Novellas are almost exclusively short novels,1 self contained and fully fleshed out. I was expecting good things given that one is a sequel to a novella I liked last year (A Heart Shaped Door), another by an author I liked last year (Sarah Gailey), and a third is the sequel to a 2016 winner (Binti).2
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Guarding a survey team is a frustrating distraction from murderbot’s soaps, until something other than the wildlife tries to kill him.
Let’s not bury the lead here, Murderbot is clearly going to be a breakout character. Everything about it is perfect, starting with the name; Murderbot. Fortunately, there is more than a name: Wells builds a character with a limited emotional palette that still has a fully realised personality, not autistic, just human adjacent. The strict first person perspective is a huge asset in this, as everything is filtered through murderbots unique viewpoint, making the other characters seem richer by association. To top it all off the story does exactly what it needs to do – it keeps moving at a decent clip, and gives murderbot a chance to shine.
Murderbot, Murderbot, Murderbot!
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker
At an unusual convention, there is a murder…
Just read this story, it’s not that spoilers hurt it, it’s just that you may as well read it. Having said that…
Let’s start with the title, a slight twist on a Christie classic that is instantly evocative of what you are getting, and completely accurate.3 More impressive though is the execution of the premise – many people have taken on many worlds with varying degrees of success, but few have managed to think through the implications of the many worlds while engaging with such a fun premise. By the time we get the end of the book we know Sarah intimately, not just because we see her as she is, but because we see her as she could have been (or is in other places). All this is topped off by the ending, which manages to be true to the character and the premise in profound ways.
The best version of this story in this or many other worlds…
Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti returns home, but finds she doesn’t fit where she used to.
I really liked Binti, and Binti: Home has many of the things I loved about it; a heroine with a unique perspective, a focus on emotion over science, and a cultural specificity. Laudably, Home grapples with something harder than the original, growing away from your roots. Unfortunately, it felt like it lost some of the nuance of the original: suddenly Binti’s home isn’t just insular, it’s misogynistic, uncaring, and spiteful, and she needs to find a new home; and instead of a detente between warring parties, there is outright fighting. It also suffers for being a middle chapter, it feels like it lacks a clear beginning and ends on an incomplete note. It’s not a bad story, but it feels a big step down from the original.
A weak follow up to well liked story.
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang
The story of a twin who takes a different path when magic and technology collide.
This felt not like a short novel, but instead a severely abridged one. This is incredibly frustrating, because if ever there was a setting that needed to breathe it was this one. Over the course of the book we see powerful magic, advanced technology (or sufficiently advanced magic), living prophesies, industrial and class revolutions, malleable genders, mystic monks, and I felt the author wanted me to pay attention to each and every one of these things without devoting enough time to them to really explore them, or backgrounding them enough that I accepted them unquestioningly. Rather than cohesive world building, it felt like a set of random elements thrown together. Even worse, the narrative is split over multiple points in Akeha’s life, and there are points where the narrative has to contextualise events in one time by referring to actions or behaviour that occurred in a previous period in the novella that we have narrative for, but didn’t actually happen in the narrative sections we have. On reaching the end of the novella, there is an invitation to read an excerpt for its twin “The Red Tides of Fortune”, and it becomes clear that the twin’s narrative has been split between the two. I suspect much of what I was missing is to be found there, but even if this is true, it left “The Black Tides of Heaven” so broken that I have no interest in reading it to find out.
Too much crammed into too little, and then with important pieces cut out.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Jack and Jill went down a set of stairs into a world of horrors, and it was an improvement on home.
This is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, a novella I rather liked last year. Unfortunately, this neither lives up to the premise or execution of predecessor. Before I get to my problems, let me front this by saying that this is a master class in fictional narration. McGuire writes the entire novella in an extremely arch tone, conveying judgement, contempt and pity in almost equal measure. When Jack and Jill arrive in their fairy land, this tone carries that narrative, and captures the feeling of someone reading a fairy tale to you while also commenting on it in a way that I found immensely appealing. However, the first part of the book is in the ‘real world’, and while there is a deliberate cautionary tale quality to this section, the narration that I liked so much in the later sections felt pretentious and overbearing. Given how important the opening is to both set up the characters, and to underpin the thematic connection between their home and the moors, this really dragged the story down. I still enjoyed it overall, but it was a disappointment, and worse, felt unnecessary.
An enjoyable but disappointing followup to Every Heart a Doorway.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
On a Mississippi infested with Hippos, a man puts together a team to help the US government, and settle some scores.
If you don’t want to read a dirty dozen/oceans eleven type adventure in the riverboat era with Hippopotamuses, you really need to look at your values. This premise was so entertaining that the story didn’t need to be good for me to recommend it, but it was. It hits all the beats you want, putting the team together in a way that shows off each member, plans, crosses, double crosses, action, and people being eaten by Hippos, and gets it done in short order.
The only minor criticism I would level is almost a meta complaint with the world building. The team is basically all LGBTQ, which would be fine, but Gailey lampshades the issue by having them hire a token ‘classic protagonist’ specifically to deal with people who will have a problem with them. It gave me a bit of cognitive whiplash, as up until that point, I had just assumed that a slightly more accepting society went hand in hand with the hippos given the ease with which, say our protagonist seduces a federal agent in the first couple of pages of the book, and once called out, it raised questions that I didn’t want to grapple with any more than the hippos. Fortunately, the whole book is so fun that I’d forgotten my problems by the next scene.
Hippos, riverboats, rogues and schemes, what else do you need?
- And Then There Were (N-One)
- All Systems Red
- River of Teeth
- Down Among the Sticks and Bones
- Binti: Home
- The Black Tides of Heaven
So obviously form didn’t pan out in the rankings here, though River of Teeth sits neck and neck with All Systems Red as good, fun reads. The problem comes with the next two entries in the list: both sequels are fine, but feel like real steps down from their predecessors. At either end of the list, And Then There Were (N-One) is genuinely great, while The Black Tides of Heaven feels incomplete without reading its companion novella, which it wasn’t compelling enough to make me rush out and read.