with the beauty of this story. It follows a commune of kids, all with various disabilities or bodily differences that made them outcasts from the world, living and adventuring together in a lighthouse by the sea. Looked after by a mermaid and a sea-captain with a cat living in his beard, they live a sheltered but happy life. Until Outsiders threaten to discover their place and put into question the safety of their way of life. With a lovable cast of disabled but very capable heroes, a sea-side adventure with a sprinkle of mermaid-magic, and beautiful underlying message about friendship, found-family, love and acceptance; this was an absolute hit for me.



Rating: 5/5 stars


I might as well have put Caroline Hardaker’s debut novel Composite Creatures on the list, as it’s as underrated and as strange as this one. Her sophomore novel Mothtown however, was even more unique and haunting, so it deserved the spotlight here. This is a magical realist story about a boys decent into strangeness following the loss of his beloved granddad. This is basically all I can say without spoiling, and I truly recommend you go into this book knowing as little as possible, and go down the rabbit hole with the protagonist. Fans of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke will love this one.



Rating: 4/5 stars


Caribbean spiritual folklore meets a grounded multigenerational saga of a Jamaican-Trinidadian family, in this stellar debut by Soraya Palmer. Based on blurb, themes and genre, this quickly rose to the top of my Anticipated-releases of 2023 list, and I'm happy to say that it did not disappoint.Although it has some pacing issues typical of a debut, Soraya Palmers narrative voice brings this story of 3 sisters, and the generations of women that came before them to life in vivid colour. I recommend this book if you’re looking for a magical-realist family-story, mixed with cultural elements and mythology we don’t see too often represented in western media.



Rating: 4/5 stars


The Swimmers is a difficult book to recommend, as its equally difficult subject matter makes it something that won’t resonate with every reader. Yet for the people it does resonate with, it has the potential to be something incredibly powerful. This short and deeply intimate novella follows a New Zealand family over the cause of only a few days, counting down towards the death of the mother. Literally counting down, as her death is scheduled in advance.

Twenty-six year old Erin recounts the story of the week her mother, suffering from a degenerative motor-neuron-disease, decides she wants to take her life (and death) into her own hands. Unable to suffer further bodily deterioration, she plans the day of her death and asks her sister and daughter to help her. Not only in the act itself, but in what she calls her “final frolic”: the days leading up to it. 

As mentioned: this book deals with incredibly heavy topics, and left a deep impression on me in multiple ways. On the one hand, it’s such a time- and place-bound book, as the fact that euthanasia is illegal in New Zealand is such a shaping element of the events. It really set me, as a Dutch person, where euthanasia is legal, thinking about the cultural framework of it all. On the other hand, the experience of spending those last days with a dying loved one (especially knowing it’s their final days), is such a universal yet personal one, that I deeply resonated with it. The surrealist feel of it all; how it makes the smallest things feel incredibly large, and the larger things feel insignificantly small. Chloe Lane captures that perfectly.

Minimal writing, minimal length, but maximal emotional impact.




Rating: 4.5/5 stars


With a great story and a stunning cover to match, it’s a mystery to me why this Young Adult novel didn’t take off the way it ought to have. It’s a difficult book to describe in just a single sentence, but it’s a contemporary story with magical realist elements that covers themes of art, class, privilege and a complex mother-daughter dynamic. A teenage girl gets caught up in the world of art-forgery and high class society, when her mother (a formerly famous painter, now strapped for money and inspiration) turns down a job that could launch them out of financial trouble. I love YA novels that balance their heavier themes (in this case: class, privilege and mothers mental health) with their plot and characters “regular teen-drama”. Wolfwood strikes that balance well. As far as comp-titles go: think the fantasy elements of The Hazelwood meets the social commentary of Tripping Arcadia…  



Rating: 4/5 stars


The penultimate spot on this list goes to the final book I finished this year; a short-story collection with themes of water, ghosts and the murkiness of memory and loss. Short story collections rarely make it to my favourites, as it’s incredibly rare for me to like every single story in a collection. This was the case for Forget the Sleepless Shore as well, yet overall, this was one of the best and most coherent collections I’ve read in a long time. Incredibly consistent in its tone and themes, and penned in stunning prose, this is a must-read for everyone who’s fascinated by the strange connection between water, memory and hauntings across cultures and time.



Rating: 5/5 stars


Yes, I’m fully aware that I’m cheating with this final one, as it has just over 1000 Goodreads-ratings. Yet considering this spans translations across the entire world and multiple languages, that is still a criminally low number for a book of this quality. Violets reminded me in many ways of one of my favourites of last year, Ghost Music by Ann Yu. It’s a haunting coming of age tale about a South Korean girl, spanning her childhood in a rural village to her early twenties in a large metropolis. Along the way we cover the intimacies of her daily life, as well as large themes of identity, violence (in its many forms), womanhood and being seen. For such a short book it’s an absolute masterpiece of character-crafting an layering, that deserves far more recognition that it got.



I will be back tomorrow with my worst and most disappointing reads of 2023, followed by my favourites list on December 30th. Despite this not being my best reading-year, I still have plenty to talk about…

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