Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Novella

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2019 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the stories up for Best Novella.

For those keeping score at home, three of the finalists were on my nominating ballot (Beneath the Sugar Sky, The Black God's Drums, Gods Monsters and the Lucky Peach).

It is also worth noting that once again this category is packed full of stories from Publishing, which is both fine if taken in the abstract and troubling when considered as part of a trend. This year, like last year, five of the six finalists published by Publishing. Two years ago had four of the six finalists. It is only three years ago, in 2016, that only managed two of the five finalists, but they had also only just launched their novella line the previous fall and had fewer eligible titles.

The good news is that Publishing puts out a LOT of excellent fiction with their dedicated novella line (with the occasional novel and novelette thrown in) and because of Tor's prominence in the field, their reach, and their reputation - the work is easy to discover. The bad news is that I can't see how this sort of publisher dominance is a good thing for the health of the category or the field. We are beginning to see the same category dominance with the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. There are other publishers putting out high quality novellas (Subterranean, Tachyon, and PS are three significant publishers that come to mind), but it's a harder length of story to place. I've said this before, but I'd like to see a wider variety of publishers make the short list in coming years. Of course, I'm guilty of the same because I read most of what Publishing puts out each year because it is easy to get and the quality is high.

On to the finalists!

Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson ( Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

The Tea Master and the Detective: It's funny how memory works compared against what I've actually written about a particular story. In this case, my memory says that The Tea Master and the Detective was not that remarkable and I was continually surprised at the praise I saw lobbed at this novella. Then, I check to see if anyone wrote about The Tea Master and the Detective for Nerds of a Feather and I find out that I did, and that I liked it.

My review: "The Mindships of de Bodard's Xuya universe remind me somewhat of Anne McCaffrey's Brain ships, which is not so much a point as a random observation. The Tea Master and the Detective is a murder mystery with a sentient ship and a prickly detective uneasily working together to figure out how a body abandoned in deep space was killed. The novella is far better than my description. The excellence here is in the interplay between The Shadow Child and Long Chau and their characterization, development, and backgrounds."

The scoring on the review did not suggest The Tea Master and the Detective was among the best of the best, but it did tell me that the experience of reading Aliette de Bodard's story was stronger than how it subsequently lived in my memory. Regardless of which is more true, it is not the strongest of this year's finalists for Best Novella. (my review)

Artificial Condition: I do occasionally wonder about the occasional tendency to not love subsequent volumes in a series as much as the first. It's not something that fully holds up as a concept, Seanan McGuire in this very categories puts the lie to the concept - as does any number of other series. But it feels more common to build all the excitement about the first book and then merely appreciate and enjoy the second, third, and fourth books.

That's my not-a-problem with Artificial Condition, which is simply that it isn't All Systems Red (winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award) and while I thoroughly enjoyed Artificial Condition, it didn't reach the heights in my imagination as All Systems Red did and in that way, it suffers a bit in comparison. That's not fair, and a four star reaction is only a disappointment when compared to a five star response.

I do expect to see The Murderbot Diaries on the Hugo ballot in 2021 following the publication of a full length novel next year, and perhaps that is where Murderbot truly shines - not in the discrete entry of a single story but as the wider arc of Muderbot's story. I do also recommend Adri's essay on the first three Murderbot novellas as a stronger bit of counterpoint to how the overall journey is so affecting.

Binti: The Night Masquerade: At the point I am writing this, I could easily flip the placement of Binti: The Night Masquerade with that of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. The Night Masquerade is the conclusion of the Binti trilogy, with Binti back home in Namibia and trying to rescue her family and stop a war.

It is difficult for me to discuss The Night Masquerade without looking at the Binti trilogy as a whole because its success here is more than in part in how good of a job Nnedi Okorafor did in wrapping up Binti's story arc. That it was never quite the story I expected after the first book did not lessen the excellence and the raw emotion of The Night Masquerade. It's a damn good story with heart.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach: Everything I had to say about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach last year still stands. This is a spectacular story: "This story is cool as hell. It's set in an ecologically wrecked future where humanity is only just beginning to emerge and re-terraform our planet back into something hospitable. That by itself would be enough to get me interested, but add in some time travel and fantastic characters and ooh, damn, Kelly Robson tells one hell of a story. It's a novella that feels far bigger than it is and even then, I wished for at least one hundred more pages despite the story ending perfectly. I wanted to spend more time in the past. Time travel could be used for amazing things, but is often used for tourism rather than research (though, the travel in this novella is a research trip). The historical detail is fantastic, the interpersonal and interhistorical drama is on point, and I wanted more of every bit of this story." (my review)

The Black Gods Drums: In his review, Paul Weimer wrote that "The real richness of the novella is it is delight in invention, with an eye for creating a world that is rich for the potential for story and adventure. From the palpable existence of very active orishas, to an alternate history with a Confederacy, Haiti as a Caribbean power, and, naturally, airships, the world that Clark has created is a fascinating one that we only get a small short-novella taste of, but I want to read more of. The vision of New Orleans as a freeport where the Union, the Confederacy, Haiti and other powers all meet and trade, complete with extensive airship facilities is a compelling and fascinating one."

I was blown away by The Black God's Drums, by the characterizations and action and worldbuilding, by Clark's storytelling. As good of a novella as I thought it was when I first read it, The Black God's Drums has only increased in my estimation the more time has passed. (Paul's review)

Beneath the Sugar Sky: This third novella in Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series offers some of the sense of nostalgia of Every Heart a Doorway, but with a far greater sense of adventure. Beneath the Sugar Sky offers a feeling of homecoming for the reader, laced with the complete nonsense of the world of Confection.

From my review: "Beneath the Sugar Sky is filled with wit and biting commentary on how children are perceived and all too often squeezed into boxes they don't belong in order to fit the ideas and dreams of their parents and other adults, and how pervasive that can be. It's also a delightful adventure story filled with charm and wonder and it's a book I did not quite want to end because I wasn't ready to say goodbye." I adored Beneath the Sugar Sky. (my review)

My Vote
1. Beneath the Sugar Sky
2. The Black God's Drums
3. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
4. Binti: The Night Masquerade
5. Artificial Condition
6. The Tea Master and the Detective

Our Previous Coverage

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.