Works in the Hugo Novella category are almost always short novels (17500-40000 words).
In 2019 I wrote that this category had been revitalised by digital publishing and it continues to be true – novellas seem more accessible to consumers and more vital than ever, and the quality of this section has in previous rounds been exceptional. I’m really looking forward to this category as it is a mixture of authors I am extremely familiar with (McGuire, Tchaikovsky, and to a lesser extend Kingfisher) and some new (to me) faces.
Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk
Magical noir as a supernatural gumshoe helps track down a murderer.
Good writing often comes down to good choices, and this novella is riddled with good choices. “MARLOWE HAD OFFERED me fifty dollars to stand out here in the freezing Chicago cold and do an augury, and like a damn greedy fool, I’d said yes.” is such an efficient and evocative opening; despite being high concept, we immediately get a grip on the genre from the juxtaposition of Marlow, Chicago, and augury, and we also get an insight into the character, self aware, self depreciating, and more than a little desperate.
Everything flows from there – the lead is interesting, not a classic noir protagonist, but not one that feels out of place either; the story is solid, perhaps a bit rote but well integrated into the setting;1 and the writing is rock solid. It all comes together in a very tight, very enjoyable package.
The right answer to the question how can I get more magic in my period noir.
Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo
A priest and a talking bird wander the Riverlands looking for stories and join one instead.
A story about stories that are told, and the stories we tell. This works well in the martial arts milieu – where there are real heroes capable of larger than life feats, focusing on how they live in the shadow of their stories, and what stories these heroes think matter is an interesting one, elevating an already good martial arts story. However, it is a bit of a two edged sword, in the end I wanted a bit more, and it never quite makes the leap from very good to truly excellent.
A fun martial arts tale with a bit of meat on its bones.
A Mirror Mended by Alix E. Harrow
A fairy tale protagonist helps other fairy tale protagonists.
I like the story; the conversion of the princess in snow white from victim to savior is an interesting way to interrogate the story, and I appreciate any story that shows as much grace to its villains as to its heroes. Unfortunately I hated the protagonist, in a nails down a chalk board kind of way. The pop culture aware protagonist is a difficult balancing act, too little and the references feel out of place, too much and it feels like they are trying to hard and this felt like far too much to me.2 Given the first person narrative, I felt like I was trapped in a tight space with someone I didn’t like for 128 pages.3.
This is the ultimate in YMMV – I would recommend reading the first few pages and seeing how you feel about Zinnia – if you like her, I think you’ll find it a worthwhile read.
An empowering revision of Snow White held back by its lead.
Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
In a world ruled by Ogres, a rebellious boy finds his destiny.
It’s about Capitalism ain’t it?
This is an unabashedly, wears its heart on its sleeve banging you over the head with it politics polemic, but that doesn’t get in the way of it also being a great story, and one I would recommend reading regardless of your politics.
For starters, I’m a sucker for a genuine narrator, a story told from the perspective of a character inhabiting the world, and this one really works.[See “Ser Visal’s Tale by Stephen Donaldson for another good example. [/note] The narrator is teasing and observant, both in, and detached from, the story, and their arch tone does a lot of work in making this so enjoyable to read. The setting is also well realised, a kind of industrialised feudalism that fits the themes while also being well justified in the narrative. All of this carries the story; a workers uprising against a genuinely bloodthirsty and technically superior industrial nobility, which if I’m honest sags a bit in the middle where everything is a little too predictable, but the pay off to this is an ending that brings all the best threads of the story together into something delightful in its cynical idealism.
Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to risk except being baked into pies and eaten…
What Moves the Dead, by T. Kingfisher
Why falls the House of Usher?
I’ve never read the Fall of the House of Usher,4 but I didn’t feel I needed to to appreciate this.5 Clearly an attempt to dig into the why of the Fall of the House of Usher, this is an unholy fusion of gothic horror and science fiction, and I can think of no higher praise than that it manages scares and creepiness even after I worked out what was going on – the literary equivalent of jump scares you know are coming. If any of that sounds even vaguely interesting, I recommend jumping in to this both feet first.
It’s also not integral to the review, but I think it’s worth singling out and praising what Kingfisher does with gender and pronouns here – through careful crafting of backstory (as simple as a fictional country with strange customs)6 they manage to integrate a non traditionally-gender conforming character with new pronouns into gothic horror,7 and make it feel natural and period appropriate. This threading of the needle is necessary given that this text is in direct dialogue with Fall of the House of Usher, a character who felt like an anachronism would have undermined the exercise, but instead they feel of a piece with the project.
A story that lives up to the legacy of Poe and Shelly.
Postscript – Fall of the House of Usher by E. Poe [Spoilers for both Fall of the House of Usher and What Moves the Dead]
So if nothing else, What Moves the Dead moved me to read Fall of the House of Usher. I don’t have anything new to add a work that has launched a thousand book reports,8 but it is interesting to compare it with What Moves the Dead. The biggest difference is in efficiency, Fall of the House of Usher is a mood piece, half a dozen pages dense with decay. Kingfisher expands the story by an order of magnitude both to give room for the horror elements to breathe, allowing time between introducing the creepiness of the manor and going full on zombie horror (The Rabbits!), and to provide all of the clues to the reader to piece together what is actually going on. On it’s own, this decompression is effective, and perhaps even necessary, but reading the two back to back, it’s hard not to wish for What Moves the Dead to have a bit more of the punch that Fall of the House of Usher brings, and for it to bring it down just a little bit.
Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire
A girl tries to escape the Trauma of an otherworldly experience by going to a school designed to deny it.
I have a mixed relationship with this series;9 I love the idea of a world where doors are waiting to drag children off to magical worlds, and even more the idea of not so much focusing on the magical worlds but the consequences on the children who come back, but I sometimes find the stories themselves to not be up to the premise. Where the Drowned Girls Go feels like this in microcosm, the story is fine, ultimately a boarding school great escape,10 but the exploration of the main characters psyches, taking the going to another world experience as a metaphor for other psychological and physical traumas is well executed, and the implications of the ending to the direction of the series and the world building is profound.
Ultimately this is a product of the series – if you are interested in the world, I recommend starting at the beginning (Every Heart a Doorway), and if you are already invested in the series, this feels like a must read.
A weak story fused with strong character work and important world-building for Wayward Children fans.
- What Moves the Dead
- Even Though I knew the End
- Into the Riverlands
- Where the Drowned Girls Go (Note – winner)
- A Mirror Mended
No complaints about the quality of this category. What Moves the Dead was a standout winner, taking on a literary classic and successfully doing its own thing. Even Though I Knew the End and Ogres were neck and neck with each other and both excellent stories with minor flaws, I just liked one slightly more than the other.11 Next we have two very good stories that I felt could do a bit more – Into the Riverlands with its ideas, and Where the Drowned Girls Go with its plot. Finally a Mirror Mended was held back by my feelings for the protagonist, I though it was OK, but for a reader who gelled with them it would probably move up with the two ahead of it.
Postscript – Where the Drowned Girls Go won the award- as I noted it’s a very good story, and I can imagine with the changes it might herald to the series, a cohort more invested in the Wayward Children would find it irresistible. I honestly could have seen any of these stories winning this category (even if I think there is a standout).
Note on Covers
You’ll note at the top I’ve gone back to my traditional image format for the lead – Novella being the first category where each of the entries had a proper cover, and the quality of the covers here re-enforces my point about publishers caring about novellas (This is a particuarly great slate of illustrations). I’m also making sure I’m providing a list of cover credits (where possible see below), I’ll probably put these into footnotes going forward, but this slate seems particularly worthy of praise.
- What Moves the Dead – David Curtis
- Even Though I knew the End – Mark Smith (art), Christine Foltzer (design)
- Ogres – Sam Gretton12
- Into the Riverlands – Alyssa Winans (art), Christine Foltzer (design)
- Where the Drowned Girls Go – Robert Hunt (art), Christine Foltzer (design)
- A Mirror Mended – David Curtis
Disclaimer – Titles were provided to Hugo voters (including me) for their consideration.
- Outside the noir setting, the core plot elements could be from any urban fantasy, or an episode of Supernatural.
- Or maybe it’s just execution rather than degree, she’s no Buffy.
- In looking up the page count, I discover this is actually the second entry in a series, which both makes sense from the text, but means that Harrow did a good job of making a stand alone volume.
- True when I read this, but not now, see postcript below.
- In the interest of full disclosure I had seen the Vincent Price retelling, but I don’t think it really informed my appreciation of this.
- I assume, I appologise to Gallacians if they actually exist, and it tells you something that I’ve put this disclaimer in.
- I edited this to add traditionally – I’m not quite sure how to phrase the idea of someone who wouldn’t normally fit into the stereo-typically assumed gender roles of the period.
- Shocker, it’s pretty great.
- And also I realise, not a comprehensive knowledge of this series, this being entry 7, and I only having read the first three.
- In a year where the Scholomance series finished up to show what can be done with this premise.
- No reflection of relative quality.
- Not in the provided Epub – please publishers do better – I found the name here – https://rebellionpublishing.com/revealing-the-cover-for-ogres-by-adrian-tchaikovsky/