The Novelette and Novella are the ugly step children of the Hugos, novelette being a long short story, and a novella being a short novel. Nonetheless, they are often have the most diversity in offerings of the categories. This slate of novellas is particularly strong, with five of the six stories being excellent and deserving of award.
Again, beware spoilers in main reviews.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
How well do the children who come back from fairyland cope, and what do they do with the rest of their lives?
This novella looks at a special school for those children who are desperate to go back to their fairyland(separate from the school for those so traumatised they never want to go back). Each child went to a different place, but for each it was perfect. What is most impressive about McGuire’s storytelling is that this novella does double duty as both a high concept story about afters, and an emotionally grounded tale about belonging and being yourself even when you don’t fell like you fit in. On top of this, the characters are great, each one is an archetype; Nancy wants to be a statue, Sami is an actual manic pixie girl, and so on, but each is fleshed out into a real person. Prima inter pares is Jack , an aspiring mad scientist who gets almost all the most quotable lines.
There are only two minor blemishes on this otherwise great effort. The first is that the actual plot feels superfluous: I think I would have liked the story better without the addition of a murder mystery. The other is that after the main story there are a couple of prequel chapters giving the origin story of two of the main characters. While not bad, they feel out of tune with the main story, and are not of the same excellent quality.
Combines a great high concept with a strong emotional core to make an excellent story about children who survived fairyland.
Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
Divine provenance pushes a temple sorcerer to assist a lost shaman. Set in the 5 Gods World (Curse of Chalion).
Lois McMaster Bujold always does something a little off expectations. We start here with an investigator chasing a murderous shaman requesting help from a temple sorcerer, and I would normally expect some sort of long chase culminating in some sort of epic duel. Instead we get a tale of mistakes, redemption and forgiveness.
With a typically great Bujold protagonist (though no Miles Vorkosigan), and a setting of powerful but rigidly constrained magics combined with present but subtle gods this is a smart and pleasant read.
Smart fantasy that goes in unexpected directions but still feels like comfort food.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
A soldier on a diplomatic mission meets a minor noble and starts a forbidden relationship.
A couple of pages in, and I thought I knew where this was going: a gay love story between a European knight on a diplomatic mission with a minor noble in fantastic Africa, told non-sequentially over their brief relationship to make it more interesting. As I read further however, the scope of time expanded broadening the story, and the world got deeper, weirder and most importantly unique. By halfway through I was lost on a ride, and willing to follow the increasingly idiosyncratic tale wherever it wanted to take me.
Unfortunately the ending is so generic, and thwarts so many of the interesting plot threads, that it pulls the story down to a little. In spite of this, this is such an usual and unique tale that it deserves attention.
Utterly unique and idiosyncratic, this is a cure for predictable and generic fantasy stories.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVall
A street musician and dealer in magics turns to the old ones to find justice in 20’s black New York.
This didn’t work for me as either a mythos tale or a ballad. As a mythos tale it lacked the sense of insignificance and existential dread I associate with the best Cthulhu stories, while as a Ballad, it isn’t focused enough on Black Tom in the middle.
Fortunately however, there are a lot of strong elements here. By featuring a black protagonist in 20s Harlem, and setting it around the West Indian immigrant community, it creates an immediate sense of place that is different from most mythos fiction. 1 It also has a strong setup for a Ballad, with our cunning and colourful protagonist wronged by the law, and an incredible epilogue, with Tom reflecting on the consequences of his actions.
What really holds the story back is the change of POV in the middle of the story. We swap Tom out for Malone, a white detective who would usually be the hero of this type of story, and while I appreciate the desire to subvert the genre by showing us how the typical protagonist of these stories is really a problematic character, it feels like we miss the most important part of the ballad, Tom making his choice and gaining his powers. Without a middle, Tom’s story, and this one, is incomplete.
A strong alternate take on 20’s Cthulhu fiction that is let down a bit by a weak middle.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
A woman from the Dreamlands goes on a quest leading back to the waking world.
What does a dreamquest look like when undertaken by a native of the dreamlands? What starts as a scandal in a women’s college unfolds into a tour of the dreamlands that draws heavily from the stories by Lovecraft, but told with a skill that surpasses the original. Indeed, this story is an anti-mythos tale, by demonstrating how people persevere in a shifting world governed by capricious elder gods it affirms our humanity in the face of the infinite.
On top of this, Vellitt Boe is a an amazing character: a wanderer who has settled down into academia and, while past her prime, has replaced youthful enthusiasm for practical determination. She enlivens the quest, taking what could be a slavish tribute to Lovecraft and triumphantly re-purposing it.
A flawless revising of Lovecraft’s dreamlands with an amazing protagonist: a must read for anyone even vaguely interested in the Mythos.
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
A census-taker revisits his childhood in his personal census book.
I would have liked this better if it had had more census-taking. It’s not that this is bad; I’m not sure Miéville could write something that was bad. It’s just so wrote. The world building is fascinating with magic keys, specials censuses, and cities built over hills, but it is shackled to a story of childhood abuse and violence that didn’t say anything insightful to me. Meh.
A great world shackled to a mediocre story of child abuse.
- The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
- A Taste of Honey
- Every Heart a Doorway
- Penric and the Shaman
- The Ballad of Black Tom
- This Census-Taker
This is an incredible category: the Ballad of Black Tom is excellent but flawed, and well deserving of an award, and I ranked it fifth. The first 4 stories are all incredible. My only disappointment will be if name recognition carries this Census-Taker to the award.