2020 Novellapalooza

stack of books ©canstockphoto / olegd

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ:

TL;DR: Here’s what I thought of the 2020 Novellas. What did you think?

I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last few years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story Synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading:

  • 31 of the novellas published in 2015,
  • 35 of the novellas published in 2016,
  • 50 of the novellas published in 2017,
  • 38 of the novellas published in 2018,
  • 57 of the 2019 novellas,
  • and this year I was waiting for access to a few novellas from my library, so I was reading others, and thus my final total crept up to 59!

The result of these reading sprees were

I really felt as though this enabled me to do Hugo nominations for the Novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I’m doing it again this year.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book which sounds as though it will be up my alley and to discover that, actually, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low.

Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). What’s more, I apparently had a defective childhood, and I do not share a lot of peoples’ appreciation for fairytale retellings and portal fantasies. My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

Novellas are listed in two sections below. The first section, those with cover art, are the ones I have read, and they include mini-reviews by me. These are in approximate order from most-favorite to least-favorite (but bear in mind that after around the first dozen listed, there was not a large degree of difference in preference among most of the remainder, with the exception of a handful at the bottom). The second section is those novellas I haven’t read, in alphabetical order by title.

I’ve included plot summaries, and where I could find them, links to either excerpts or the full stories which can be read online for free. Some short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included, and in a couple of cases, novelettes which were long enough to be in the Hugo Novella tolerance were also included.

Please feel free to post comments about 2020 novellas which you’ve read, as well. And if I’ve missed your File 770 comment about a novella, or an excerpt for a novella, please point me to it!

If you see something that looks like gibberish, it is text that has been ROT-13’ed to avoid spoilers. (Please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

(fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)



The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, Tor.com Publishing [Singing Hills #1] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders, and she is alone and virtually a trophy prisoner for the enemy. The Empress has few resources and fewer friends, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

What I thought: This is an absolutely captivating story of subtlety, intrigue, revenge, friendship, and love, written in beautifully-evocative prose. I don’t want to say any more, because I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovery for other readers. This is first on my Hugo ballot for Best Novella.


When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo, Tor.com Publishing [Singing Hills #2] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A traveling scholar-researcher who collects and records stories hires a member of the corps of mammoth-riding warriors to transport them through the mountain pass and keep them safe from the resident bandits. As they travel, they gradually get to know each other – and then they are set upon by three tigers who can shapeshift into human form and speak human language. Then the storyteller, much like Scheherazade, must tell the tigers stories of their famous tiger ancestors to keep them occupied and appeased, instead of eating the humans.

What I thought: Although this is set in the same world as The Empress of Salt and Fortune, it is not a sequel, and features different characters. The stories are rich and lovely, and though I did not think this one reached the level of the first in this series, it is well worth the read.

Filer comments:
Lace: Empress is great, Tiger is even better. One could read Tiger without reading Empress, though you shouldn’t. Another work about who tells the stories and how they change, in an effective form.



Chisel and Chime by Alex Irvine (Fantasy and Science Fiction, January-February) [Borea #4] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: An artist is chosen for the great honor of sculpting the official statue of the Imperator – but by tradition, every artist chosen for this honor dies once the work is completed. The story of her artistic work intertwines with the history of the young man assigned to guard her – and as she learns more about his troubled backstory, they begin to envision a possible future that breaks free of the traditions that bind them both.

What I thought: The rich and powerful have almost always regarded those who live under them to be trivial accessories, useful tools, and disposable entities of no importance – but in this moving story with its subtle magic worldbuilding, the “little people” get their chance for the ultimate triumph. Recommended for anyone who could use a story right now in which decent people prevail over uncaring rulers.

Filer comments:
Standback: A great story
Nina: I loved the setting, and the story does a great job of setting up the similarities between Melandra and her guard, despite their vastly different backgrounds. The part of the story taking place in the present day is fairly slow-paced, but the vivid descriptions and growing rapport between the main characters made it engaging to read nevertheless. All of this made me want to read more stories set in this world.



Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers – a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure. She ventures into the scrublands beyond, searching for answers about what really happened to this town, and to her family. Her search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles. For this is a land where superstitions hunt and folk tales dream – and power is there for the taking, for those willing to look.

What I thought: This is a sharp and twisty mystery story, as wild and dangerous as the beautiful but brutal Australian landscape it describes. Its basis is in folktales and myths of mysterious creatures, but its heart is in the lovely, dark and descriptive prose which reflects the fact that its author is an artist. The story touches on themes of identity and the ways that we try to change ourselves to in order to escape painful truths. This novella will be most satisfying when time is taken to savor the vivid imagery; be prepared for some parts of it to go unexplained.



Orfeia by Joanne M. Harris, Gollancz (audio excerpt)

Synopsis: In this beautiful and tragic quest, a heartbroken mother sets out to save her lost daughter, through the realms of the real, of dream, and even into the underworld itself. But determination alone is not enough. For in order to save something precious, she must give up something precious, be it a song, a memory, or her freedom itself…

What I thought: This is a sort of gender-flipped version of the tale of Orpheus, about a mother who ventures into the Kingdom of Death to retrieve the daughter who was taken from her by a jealous, grasping king, and the sacrifice she makes to ensure the life and freedom of her daughter. Scholars of mythology may especially enjoy this story, but all readers can appreciate the vivid, evocative imagery of the prose and the ethereal illustrations by Bonnie Helen Hawkins which elevate this folktale/myth into something absolutely magical.



Princess Floralinda and the Forty Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir, Subterranean Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: When the witch built the forty-flight tower, she made very sure to do the whole thing properly. Each flight contains a dreadful monster, ranging from a diamond-scaled dragon to a pack of slavering goblins. Should a prince battle his way to the top, he will be rewarded with a golden sword – and the lovely Princess. But no prince has managed to conquer the first flight yet, let alone get to the fortieth. In fact, the supply of fresh princes seems to have quite dried up. And winter is closing in…

What I thought: Aaaaand… this is why I frequently persuade myself to give books for which the jacket copy doesn’t necessarily sound appealing a try. Fairytale subversion? Ugh. Written by the author of a book which I absolutely hated (and for which I still wish I could get that part of my life back)? Double-Ugh. But this is a thoroughly-satisfying story in which a clueless and helpless princess lucks into a stroppy fairy companion and eventually develops into a sassy ex-princess. I really appreciated this story’s complete lack of saccharinity. Not recommended for those with an aversion to blood and gore, but absolutely recommended for those who are just so completely done with having to perform what’s expected of them.



The Four Profound Weaves by Rose Lemberg, Tachyon Publications [Birdverse] (Overdrive excerpt) (prequel novelette “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds”)

Synopsis: An aged woman must find her long-missing aunt, the master weaver, in order to learn the final weave before she dies, although the price for that knowledge may be far too dear to pay. A nameless man who is still struggling with his past must choose between living the life he dreamed of and helping her achieve her goal.

What I thought: While it’s not necessary in order to appreciate this story, I strongly recommend first reading the novelette “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds”, since it features some of the same characters when they were younger. The narration alternates between the present and the past so skilfully that I never got confused about the timeframes, as the connections between the two are gradually revealed. Refreshingly, the story features older protagonists who are feeling the effects of their age on their physical and mental resources, and it explores the pain of not being able to really be ourselves because the person we love cannot accept and love us as who we truly are.



Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Tor Books (excerpt)

Synopsis: An older sister with the power to see things that haven’t yet occurred and the ability to translate her anger into physical devastation wants to rescue her younger from his wrongful incarceration, but must weigh the costs – both physical and psychological – of giving in to her destructive impulses.

What I thought: This is a painfully prescient story which speaks to the injustice and atrocities to which Black people in the U.S. have been subjected, especially during the horrifying year of 2020 when justice has been nowhere to be found in the daily reports of black people being unnecessarily killed by police officers, and peaceful protesters being subjected to violence and abuse by those who were ostensibly hired To Protect And Serve. This is not a pleasant read, but it is a necessary one, I think.



Semper Augustus by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, March-April) (excerpt)

Synopsis: In a future United States, automation technology provided by alien visitors has made large numbers of people unemployed, scraping for survival outside of wealthy enclaves where the rich live in luxury and plenty. A gifted young woman who has grown up poor is given the chance to join the wealthy people, but after a while her enjoyment of her new situation sours, and, realizing that she really wants to change things for the poor, she joins an underground rebellion.

What I thought: Well, this one certainly went somewhere I wasn’t expecting. This story explores themes of class inequality and how extreme one’s actions in the fight can go before becoming just as bad as the system one is fighting, and questions of how far an individual must go, and what sacrifices must be made, to stand up for what is right. This story may especially appeal to those who enjoy explorations of contact between aliens and humans.



The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn, Tor.com Publishing [Robin Hood Stories #1] (excerpt)

Synopsis: It has been close on two decades since Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends, and they have settled down to a peaceful domestic life with the villagers they protect. But good King Richard is now gone, replaced by his bad brother John – and not everyone is willing to let the past be the past. When the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood. And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

What I thought: This is a fast, enjoyable tale of Robin and Marian and their children, trying to make a good life in England, with the Hood long in the past. The Synopsis of this novella makes it sound as though Robin and Marian are the main characters, but it is their three children who are the protagonists and heroes of this little adventure. There’s not length enough for a big story – but what’s here is worthwhile.

The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn, Tor.com Publishing [Robin Hood Stories #2] (excerpt)

Synopsis: The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III. The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley – son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian – only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man’s life, and carrying out daring escapes.

What I thought: This follow-up to The Ghosts of Sherwood stands alone, but is better enjoyed having read the first. The author has compressed the 17-year reign of King John down to 5 years in order to better suit the narrative, but the result is a good story of young people coming into their own and becoming adults with distinct personalities, in the course of a satisfying adventure about good people taking care of each other. I’ve never found Robin Hood stories to be particularly compelling, but the vivid prose left me feeling as if I was seeing the surroundings and colors and textures for myself. This story is a bit of freshness and a great change of pace from the recent flood of Lovecraft and fairytale subversions.



Mystery Road by Kevin Lucia, Cemetery Dance (excerpt) (novelette of 16,700 words, so within the +/- threshold for Hugo Novella)

Synopsis: One day, while riding his bicycle to shoot baskets with his best friend, a teenager comes across a side-road he doesn’t recognize, curving away into the woods. Intrigued, he rides down this unmarked road and encounters something both wonderful and quietly terrible, something that forever changes his understanding of the world…

What I thought: Even though I have almost nothing in common with the narrator, I really enjoyed this story. It is sad and just slightly creepy in a goosebumps sort of way, but it’s also hopeful and satisfying.



Of Them All by Leah Cypess (F&SF, September-October) (small excerpt from author’s tweet)

Synopsis: A baby princess cursed by the fairies with conditional beauty grows up to be an angry, bitter young woman who has never been loved for who she really is. But when she is finally given the possibility to have what she wants most, the price will be her beauty and the power it gives her. After so many years, how can she give up what is now an integral part of her identity, in exchange for what will be only partial happiness?

What I thought: I’m really not a fan of fairytale retellings. And yet I very much enjoyed this story, which combined elements from numerous folk and fairy tales into something rather original and made me actually care about the protagonist. This is a must-read for those who like fairytale subversions, but even those who don’t care for them may enjoy this story.



The Fourth Island by Sarah Tolmie, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: Huddled in the sea off the coast of Ireland is a fourth Aran Island, a secret island peopled by the lost, findable only in moments of despair. Whether drowned at sea, trampled by Cromwell’s soldiers, or exiled for clinging to the dead, no outsiders reach the island without giving in to dark emotion. But now the dark forces of this unattainable island begin to affect the real islands nearby.

What I thought: This is a very different sort of story – I guess I would call it a fabulation. It blends descriptions of daily life on the remote Aran Islands with the myth of the uniquely-identifiable knitting patterns attributed to Aran sweaters (also known as jumpers or ganseys) and a mystical fourth Aran island which is populated with people who have become lost – either physically lost, or lost in despair – to create a tale which is magical but heartbreaking. There’s not really much of a story here – but I liked it, because it is so very different from this year’s other novella offerings.



Come the Revolution by Ian Tregillis (Fantasy and Science Fiction, March-April) [The Alchemy Wars] (1/2 hour video reading by the author) (novelette of 16,549 words, so within the +/- threshold for Hugo Novella)

Synopsis: A mechanical woman is born on a magical assembly line, into a life of painful eternal servitude. Though she and her fellow mechanicals have intellects and emotions and unique personalities, they have no free will. Every moment of their lives is spent obeying their human masters’ bidding, lest they suffer terrible pain. The more she learns about the world, its cruelties and kindnesses and her place in it, the more she yearns to change it.

What I thought: I really enjoyed the Alchemy Wars trilogy, and this prequel is just as good. It’s a great entrée to the series for those who haven’t read it yet – providing the setup for the later books, enhancing understanding of the events in them, and exploring the ethics of creating beings who can think and feel, but then constraining them with programming which suppresses their free will, turns them into slaves, and punishes disobedience with severe physical pain.



Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Courtship by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s, July-August) (no excerpt) (16,673 words)

Synopsis: The AI City Manager’s contract is about to end, and in order to prove its worth (and save its own life), it concocts a matchmaking project to decrease the city’s divorce rate and increase its residents’ happiness. But there’s obviously something very wrong with its compatibility algorithm: it’s matched up two wildly-different people who each already have fiancées.

What I thought: This is a feel-good story which explores themes of individual choice and finding purpose and meaning in one’s life. There’s some nice worldbuilding here backing up the familiar loathing-turning-into-love story. Recommended for anyone who could use an uplifting ending right now.



Drowned Country by Emily Tesh, Tor.com Publishing [Greenhollow #2] (excerpt)

Synopsis: Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, and he does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea – a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, the previous Green Man, who still loves him despite their estrangement.

What I thought: I enjoyed the first installment in this series quite a bit, and though this sequel does not quite live up to the first, I really appreciated that the author took the story in a different direction and introduced new plot elements and players to the existing characters, while further exploring the themes of failure and redemption. Fans of speculative fiction based on myths and folklore may especially enjoy this.



Burning Roses by S. L. Huang, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: Rosa, also known as Red Riding Hood, is done with wolves and woods. Hou Yi the Archer is tired, and knows she’s past her prime. They would both rather just be retired, but that’s not what the world has ready for them. The two must join forces on a quest that’s a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality.

What I thought: This story is a blend of Western fairy tales and Chinese myths, with the characters developed somewhat differently from their original forms, subverting expectations. It’s enjoyable for its portrayal of a pair of older women friends who’ve been damaged by life and who’d rather be relaxing, but instead take up the former hero roles of their younger selves as best as they can – because someone has got to do it, and it looks as though they’re the only ones available. Recommended for those who enjoy folktale/fairytale subversions.



Draiken Dies by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog, September-October) [Andrea Cort / Draiken #6] (excerpt) (Previous installments in Draiken’s adventures: Sleeping Dogs, The Soul Behind the Face, Blurred Lives, A Stab of the Knife, The Savannah Problem)

Synopsis: This is another installment in the continuing adventures of a far-future espionage operative who, after a long career, instead of retiring to enjoy the fruits of his high-paying but brutal job, has decided that his previous employer needs to be wiped out for its evil work in mind control on the galaxy’s populace. This one follows his recently-acquired associate and companion, as she hangs out on a backwater hellhole planet for seemingly no reason – but of course, there is a reason, which eventually becomes apparent, and it’s tied to the goal of that vengeance.

What I thought: I am a huge fan of the works in the author’s Andrea Cort / Draiken universe. Each of these stories can be read as a standalone, but appreciation is definitely enhanced by reading all of them. Like previous entries, this is a twisty mystery where things are not what they seem to be, and after numerous twists, it’s only when the pieces slot into place that the brilliance of the plotting becomes apparent. Content warning for discussion of sexual assault, torture, physical violence, and a high body count.



Last Stand in Lychford by Paul Cornell, Tor.com Publishing [Witches of Lychford #5] (excerpt)

Synopsis: There are changes in the air, both in Lychford and in the land of fairy. The magical protections previously employed by the town are gone, and the forces of darkness are closing in – both figuratively and literally. Can the town’s witch and pastor save their community, and… well, the world…?

What I thought: This finale features all of the series’ previous main characters and villains in a showdown where the stakes are the humans – and the very humanity – of Lychford. It’s a satisfying but not earthshaking conclusion which introduces an appealing new character, leaving room for further adventures.



The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky, Tor.com Publishing (Overdrive excerpt)

Synopsis: When a woman with perfect memory sets out to solve a riddle, the threads she tugs on could bring a whole city crashing down. Her search for the truth puts at risk the God-King who made her, and his other servants will do anything to stop her.

What I thought: The story here is a series of chapters consisting entirely of dialogue, each by a secondary character speaking to the protagonist whose dialogue and thoughts we do not get to see/hear/read, but some of which can be inferred by things the secondary characters say. It’s clever, but requires the dialogue to be a bit clunky and artificial in order to convey the protagonist’s missing dialogue. The worldbuilding is interesting, but I found the solution to the mystery to be a bit of a letdown; nevertheless, I think this novella is well worth reading.



Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County by Derek Künsken (Asimov’s, July-August) (excerpt)

Synopsis: A young girl from a poor district of China grows up to be a savvy programmer and entrepreneur who pioneers sentient AIs programmed to help alleviate poverty, create equality and real justice, and institute a post-scarcity system which provides food, shelter, education, and healthcare to all.

What I thought: Each section begins with an extract from a fictional scholarly work on AIs; these are a bit dry, but the story itself is well worth reading. In addition to the post-scarcity plot, where people become free to contribute in the ways suited to their nature (whether socially, technologically, or artistically), there’s a good subplot here about people with mental disabilities and the value they provide to society, and of individuals learning to be better people. Coming back from this fictional world to the real one may break your heart.



Not This Tide by Sheila Finch (Asimov’s, January-February) (excerpt)

Synopsis: In the current day, an elderly woman prepares to attend a prize ceremony. During the WWII London blitz, a skilled gunner stationed in a Mausell Fort in the Thames estuary and a young girl at home in London each experience numerous visitations by a strange companion, whom they soon realize no one else can see.

What I thought: Eventually their storylines intersect, and we find out what they all have in common – and why. The WWII scenes are especially vivid, given that they are from the author’s own personal recollections. This is a sad story, but also a hopeful one.



Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire, Tor.com Publishing [Wayward Children #5] (excerpt)

Synopsis: When one twin last departed from Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she was carrying the body of her deranged sister – whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice – back to their home in their portal world. But now that twin is herself carried back into the school: something terrible has happened to her, which only her friends at the school are equipped to help her overcome.

What I thought: This is a direct sequel to Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Every Heart a Doorway, and tells what happened to Jack and Jill after they returned to their portal world. It turns into a dangerous adventure for all of the Wayward Children when they choose to step through the door to the Moors to help their friend Jack make right the things which are now terribly wrong. There is a good subtheme here on what it’s like to live with gender dysphoria or body dysmorphia, melded with another portal adventure in the author’s characteristic vivid and accessible prose. Those who are not ardent fans of the series will not have their minds changed by this entry, but those who are fans of these novellas will enjoy the continued adventures of favorite characters.

Filer comments:
Lace: Probably my favorite since the first one? Ties together the first and second well.
Nina: I really enjoyed the previous book featuring, so it was great to see her again. Christopher and Cora are here too, as well as two characters from the very first book. The story explores the Moors a little further, as the group has to seek out aid from a faction that was only briefly mentioned in Sticks and Bones. There’s also a pretty strong trans-positive message here, since Jack experiences dysphoria when Wvyy sbepvoyl obql-fjvgpurf jvgu ure, naq zbfg bs gur bgure punenpgref dhvpxyl haqrefgnaq jul fur’f fb qvfgerffrq. Wvyy’f obql znl or irel fvzvyne gb uref, ohg vg’f abg uref, naq vg’f gnxra nf n tvira gung gur fbyhgvba vf sbe ure gb trg ure cebcre obql onpx, abg whfg gb “nqwhfg gb gur obql lbh unir.”



Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Solaris (excerpt)

Synopsis: On a not-too-distant-future Earth, the global climate has been wrecked, leaving most of the landmasses parched and desolate. Most of the wealthy have fled up the space elevators to luxury ships they’ve built in the sky, leaving the rest of humanity to scrape for food and water, maintaining the solar power grids the best they can in order to provide a survivable environment.

What I thought: The worldbuilding here is pretty interesting, but I found the teenaged characters and the story less than compelling. It’s worth sticking it out, though, as the plot does come together nicely in the end. Fans of speculative climate fiction may enjoy this.



Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis, (Asimov’s, November-December / Subterranean Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: A young woman’s holidays are an endless series of elaborately-awful meals cooked by her one-time stepfather’s latest bride for a loose assemblage of extended-by-marriage family, enduring her step-grandmother-thrice-removed’s endless rhapsodizing about Christmas in the 1950s, and the sneering condescension of her beautiful, popular stepsister and latest handsome pre-med or pre-law boyfriend. But this Christmas is different: there’s a mystery hidden in grandmother’s memories, and the doctor boyfriend wants her help – not her stepsister’s – in figuring it out.

 
What I thought: This is very much a Connie Willis holiday story, with the usual elements of her stories: comedic mixed messages leading to misunderstandings, a mildly-malicious antagonist, a bit of a mystery which gets solved, and a happy ending. This is the sort of thing you will enjoy if you enjoy this sort of thing. If you’re not a Willis fan, this won’t change your mind, but if you need something cheerful and uplifting, this may be just the ticket.

 



Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold, Spectrum Literary Agency [Penric #8] (excerpt)

Synopsis: Bastard’s Eve is a night of celebration for most residents in the canal city of Lodi – but not for sorcerer Learned Penric and his Temple demon Desdemona, who find themselves caught up in the affairs of a shiplost madman, a dangerous ascendant demon, and a very unexpected saint of the fifth god. (This novella falls between “Penric’s Fox” and “Penric’s Mission” in the internal chronology of the Penric & Desdemona tales.)

What I thought: This is another enjoyable entry in the Penric series, though entirely predictable; I had the mystery figured out very early in the story. There’s no world-shaking storytelling going on here, and you really need to have read the first couple of Penric novellas for this one to make sense – but if you have enjoyed the other ones, you will enjoy this one. Recommended for those in need of a feel-good story which doesn’t ask too much of the reader.



Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: A small-town librarian witnesses a murder at his local deli, and what had been routine sleep paralysis begins to transform into something far more disturbing. The trauma of holding a dying girl in his arms drives him out of his own body. The town he knows so well is suddenly revealed to him from a whole new perspective. Secrets are everywhere and demons fester behind closed doors. Worst of all, he discovers a serial killer who has been preying on the area for over a century, one capable of traveling with him through his dreams.

What I thought: I enjoyed this story well enough, but didn’t feel particularly moved by it or engrossed in it. It reads a bit like the worldbuilding setup for an RPG – or perhaps more like an excerpt of a full-length novel, rather than a full-fledged story on its own – and I felt detached from the characters. There’s a bit of commentary here on the human tendency to voyeurism, and whether that is a good or a bad thing. Fans of paranormal horror may enjoy this.



Prosper’s Demon by K. J. Parker, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: The unnamed and morally questionable narrator is an exorcist with great follow-through and few doubts. His methods aren’t delicate but they’re undeniably effective: he’ll get the demon out – he just doesn’t particularly care what happens to the person. But when the possessed is the world’s greatest genius, creating a work which will inspire the ages, he has to choose the lesser of two evils.

What I thought: I’ve been a big fan of the numerous other works I’ve read by this author, but this one felt rather flat to me; I think largely because the other protagonists have had some conscience and heart, and this one has absolutely none. This novella has the author’s usual cleverness and surprise ending twist, and readers who’ve enjoyed Parker’s other works will probably enjoy this one.



Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: In 1915, The Birth of a Nation cast a spell across America, swelling the Klan’s ranks and drinking deep from the darkest thoughts of white folk, providing the power to open a portal for monsters from another dimension. They plan to bring Hell to Earth. But even Ku Kluxes can die. Standing in their way is a group of resistance fighters with both real-world shooting and fighting skills and magical perceptions and weapons. Can they stop the Klan before it ends the world?

What I thought: Despite its Lovecraftian monsters, the scariest part of this story is recognizing just how little has changed for BIPOC Americans in the last century in terms of the treatment they receive. This is a grim but rewarding story which explores the themes of inequality and revenge – and recognizing when the one who has been fighting the monster is on the verge of becoming the monster.

Filer comments:
Bonnie McDaniel: I read somewhere that a history degree is the SF writer’s secret weapon, and Clark proves that here. This is a richly imagined stew combining the racist movie The Birth of a Nation, Gullah-Geechee culture (including the titular ring shouts, which are fascinating), Lovecraftian monsters called Ku Kluxes which reside in human suits in the 1922 Klan, feeding on their hate, and the young African-American woman with a magical sword who hunts them. I thought his novella The Black God’s Drums was good, but this is better. This will be on my ballot.
Contrarius: Lots of action; set in 1920s Georgia, it’s about KKK members becoming actual monsters and the black women who hunt them. Thematically, it’s more-or-less about not becoming the thing that you’re fighting against.



The Palace of Dancing Dogs by Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s, January-February) [Arkwright] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: This story follows the events that occured in “Escape from Sanctuary” (November/December 2019). Humans discover that, contrary to what they’ve all believed – that humans exist solely on Sanctuary – there are humans living on the other side of the planet, where they have integrated into the Cetan society (albeit as serfs and tutors, not in positions of power). What’s more, Cetans on this side of the planet clearly have a more advanced and technological society than those who live on Sanctuary.

What I thought: Readers who haven’t read the earlier installments will likely be lost, but those who’ve been following along may enjoy this expansion of the Cetan culture and the story of humans stranded on Tau Ceti e.



Sea Change by Nancy Kress, Tachyon Publications (excerpt)

Synopsis: After a flawed GMO food caused a disastrous number of deaths, governments have outlawed the GMOs which would help in the burgeoning climate and food supply crises. An activist who is part of an underground group of scientists conducting illegal food research to find the key to rebuilding the worlds’ food supply discovers that there’s a mole in their organization and must find out who it is… at risk is the possibility of an even more devastating climate collapse.

What I thought: This novella raises some interesting questions about choosing the lesser of evils in a crisis – but the plot seems rather disjointed, and I found it really difficult to like the protagonist, who seems to be more enamored of being involved with radical causes than invested in the actual worthwhile causes themselves. Recommended for those with an interest in speculative fiction about climate change.

Filer comments:
Xtifr: I thought it was both a fascinating and nuanced look at some complex topics, and a pretty good story. I might have wished for a little more character growth, but there was decent character depth for such a short work, so I can’t complain too much.



Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard, Subterranean Press [Xuya Universe] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A scholar from a poor background ekes out a living as a tutor to the child of a rich family, while hiding the illegal artificial memory implant she manufactured as a student. A mindship which is a notorious thief and a master of disguise is drawn to the scholar’s integrity, and together they search for the solution to a murder mystery which threatens to destroy the scholar’s life, even as they must come to terms with their developing relationship and the devastating secrets they’ve kept from each other.

What I thought: As with several of the previous stories set in this universe, this one is a murder mystery in which humans and sentient mindships interact, and while the worldbuilding is merely a background for that interaction, the author adds new details to those of prior entries. There’s an erotic subplot here which will please those who enjoy that in their SFF; I don’t, but I skipped past that so it did not interfere too much with my enjoyment of this story, which explores the themes of coming to terms with past mistakes and betrayals, and learning self-forgiveness.



Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar, Neon Hemlock Press (Overdrive excerpt)

Synopsis: A mighty General returns home from her conquests, to discover that the sister of her heart, become Queen, is a greedy, selfish tyrant under whose rule the kingdom has greatly suffered: many are hungry and homeless, while the palace has accumulated riches which could have – should have – been used to improve life for all of the nation’s people.

What I thought: Without any magic of her own, the General must gather allies and fight to overthrow her beloved and make the kingdom a righteous place for all of its citizens. This story touches on themes of “found family,” and the struggle to choose between doing what one wants to do and doing what one knows is the right thing to do – even when one is tired, worn-down, heartbroken, and seemingly has nothing left to give.



The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan, Subterranean Press [Seven Swords #2] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A landless one-time king, now called Pilgrim but known to history as the Ravager, has survived the fall of the Execration – an event that set him on a path to find the legendary Seven Swords. Guided by sorcery, he makes a journey to claim the mythical blade known as the Kraken’s Tooth. Aided by three companions, he ventures into the city’s perilous underbelly to secure a prize guarded by ancient magics, cursed spirits, and lethal traps. But can he survive an ultimate ordeal crafted from his worst nightmares?

What I thought: Like the previous entry in this series, this is an enjoyable but unremarkable quest story with some interesting worldbuilding and some commentary on how people of good intent can still do bad things, but a plot which is straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons RPG. Fantasy fans who participate in role-playing games may especially enjoy this.



The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold, Spectrum Literary Services [Penric #7] (excerpt)

Synopsis: When a mysterious plague breaks out in the army fort guarding the capital, Temple sorcerer Penric and his demon Desdemona are called upon to resurrect Penric’s medical skills and solve its lethal riddle. In the grueling days that follow, Pen will find that even his magic is not enough to meet the challenges without help from dedicated new colleagues and the god of mischance.

What I thought: This is an enjoyable (and eerily on-point, for 2020) story of Penric and Desdemona using their skills to determine the cause of an epidemic and put a stop to it before the human toll becomes too high. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but fans of the series will enjoy this latest installment; however, new readers would likely be missing too much backstory for it to really make sense.

Filer comments:
Contrarius: It was an engaging read, but IMHO it wasn’t a standout in the series.



Looking Glass by Christina Henry, Ace Books [a collection of 4 new novellas in the Chronicles of Alice] (excerpt)

Lovely Creature

Synopsis: In the New City lives a girl with a secret: she can do magic. But when she appears in her new blue dress for the City holiday, everyone keeps slipping up and calling her “Alice”: apparently she has an older sister she’s never known, and something awful happened to Alice…

Girl in Amber

Synopsis: Alice and Hatcher are hungry and exhausted, and just looking for a place to rest. Alice has been dreaming of a cottage by a lake and a field of wildflowers, but while walking blind in a snowstorm she stumbles into a house that only seems to be empty and abandoned…

When I First Came to Town

Synopsis: The boss of a boy who fancies himself the best fighter in the Old City tells him he has to battle the fearsome Grinder, a man who never leaves his opponents alive. And the stakes are much higher than just a rich purse: the freedom of a sad, abused young woman…

The Mercy Seat

Synopsis: There is a place hidden in the mountains, where all the people hate and fear magic and Magicians. It is the Village of the Pure, and though Alice and Hatcher would do anything to avoid it, it lies directly in their path…

What I thought: These stories all stand alone, but are intertwined with shared characters who originally appeared in the author’s novels Alice and Red Queen – which I have not read, but there are references to past events, and reading those books, while not strictly necessary, would undoubtedly enhance appreciation of these stories. I thought Lovely Creature was the most enjoyable, since it requires only a passing familiarity with Alice in Wonderland to provide context; the other 3 stories feature two characters who are the protagonists of the novels. Girl in Amber is sheer horror; When I First Came to Town is early backstory which precedes the novels; and The Mercy Seat is a classic witch persecution story transplanted to this universe.



An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker, but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case. But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon. The lawyer must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it’s too late.

What I thought: This is an updated version of Gb Xvyy N Zbpxvatoveq, set on Jupiter’s moon Europa where the oppressed/enslaved minority are A.I.s, with a bit of an additional ethical twist. It’s worth reading, but I didn’t find the world or the characters to be sufficiently-developed to be really satisfying, and the ending felt a little too predictable.



The Factory Witches of Lowell by C. S. Malerich, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers who’ve just made things even harder, the mill girls of Lowell, Massachusetts, have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line.

What I thought: This is a revenge fantasy which highlights the appalling real-world conditions faced by factory workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a bit of commentary on consent and the individual costs paid in order to secure gains for the greater whole. It made me sad knowing how much of the employee-welfare gains described in this story have been erased by the 21st century domination of Big Business, but fans of revenge fantasies may nevertheless find this a cathartic experience.



Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic setting where the U.S. has become a frontier presided over by an authoritarian government which strictly regulates “acceptable” thought and behavior, a stowaway hides in the roving Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her – a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend with whom she was in love, and who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

What I thought: For those who enjoyed the motley crew/found family of the author’s River of Teeth novellas, this one provides more of the same. I was put off by a main character who, despite the love of their life having just been executed, immediately commences to spend the entire story mooning over someone else, and a story which involves way more mooning and way less actual plot than I prefer in my books. Which is too bad, because the premise here is really good, if not entirely original: roving Librarians who are supposedly spreading the approved authoritarian literature across the country, but who are instead spreading materials to foment a secret rebellion, and spiriting endangered persons away to safety in free territories. Those who enjoyed Karen Memory and its focus on the main character’s romantic relationship will likely enjoy this one too, as it bears many similarities to that story.



Maelstrom by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, (Asimov’s Sep-Oct / WMG Publishing [Diving Universe] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: “Recreating the last days of a lost ship proved a difficult writing challenge for me. I lost my father on the Gabriella. I needed to know what, exactly, happened to him. I did not learn that. Not exactly. But I learned more than I had known before. I have spent years researching, interviewing, and organizing the information into something that resembles a narrative. We will never know what those final days were like for the crew of the Gabriella, but we have enough information to make an educated guess. Which is what this is.”

What I thought: Although this novella is ostensibly set in the Diving Universe, it contains no locations, characters or technology from that series. It’s a mystery story featuring a mysterious, horrendously-destructive storm phenomenon that might be natural or technological, and the complete disappearance of a spaceship which fell into one such storm. This is more of a thought experiment than a story, in that it reads like a writer doing worldbuilding setup which can then be used in a story. It’s rather dry and didactic, and the characters are very much backgrounded. So this novella may be of interest to Rusch’s Diving Universe fans, or to readers who enjoy exploring science fiction worldbuilding, but those who are looking for a story with a more engaging plot and well-defined characters would probably do well to look elsewhere.



Shine in Pearl by Seanan McGuire, in A Killing Frost, DAW Books [October Daye] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: This story tells the early history of the relationship between the two Daoine Sidhe (fae known for their bloodwork and illusions) Patrick and Simon, and Dianda the Merrow (fae who live underwater, known to humans as “mermaids”), and how they almost broke apart before finally getting together.

What I thought: Whereas many of the bonus novellas which have been included with the October Daye novels are sequels and should not be read before the larger story which precedes them, this one is a prequel to A Killing Frost and may actually enhance the novel for readers who have missed or forgotten parts of earlier installments. But as with most of the later entries in this series, readers who haven’t read earlier novels will likely be lost here – though the descriptions of the fairies and the denizens of the undersea can be enjoyed by anyone.



Eyetooth by Chris Willrich (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 8, 2020) [Gaunt and Bone] (full text)

Synopsis: The poet and the thief are on a quest to steal the ultimate weapon. But what they get isn’t a weapon, it’s a key forged by angels, and assassins and sorcerers are after it, too. And when they find the matching lock, what’s on the other side may not be something they want to take on.

What I thought: I recommend first reading the synopses of the Gaunt and Bone trilogy for background, and/or reading the previous related novelette “The Sword of Loving Kindness” (Part 1Part 2) This is a quest adventure where good and bad, right and wrong, are perhaps not so far from each other. Humor in SFF is hard to do, and while this story has its moments, it feels to me as if it is trying just a bit too hard. Recommended for fans of Terry Pratchett, or of the previous stories in this series.



The Tindalos Asset by Caitlín R. Kiernan, Tor.com Publishing [Tinfoil Dossier #2] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A once-valued government agent now rots away, drug-addled and suicidal, in a rundown apartment in a Los Angeles winter. Then her former boss, the Signalman, comes calling. He wants her to help stop the latest apocalypse, so he scrapes her up off the pavement, gets her clean, and sets out into battle with her one last time. The time has come to face her fears and the nightmare forces that almost destroyed her.

What I thought: I thought that this was better than the second entry in the series, Black Helicopters, but perhaps not quite as good as the first, Agents of Dreamland. It’s a non-linear narrative which jumps around a lot between past, present, and future, which makes it more difficult to understand exactly what is going on. In the end, the various plot threads mostly come together for an understanding of what has happened and when. As with the previous entries, this is very much a Lovecraftian work, and may be appreciated by fans of that universe. Content warning for body horror, graphic violence, severe depression, suicidal ideation, drug abuse, and the effects of PTSD.



Driftwood by Marie Brennan, Tachyon Publishing (excerpts: “Driftwood”, “A Heretic by Degrees”, “The Ascent of Unreason”, “Remembering Light”, “Smiling at the End of the World”) (short novel of 44,600 words, so within the +/- threshold for Hugo Novella)

Synopsis: Driftwood is a strange, ever-changing place of slow apocalypses, where remnants of nearly-destroyed worlds appear out of the Mist at the rim, are gradually pushed farther toward the center by newer arrivals, eventually crumble into mere neighborhoods in the inner Shreds, and are pulled inexorably towards the center – like stars into a black hole – where they are destroyed in the Crush. What remains are those who have migrated to newer worlds out of curiosity or self-preservation – and the descendants of various races who have interbred until many of them share the same physical characteristics in their giant melting pot.

What I thought: This is a fix-up mosaic novel of previously-published stories and new material set inside a framing story. A long-lived member of a long-destroyed world – he is known as “Last” – has traveled amongst the worlds of the Driftwood for many generations, learning their languages and customs and histories, and serving as a guide to those whose quests he is willing to accept. Now it is rumored that Last, at long last, has finally died, and these are the Canterbury Tales-ish stories of a diverse group of people whose lives he has touched, at a memorial service to remember and honor him. Readers looking for a full story will likely be disappointed, but those who are intrigued by vignettes of imaginative worlds will find plenty of that here.



Bound by Sorrow by Maurice Broaddus (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 26, 2020) (full text)

Synopsis: A warrior stands before a Wise One who is soon to die, listening to stories which are intended to explain his destiny as their successor.

What I thought: This is a nested story-within-a-story-within-a-story, using elements of religion, myth, and folklore from different African cultures (Yoruban, Akan, Soninke), dealing with themes of loss, grief, and regret. (There’s also an irreverent Greek character who is not quite as out-of-place as he might seem, since the Greeks had contact with Africa back in the Bronze Age.) I enjoyed the richness of the cultural details, but I kind of felt that this couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a story, or a GM’s worldbuilding guidebook for an RPG. There is a lot of recitation of background information and attributes for various gods and divine beings, and the framing story wasn’t much of a story in itself. Recommended for those who are interested in African culture, or who would like to read a quest fantasy done from a fresh perspective.



If It Bleeds by Stephen King, Scribner [a collection of 3 new novellas and the titular short novel]

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (excerptaudio excerpt)

Synopsis: A teenager who has spent much of his childhood reading aloud and doing odd jobs for a wealthy retired man wins several thousand dollars on a lotto ticket the old man gifted him. He buys a brand new iPhone for the man in thanks, and teaches him how to access the internet. When his elderly friend dies, the young man gets comfort from secretly putting the phone in the coffin. One night, in need of reassurance, he calls the phone and leaves a message – and is shocked when he receives a text which appears to be from the old man.

The Life of Chuck (excerpt)

Synopsis: An enigmatic billboard reading “39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS, CHUCK!” inspires a man to find out the story behind it. In three chapters in reverse chronological order, the story comes together and the answer is revealed.

Rat

Synopsis: A writer who has managed one acclaimed short story, but whose attempts at novels ended badly, has instead followed a career in academia. But his latest concept is very promising, so he retreats to an old family cabin in the woods in order to finish the novel. Once again, things start to go badly wrong – bad storms set in, and he gets really sick – and in desperation, he strikes a terrible bargain with a rat in order to get rid of his writer’s block.

What I thought: There is a certain predictability to much of King’s fiction (often with a trace of unpleasant laddishness in his male characters), and that is the case with these stories. The plot beats here are familiar ones, but fans of King or of supernatural horror will enjoy these novellas.



The Seep by Chana Porter, Soho Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: A fifty-year-old trans woman’s life is irreversibly altered in the wake of a gentle – but nonetheless world-changing – invasion by an alien entity called The Seep. Through The Seep, everything is connected. Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible. And when her wife decides to move on to a new existence, it leaves her devastated and alone.

What I thought: This science fantasy requires a huge amount of willing suspension of disbelief (If a mysterious all-powerful substance has gotten into the very earth and the groundwater, how have people still managed to avoid ingesting it? Why would doctors be needed, if people can just wish themselves healthy?). Readers who are willing to do that will get an exploration of the importance of lived experiences – no matter how painful they may be – and whether a post-scarcity society – where people are essentially immortal and can be, have, and do anything they want – would really be a utopia.



The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. A young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

What I thought: I eagerly picked up this novella, having really enjoyed the author’s Hugo-winning dragon novelette “If at First You Don’t Succeed” and the novels Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen. This is the story of a group of people at loose ends who have banded together as smugglers, as a way to survive a war of oppression – but a couple of the band’s members are far more than they seem. I think, however, that there are cultural tropes in play here which are lost on me. The jacket copy mentions “wuxia”, but detailed scenes of martial artist fights in the story don’t really interest me, and the story is mainly 150 pages of a bandit gang bickering childishly like siblings, which I find utterly unappealing. However, Wuxia fans may enjoy this.



Finna by Nino Cipri, Tor.com Publishing (excerpt)

Synopsis: When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago. To find the missing granny, they will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship?

What I thought: There are some fun, imaginative ideas in here, if you can get past the first half of the book, which is 70 pages of non-stop bickering between two people whose relationship broke up the week before. Dear gods, the bickering. Once you get past that, the rest of the story is a short but enjoyable adventure, but it wasn’t enough to wash the bad taste out of my mouth from all of the bickering. Readers who find catharsis in the re-hashing and reconciliation of old relationship wounds may find this story satisfying.

Filer comments:
Lace: I’m writing this as one of the millions staying at home through COVID-19, and the rest of you should read it too. This was a hug I needed right now.
Lace: A great story about navigating the hardest stage of a relationship, and of course a great setting. Looking forward to the sequel.
Kyra: This one pretty much won me over when, in the second chapter, gurer jnf n purncyl cebqhprq pbecbengr ivqrb rkcynvavat jung gb qb jura n jbezubyr bcraf hc va lbhe sheavgher fgber.
Bonnie McDaniel: +1 to Lace and Kyra above. Wry and funny, with good characterization. I can just imagine the US equivalent of the Swedish store – definitely Walmart, and others – pulling a stunt like that.



Sweet Harmony by Claire North, Orbit Books (excerpt)

Synopsis: Over the years, because of negative social experiences, a young woman gradually signs up for payment contracts for more and more nanos to enhance her looks and health. Then she starts a relationship with a man who insists that she must be perfect, and he commits her – and her financial resources, of course, not his – to more and more expensive upgrades to make her into the perfect person he wants her to be. But there’s a limit to how many upgrades a body can take…

What I thought: This is a horror novella about the dangers of doing anything and everything to try to maintain one’s appearance – the equivalent of facelifts, tummy tucks, liposuction, dental veneers, etc. – but accomplished by expensive, painless nanomachines which alter the body’s attributes for maximum health, fitness and beauty. As long as you can pay. And pay. And pay. And if you can’t pay – well, then it’s back to the trash heap for you. This is a pointed commentary on our current appearance-focused society, but it’s an extremely grim one, and I don’t recommend it to anyone but the most mentally-healthy readers, because it is brutal. Readers who have ever had to deal with crushing debt may find this one too hard to bear.



Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon by Oghenechovwe D Ekpeki (Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo) (free EPUB, MOBI, PDF, DOC)

Synopsis: This is the story of a small village in a post-apocalyptic setting where most of the world has been blasted with radiation and most of the global population killed. The village was protected by the gods and the people in it are not only healthy, but have manifested magical powers.

What I thought: The background on Yoruban gods and the magic system are interesting. Unfortunately, the story is full of rampant sexism, repeated sexual assault, rape justification and apologism, suicide, and women being blamed – and accepting blame – for things which are not their fault. All of this is in service to the incorrect belief that one man, or one woman, with a few dozen members of the opposite sex, can create and maintain a viable population. I get the impression that one of the intents of the story is to illustrate that sexism, rape, and victim-blaming are bad. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t succeed at that. It just ends up being a story about a lot of people behaving in awful ways and one woman managing to get away from it.



Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones, Tor.com Publishing (Overdrive excerpt)

Synopsis: One summer night, a tight-knit group of friends finds a mannequin. The friends take turns dressing the mannequin up and posing him in various places around town. It’s a fun diversion for a while but, like most diversions, “Manny” the mannequin is soon tossed aside and mostly forgotten. But when a freak accident takes out one of the friends soon after their final prank is pulled, one of them begins to wonder if some kind of supernatural event is underway – some terrible retribution for a sin he believes that he and his group share.

What I thought: This is not an SFF story, it is a psychological horror/slasher story of one person’s descent into madness. Its main characters are several teenagers whose thoughts and behavior are very different from mine when I was a teenager, and I found it pretty hard to relate to them. If you enjoy psychological horror/slasher stories, this novella may be for you. If you’re looking for science fiction or fantasy, you won’t find it here. Content warning for graphic murder scenes.



Power to Yield by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld, Issue #166, July 2020) [Eren] (full text)

Synopsis: A young woman becomes a trainee in The System, a form of psychic power which enables her planet to maintain its independence in the wake of a governmental overthrow. The problem is that use of The System causes great pain to those who wield it, and trainees must learn how to accept and deal with that pain – at the hand of their sadistic trainer.

What I thought: I DNFed this story hard. The psychic power in this story is really just a McGuffin to enable a lengthy foray into sadomasochism. Readers who think that sounds interesting might well enjoy it.


According to Kovac by Andrew Bannister, NewCon Press [Robot Dreams #1] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: An agent of the Mandate is assigned to a world whose inhabitants have no idea that their whole society is an experiment. When a young pregnant woman turns up at his door fearing for her life, he is drawn into deadly intrigues which soon make it apparent there are agencies at work on the world that have no right being there…


The Adventure of the Naked Guide by Cynthia Ward, Aqueduct Press [Conversation Pieces #73 / The Blood-Thirsty Agent #3] (excerpt)

Synopsis: The earth is hollow – a trackless primordial wilderness. It’s also the new front in the Great War. Here, the British spy Lucy Harker – Dracula’s daughter – must locate Britain’s missing vampire slayer, her own mother. Then she’s separated from her lover, the vampire spy Carmilla, and captured by Germany’s most brilliant scientist, the sinister Dr Krüger. Now, Agent Harker may discover her most dangerous opponents are on her own side.


The Beasts of Lake Oph by Tom Toner, NewCon Press [Robot Dreams #4] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: Long ago, a precious object was lost between the stars. The Ghipheth tunnels are 258 million years old, and their walls were once lined with Gleam, the most precious substance in the world. When a cave-in exposes two ancient skeletons that defy all rational explanation, Roh is sent to investigate. It soon becomes clear that all is not well amongst the workforce, and there, in the shadow of a carnivorous forest on the shores of Lake Oph, where monsters are said to dwell, he encounters intrigue and danger beyond his wildest imagining…


Byzantine by Holly Messinger (Fantasy and Science Fiction, May-June) (no excerpt)

Synopsis: In a 15th-century fantasy set at the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the last days of Constantinople, an ifrit (demon) tells the story of the last Emperor and the sultan who is demanding his surrender. The ifrit teams up with a physician’s young apprentice who has some special powers of his own, and they chart their own rise to power in the turmoil. But which one of them is the user, and which one is being used?


City of a Thousand Feelings by Anya Johanna DeNiro, Aqueduct Press [Conversation Pieces #72] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: The City doesn’t let certain people inside its walls. It’s a place where emotions can become visible, but it flees the approach of a makeshift army who want to enter. Two of the trans women in this army forge a deep, complicated, and at times contentious friendship spanning thirty years. They must deal with not only the City’s literal and figurative gatekeeping, but also other, even more sinister forces that use necromancy against them. As the narrator and her friend’s lives are sundered apart, they must come to terms with what it means to not have a home, and what it means to be queer and aching for such a home.


The Comforter by Mike Allen, in A Sinister Quartet, Mythic Delirium Press
prequel stories: (“The Button Bin”) (“The Quiltmaker”)

Synopsis: A teenager living in a foster home has come to believe that she shouldn’t exist, but when she starts receiving strangely threatening notes at school, she searches for the author, hoping to get an explanation of who she really is. This is part of an existing horror series featuring Lovecraftian-inspired monsters which have the ability to incorporate all organic matter into their being (or what they refer to as the “Quilt”).


Cradle and Grave by Anya Ow, Neon Hemlock Press (Overdrive excerpt)

Synopsis: In the distant dystopian irradiated future, when a professional scout for scavengers is employed for an unorthodox run into the Scab – a ruined urban-zone badly infected by heavily mutagenic phenomena called the Change – she finds herself embroiled in a conflict she didn’t expect.


Deep Learning by Ren Warom, NewCon Press [Robot Dreams #2] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: Unit 5709 is a success – a new high-line model of robot that works precisely as intended. The military are thrilled, and 5709 is soon deployed on the battlefield. But all is not as it seems; the robot prefers to be called ‘Niner’ and is unique, functioning only because of an undetected glitch. Every further model fails.


Dispersion by Greg Egan, Subterranean Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: In a world not quite our own, every living thing is born into one of six discrete “fractions” that are incompatible with – and often invisible to – each other. These fractions have coexisted peacefully for centuries, but now a disease has appeared that seems to drag the infected parts of the body into a different fraction. The effects are devastating. Individual victims suffer painful, protracted deaths. Entire communities turn against one another, and a state approaching perpetual war takes hold.


The Flight of the Whisper King by Bradley P. Beaulieu, Quillings Literary Services [Song of Shattered Sands] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A street thief with a knack for manipulating shadow, in a heist from the city’s vacant garrison, stumbles across an injured Kestrel, one of the elite swordswomen who serve the twelve kings of Sharakhai. Knowing that the woman will be killed by her gang members, the thief helps her to escape through a secret door into the city’s catacombs. The swordswoman, near death, is healed – but is eventually given a mission to kill the same street thief who saved her, resulting in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.


Flyboys by Stanley Schmidt (Analog, July-August) [Night Ride and Sunrise #2] (excerpt)

Synopsis: This is a sequel in the setting of the author’s serialized novel Night Ride and Sunrise, and is full of spoilers for that novel. The humans from Earth and the inhabitants of the world they tried to colonize have ended their conflict with a peace treaty. One of the main proponents of the treaty attempts to defend that peace with the help of his son, in order to prevent the humans from being killed by members of their society who refuse to accept the peace settlement.


Follow the Lady by Seanan McGuire, in Imaginary Numbers, DAW Books [InCryptid] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: Following the events of That Ain’t Witchcraft, a young woman and her friends, fresh from saving the world, are now heading cross-country from Maine to Oregon when they run into one of the band’s legendary lost Grandma.


The Gobblin’ Society by James P. Blaylock, Subterranean Press [Langdon St. Ives] (excerpt)

Synopsis: Following a protracted legal battle, Langdon St. Ives’ wife, Alice, has come into full possession of the house left to her by her late uncle, a man with a number of bizarre proclivities. Heartened by this good fortune, Alice, Langdon and their surrogate son Finn prepare to take possession of the house. But things spin out of control, and in the course of an event-filled few days, St. Ives and his cohorts will encounter smuggling, mesmerism, kidnapping, cannibalism, and murder.


In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson Bennett, Subterranean Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: In the desolate flats of west Texas, two brothers purchase an old motel with the intent of renovating it and making a fortune off the population surge brought about by the fracking boom. But there are signs that the motel might have been more than just a motel back during the wildcatter days of the last oil boom. As they live and labor in its dusty halls, fighting the crawling feeling that they are not alone here, they begin to wonder: what happened here, so many decades ago?

Filer comments:
Bonnie McDaniel: I wanted to push this because the print book is a limited Subterranean Press edition (it’s gorgeous, as all Subterranean Press books are, but most people probably won’t want to pay what I paid for it) and I’m not sure how much traction it’s gotten. This creepy, disturbing novella is a ghost and monster story, with the ghost being the Pugh brothers’ dead great-uncle, and the story exactly what happened at a motel in west Texas he ran back in the seventies. But the true monster of the story is (white) men’s entitlement and toxic masculinity and what it makes men do. The prose is simple and straightforward, as befits the blue-collar people Bennett is writing about, but the sense of dread steadily climbs throughout.


Iterations by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown, PS Publishing [Kon-Tiki Quartet #4] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: Two hundred and fifty years have passed since Kon-Tiki I set off for the stars, and Earth is a very different place. The ravages of climate change have taken their toll, and humankind’s depleted population struggles to survive at primitive, subsistence levels, with the majority ruled over by a desperate elite who cling to power by utilizing old and failing technology. But all this is about to change when returnees bring with them the means of restoring equality to the human race – though there are some who will stop at nothing, including murder, to maintain the status quo.


Ivory’s Story by Eugen Bacon, NewCon Press (audio excerpt)

Synopsis: In the streets of modern day Sydney a killer stalks the night, slaughtering innocents, leaving bodies mutilated. The victims seem unconnected, yet the Investigating Officer is convinced the killings are anything but random. The case soon leads her into places she never imagined. In order to stop the killings and save the life of the man she loves, she must reach deep into her past, uncover secrets of her heritage, break a demon’s curse, and somehow unify two worlds.


King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly, Subterranean Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: The circus is in town, and on the planet Boon, that’s big, potentially riotous news. The delicate, decaying political balance maintained by the cloned human grands at the expense of the uplifted dog and cat populations is in danger of toppling under the influence of mysterious forces both outer and inner. When the clone descendant of one of Boon’s ancient dog leaders is recruited by the ringmaster cat, he’s knowingly going against everything his family and class believes in.


Living in Wartime by R. Garcia y Robertson (Asimov’s, May-June) [Amanda James / Cole the Younger] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: This story follows the events that occurred in R. Garcia y Robertson’s previous story “Commander Amanda” (November/December 2019). Following the war, a teenaged war hero has to go back to her life and finish up high school, but then is called upon to battle slavers in order to rescue the Princess and a couple of children.


Moontangled by Stephanie Burgis, Five Fathoms Press [The Harwood Spellbook #4] (excerpt)

Synopsis: For just one moonlit, memorable night, Thornfell College of Magic has flung open its doors, inviting guests from around the nation to an outdoor ball intended to introduce the first-ever class of women magicians to society… but one magician and one invited guest have far more pressing goals of their own for the night. The magician is determined to win back the affections of her secret fiancée, a rising politician who has her own plans to nobly sacrifice their betrothal for her beloved’s sake.


Moral Biology by Neal Asher (Analog, May-June) [Polity] (excerpt)

Synopsis: A first-contact team visits an alien planet where the aliens have a defense system meant to keep anyone from crossing in either direction.


Murder By Other Means by John Scalzi, Audible / Subterranean Press (audio excerpt)

Synopsis: Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers – licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you – so you can live. But times are tough, and more and more the Dispatcher finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, he discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense… and it just may implicate him.


No Man’s Land by A. J. Fitzwater, Paper Road Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: A woman joins the Land Service and is sent to work on a remote farm, one of many young women who filled the empty shoes left by fathers and brothers serving in the Second World War. But she finds more than hard work and hot sun in the dusty North Otago nowhere – she finds a magic inside herself she never could have imagined, a way to save her brother in a distant land she never thought she could reach, and a love she never knew existed.

Filer comments:
Kyra: An evocative novella with poetic prose. I appreciated the intriguing characters, the magical story, and the look at a slice of New Zealand history.


Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard, Jabberwocky Literary Agency [Dominion of the Fallen] (excerpt)

Synopsis: Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit. But when the dragon prince brings home his brooding and ruthless husband for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. One is thrilled by the murder investigation; the other, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic. It’ll take all of their diverse skills with knives and diplomacy to navigate this one – as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship…


Paper Hearts by Justina Robson, NewCon Press [Robot Dreams #3] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: Are humans to be trusted with the important things: the structure of society, governing their own lives, meting out justice, etc, or would an AI be better suited to the job? If an AI really cared about humanity, would it be willing to sit back and watch us bumble along, making a mess of things, or would it step in to help us, to make things better? Despite the best of intentions, could such intervention ever work?


The Properties of Rooftop Air by Tim Powers, Subterranean Press [Anubis Gates] (excerpt)

Synopsis: In a 19th century London slum, the beggar guild is the last resort of the down-and-out. The Guild master is rumored to maim his people to make them more effective mendicants, and when a dimwitted beggar is summoned by the master, he fears the worst. But he learns that the intent is to greatly increase his intelligence, by grafting his rudimentary mind into the group mind shared by a gang of alchemically-hatched homunculi – two-inch-tall men employed for subtle thefts and assassinations. He yearns to be able at last to think clearly, understand conversations – read books! – but there’s a cost.


Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlen, Neon Hemlock Press (Overdrive excerpt)

Synopsis: Mixi fronts the Mangy Rats, a motley found family of queers, crust punks and werecoyotes. Mixi and their band know they’re gonna win the Battle of the Bands final showdown, no matter what it takes. But to make that happen, they’ll also have to contend with poser goths, murderous chickens, and a bullshit corporate takeover ruining the best bar in town.


Red Dust by Yoss (Translated by David Frye), Restless Books (excerpt)

Synopsis: On the intergalactic trading station William S. Burroughs, profit is king and aliens are the kingmakers. Earthlings have bowed to the aliens’ superior power and weaponry, though the aliens kindly allow them to do business through properly controlled channels. A positronic robot detective navigates both worlds, human and alien, keeping order and evaporating wrongdoers. But nothing in his centuries of experience prepares him for a fugitive Cetian perp with psi powers.


Sacred Summer by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Aqueduct Press [Conversation Pieces # 75] (no excerpt)

Synopsis: In the empty halls of a house on the edge of the woods, a dancer faces the aftermath of a career-ending injury and subsequent divorce. Twenty years earlier, on the land where her house would be built, two boys died violently and mysteriously while recording a music video for their band, leaving one survivor. Something sleeps in the woods beyond the house, and when the dancer finds the last musician, it will start to wake… this is a visceral examination of dance, music, and obsession told entirely in verse.


Selkie Summer by Ken MacLeod, NewCon Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: A woman has several reasons for taking a holiday job on the Isle of Skye – her keen interest in marine biology for one – but she’s also determined to escape Glasgow and put distance between herself and a failed relationship with a fellow student. The last thing she’s looking for is romance, let alone with a Selkie, but…


Serpentine by Phillip Pullman, Penguin Random House Children’s [His Dark Materials] (excerpt)

Synopsis: After the world-altering events of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Pan find themselves irrevocably changed. In this sequel, Lyra and Pan will journey to the far North once more, hoping to ask the Consul of Witches a most urgent question.


The Storm by Paul Kane, PS Publishing (no excerpt)

Synopsis: It started off like any other day, but for the tourists, staff and workmen at Willerton Castle it will end in terror. Because a storm is coming, a storm like nothing anyone has ever seen. A storm that will herald an attack by creatures this world has never encountered before. Will any of them survive?


Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews, Nancy Yost Literary Agency [Innkeeper Chronicles] (excerpt)

Synopsis: Every winter, Innkeepers look forward to celebrating their own special holiday, which commemorates the ancient treaty that united the very first Inns and established the rules that protect them, their intergalactic guests, and the very unaware/oblivious people of planet Earth. During the holiday, Innkeepers must open their doors to anyone who seeks lodging, and all they can do is hope is that the guests will conduct themselves in a polite manner – but of course that’s too much to ask.


An Unkindness by Jessica P. Wick, in A Sinister Quartet, Mythic Delirium Press

Synopsis: The Princess Ravenna, concerned that her brother no longer seems to be his happy self, follows him and discovers that he has been bewitched into making trips into the Land of Fairy, where terrible rituals may mean the end of the Prince.


Viridian by Amanda J. McGee, in A Sinister Quartet, Mythic Delirium Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: In a modern retelling of “Bluebeard”, a grieving woman moves from Texas to Vermont, where she meets, falls in love with, and agrees to marry a handsome, wealthy man. But he has a terrible secret, hidden behind a locked door in his opulent mansion – and she may be the next victim.


Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling, Neon Hemlock Press (excerpt)

Synopsis: A powerful shipping magnate controls her dying city with trade deals and secrets. But when mysterious sickness sparks death and obsession, all leading back to her, she retreats to her estate, amidst paranoia and poisonous secrets, intent on rooting out this plague before it destroys everything she has built.


15 thoughts on “2020 Novellapalooza

  1. A quick rot13 function for browsers can be created by saving a shortcut in your browser’s Bookmarks / Favorites bar, and then replacing the shortcut link with the text string found here.

    You can then highlight / select the rot13’ed text and click the shortcut, which will change the highlighted text in your browser display back to its unencrypted form.

  2. This is nice work. The old line “writing about music is akin to dancing about architecture” does an injustice to how difficult it is to write about writing. What you’re doing here is hard work, writing objectively and neutrally about so many stories without getting repetitive or palate-bland, or losing your enthusiasm, while still offering your reader a useful service. T’ain’t easy.

    Anyway. I wanted to appreciate you.

  3. Clicking to follow the discussion (I loved Down Among the Sticks and Bones by the way)

  4. Thank you for this! I’m finding novels a struggle of late; novellas seem to be right about the length to hold my pandemic focus. Many library holds have now been placed.

  5. Brown Robin: This is nice work. The old line “writing about music is akin to dancing about architecture” does an injustice to how difficult it is to write about writing. What you’re doing here is hard work, writing objectively and neutrally about so many stories without getting repetitive or palate-bland, or losing your enthusiasm, while still offering your reader a useful service. T’ain’t easy.

    It is really hard. I have gotten much better than when I first started, but I feel that I still have a ways to go to really be good at it.

    The Novellapalooza was borne out of a couple of things:

    1) the thought “I’ve read all of these books as part of a personal challenge! It’s kind of a shame not to make what I’ve experienced available to other readers who may find it useful or of interest!”

    2) my frustration at doing Hugo finalist review roundups and having to read hundreds of so-called “reviews” in order to find a small number of reviews which actually engage with both the good and bad parts of the work. Most of what’s available on the internet these days consists of:
    a) “I loved this!” without any real analysis of the work, and
    b) reviews which list only the good things about a work, because the people writing them want to keep authors sending them free books, and/or they are trying to develop a network of author friends to support them in their own attempt to develop a career as an author.

    I don’t find either of those things helpful to me as a reader who is trying to find things to read which will challenge me and which I will enjoy.

    The hardest part of doing these mini-reviews is that I am well aware that I have very particular tastes:
    • I don’t care for Lovecraftian works, vampires, or zombies
    • fairytale retellings and portal fantasies don’t do anything for me
    • I’m not a fan of horror, especially not blood and gore
    • I love having sex, but I don’t want to read sex scenes in my SFF
    • I enjoy SFF works in which characters have relationships, but I don’t want to read relationship works which happen to have SFF in them (and the difference between these is very much “I know it when I see it”)

    It’s impossible for me to be neutral and objective, but I’ve been trying to balance out my very particular tastes by asking myself about each work: which parts of this work succeeded for me, and which failed? what are the themes here? who would want to read works in this style, or about these themes? are there elements here that people should know about, in case something is a “no-go” area for them?

    The Hugo eligibility posts and the Novellapalooza and other reviews I do are my way of saying “thank you” to all of the people here for the great community and your wonderful feedback on books which helps me decide what to read. (Sometimes I look back at my list of Books Read prior to File 770 and wonder, what the hell was I thinking, reading that book? 😀 )

    So the appreciation from you and other Filers for the things I post is very much valued by me.

  6. Also a thanks from me, this is very impresive work. Of course there is an old story that some reviews were good for someone, because even if he knew that the reviewer hated the stuff, the person searched for, it helped him or her to find it.
    Also the complete objective person doesn’t exist.
    For not liking Portalfantasy I found the one McGuirereview for Wayward Children pretty fair. And two of the stories I could have read I say thanks for the warnings, that doesn’t sound one bit like I would enjoy it.

    Short last sentence: Wow, respect for your work.

  7. StefanB

    Objectivity can be accomplished by anyone. It isn’t easy, but we let ourselves off the hook by saying we can’t. If we made more effort we might have fewer problems right now.

  8. @Brown Robin: You are in my opinion confusing logic and beeing rational with beeing objective. The first points yes, perhaps the second even there no.
    And we are talking about taste in fiction. We all have likes and dislikes. And someone who is open about likes and dislikes is imho as a reviewer better than others.
    For example I don’t like grimdark (with a few execptions) that much, military science-fiction is probably my last favorite genere, have not a forgiven a few writters, etc.
    I am not into short fiction, that is very documentary, and I like to have maincharacters, who have a moral compass.
    All this at the top of my had.
    Next show me any reviever who is neutral and objective completly, I don’t think someone like this exists.

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  10. @JJ – Thanks for doing this! I’m still trying to fill some slots in my novella nominations. And this will be very helpful!

    This year has been tough for me reading-wise. I find myself not able to engage in anything dark, or horror, or gothic, so the usual recs lists have been of limited help.

  11. Lorien Gray: This year has been tough for me reading-wise. I find myself not able to engage in anything dark, or horror, or gothic, so the usual recs lists have been of limited help.

    Yeah, 2020 was a real horror show for everyone, I think, and it’s not surprising that a lot of people are looking for something positive and uplifting.

    I’ve pointed out several feel-good stories above, but if you have a question as to whether any particular novella of the ones I’ve read might be too grim or depressing, let me know.

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