2018 Novellapalooza

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

By JJ: 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, and 46 of the novellas published in 2017 (though a few of those were after Hugo nominations closed).

The result of this was the 2016 Novellapalooza and the 2017 Novellapalooza. I really felt as though I was able 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.

The success and popularity of novellas in the last 4 years seems to have sparked a Golden Age for SFF novellas, with Tor.com, Subterranean Press, NewCon Press, PS Publishing, Book Smugglers, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tachyon bringing out a multitude of works, along with the traditional magazines Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog – so there are a lot more novellas to cover this year. By necessity, I’ve gotten to the point of being more selective about which ones I read, based on the synopsis being of interest to me.

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). My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

I thought it would be helpful to have a thread where all the Filers’ thoughts on novellas are collected in one place, as a resource when Hugo nomination time rolls around. Which of these novellas have you read? And what did you think of them?

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. Short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included.

Please feel free to post comments about any other 2018 novellas which you’ve read, as well.

(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)

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43 thoughts on “2018 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. Great work yet again, JJ.

    Here’s some thoughts on ones that don’t have a comment from me already.

    Umbernight by Carolyn Ives Gilman – possible I didn’t give this enough attention, but basically several of the characters annoyed me and I ended up skipping through to just see what happened.
    Artificial Condition by Martha Wells – MURDERBOT!
    Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield – on goodreads I wrote “An enjoyable little novella (c28,000 words), but very much half of an unfinished story – the sequel is coming next year – that means I’m not really sure whether or not the story really stands up to the interesting premise.”
    The Barrow Will Send What It May by Margaret Killjoy – an enjoyable sequel if you’ve read the first one. Roadtripping mystical anarchists deal with some Weird Stuff in a small town.
    Between the Firmaments by JY Yang – on GR I wrote “It’s an interesting setting and a fun, quick story driven by the characters. Mind you, the ending is a little sudden, and very much deus ex machina – but maybe that works for a story of gods and their fates.” I should add that there’s something a bit haunting about the characters and their relationships.
    The Martian Simulacra by Eric Brown – really not very good, and I like Holmesian pastiches
    The Warrior Within by Angus McIntyre – I can see something good coming out of this setting, but the MC seemed far too generic tough-guy for me.

  3. One that isn’t listed above – The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum by Cynthia Ward

    From my Goodreads review:

    This is a sequel to last year’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess which made the Locus recommended list. That book was good pulp fun with Lucy Harker (British intelligence agent with a small vampirism problem) dispatched on the Titanic by Mycroft Holmes to safeguard some plans stemming from captured Martian war machines….you get the idea. Anyway, that story had her running into Countess Karnstein (sometimes known as Carmilla, but now going by Clarimal…) and so this new volume opens several years later during WW1. Lucy has been parted from Clarimal by the call of duty, the latest of which is bodyguarding Winston Churchill as he takes up a post on the Western Front amid reports of German werewolves, hollow earth expeditions, and the like. So, again, good pulpish fun to be had but this time mixed with a bit more meditation on the conflict, Lucy and Clarimal’s relationship, and so on. There’s a bit of tension between the swift-moving adventure, the portrayal of Lucy as being somewhat “of her time” in her support for her country, and the desire to show the consequences of war on Europe’s civilians. This shows up most in the rather pulpish German super-scientist whose handling brings to mind the misuse of Ludendorff in Wonder Woman.

    Overall, good pulpish fun whose flaws are brought on by trying to stretch the conventions a bit – and that’s no bad thing.

  4. Does everyone wishing to nominate for the Hugos have either their membership to Worldcon 76 in San Jose or Dublin in 2019?

    Because if you don’t, you need to purchase at least a supporting membership to Dublin by MONDAY 31 December!!

  5. Wow, JJ, this gave me a flashback to my fanzine-publishing days, and how thrilled I’d be when a big meaty article would show up in the mail. I’d have loved to have published something like this — even though I’d have had to retype the whole thing on mimeo stencils.

  6. Mark-kitteh, thanks for those additional comments; I’ve added them to the main post.

    cmm, thanks for the reminder: a permalink to this post has been added under the “2018 Recommended SF/F Page” page linked at the top of File 770, so that Filers can refer back to it at their leisure.

    Jeff Smith, it’s a good thing that the days of stencils are loooooooong gone, because I wouldn’t be doing that for Mike, much as I love File 770. 😉

  7. @Jeff Smith
    I grew up with a manual typer that had a stencil setting. Getting a computer with a word processor was a big step up even from the electric typer I had (and I still have one of those – with a parallel port, and non-standard character codes).

  8. I just compiled a list of indie and small press SFF novellas we featured at the Speculative Fiction Showcase this year, but apparently the number of links tripped the spam filter.

  9. Thank you for adding those, Cora!

    And thanks for your links, Steve (no relation) — I feel ever so much better, having read your more articulate summation of what were pretty much my impressions about Black Helicopters.

  10. Read 19 Novellas this year. My favorite and I’m stunned to not see mentioned here yet, is Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing, which is brilliantly devastating. I hope it doesn’t get overlooked because it came out so early in the year.

    (My review on my blog of it is here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2018/02/scififantasy-novella-review-only.html)

    EDIT: AH I see now it was listed as a novelette. God the Novella definition is tricky, cuz I’d think it was too long for a Novelette.

  11. garik16, it’s 16,825 words — which means that it could fall within the +/- 20% Hugo Novella leeway of the 17,500-word lower limit, but honestly, with Novella competition so stiff, I think that the people who love it would be better off nominating it as a Novelette.

  12. Just a quick correction: I haven’t read “Every River Runs to Salt,” by Rachael K. Jones. I think you mean to mark me as having recommended a different story, but I’m not sure which one. (I’ll update the recommendations I made in March 2018.)

  13. Here are all 22 novellas I recommended that are eligible for the 2019 Hugo Awards:

    Artificial Condition,” by Martha Wells, Tor Publishing

    Murderbot heads to the RaviHyral Mining Facility to learn the truth about why it went rogue and killed its own clients many years ago.

    Great characters, great action, interesting setting

    The Barrow Will Send What It May,” by Margaret Killjoy, Tor Publishing

    A group of young, anarchist, demon hunters come to a town where some of the dead are walking.

    Interesting Characters, Good Action, Cool Plot

    Beneath the Sugar Sky,” by Seanan McGuire, Tor Publishing

    Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children caters to children who went to a portal world, came back, and can’t cope. No one planned on the arrival of a child born in a portal world, much less one asking for help—from a dead person.

    Sweet, Exciting, Funny, and Moving

    The Black God’s Drums,” by P. Djèlí Clark, Tor Publishing

    The Civil War left the US in pieces, and New Orleans is a free city. A teenage cutpurse overhears a plot by Confederate officers to steal a powerful magic weapon, and she sets out to stop them.

    Rich World, Great Characters, Lots of Action

    Bubble and Squeak,” by David Gerrold and Ctein, Penny Publications

    As a tsunami bears down on LA, James and his fiancé Hu struggle to escape before it hits.

    Exciting, Scary, Moving, and Fun

    The Emotionless, in Love,” by Jason Sanford, Beneath Ceaseless Skies

    Ancient nanotech controls a few humans to enforce harsh anti-technology rules on a reluctant population. Colton escaped its control at the cost of losing all emotion, and he struggles to be accepted by a caravan that’s trying to evade some of the restrictions.

    Good Characters and Action in a Great Setting

    Exit Strategy,” by Martha Wells, Tor Publishing

    Muderbot’s recent exploits targeting GrayCris have hurt the company enough that it has kidnapped Murderbot’s friend, Mensah, thinking she was behind it all. It has to rescue her, even though this may be a trap.

    Great characters, Good Conclusion to a Great Series

    The Expert System’s Brother,” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor Publishing

    Young Handry’s life changes forever when he’s accidentally soaked in a “severing” mixture, which alienates him from the people in his village.

    A fascinating world and a plot with lots of twists and turns

    Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” by L.X. Beckett, Spilogale Inc

    A young musician/writer’s attempt to recover his online social standing leads him to dangerous people whose idea of “art” can be life-threatening, especially to the desperate.

    A Gripping Story in a Fascinating Setting

    Girl with a Curl,” by R. Garcia y Robertson, Penny Publications

    Amanda James, unlikely survivor of a battle with slavers, finds herself in command of the largest remaining battleship in the Jovian system. But can she stay in command?

    Spectacular and Surprising

    Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach,” by Kelly Robson, Tor Publishing

    Minh works restoring ecosystems destroyed during the collapse, and she’s intrigued by an opportunity to restore the Tigris/Euphrates valley by using a time machine to gather samples from 4,000 years ago.

    Great Writing, Cool Setting, Strong Characters

    In the Lost City of Leng,” by Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo, Penny Publications

    In 1933, Doug quits his job to go on an expedition to Antarctica to kill the Great Shoggoth and retrieve the priceless treasures of the lost city of Leng.

    A Very Different Twist on Lovecraft’s Story

    Jewel of the Heart,” by Matthew Hughes, Spilogale Inc

    Baldemar is just a young henchman for the mage Thelerion, but he’s the only one who can wear the Helm of Sagacity, and right at the moment, they’re doomed without its help. But that help comes at a price.

    Great Sword & Sorcery Fun

    Joyride,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Penny Publications

    A Fleet training ship passes close to a “scrapheap” of abandoned ships, and Teenage Nadim, leads a group of his friends to “borrow” a scout ship and check it out.

    Moving story in a fascinating setting with lots of action

    The Persistence of Blood,” by Juliette Wade, Clarkesworld Magazine

    Selemei’s push for a law to allow women to stop having children when it risks their health upends the complex caste-based society she lives in.

    Solid Characters in a Rich, Complex World

    Rogue Protocol,” by Martha Wells, Tor Publishing

    Murderbot’s hunt for evidence against the GrayCris corporation leads it to a supposedly abandoned terraforming facility it thinks was a cover for illegally extracting alien remnants.

    Great Protagonist, Thrilling and Moving Plot.

    Shadowdrop,” by Chris Willrich, Beneath Ceaseless Skies

    Action, Adventure, Tragedy, Victory—with Lots of Cats.

    Action, Adventure, Tragedy, Victory—with Lots of Cats.

    A Stab of the Knife,” by Adam-Troy Castro, Penny Publications

    Two series meet in this crossover episode where ex-assassin Draiken’s search for justice is interrupted when he’s arrested by ace prosecutor Andrea Cort.

    Great characters, great dialogue, great worldbuilding

    Starship Mountain,” by Allen M. Steele, Penny Publications

    Jeremy Crowe hunts for a missing nobleman’s daughter in a human colony on Tau Ceti e reduced to flintlock-era technology.

    Fun characters, interesting setting, solid plot

    Taste of Wrath,” by Matt Wallace, Tor Publishing

    In which The Forces of Evil try to destroy our favorite caterers-to-the-supernatural and find they have their plates full

    Saved the Best for Last—Deeply Satisfying

    War Cry,” by Brian McClellan, Tor Publishing

    After more than thirty years of war, the enemy is getting close to the capital city. Teado’s little team of rangers are holding them off, but they’re starving, and running out of everything, so a chance to ambush an enemy food convey is something they can’t pass up.

    A Great War Story with Just a Bit of Fantasy

    We Ragged Few,” by Kate Marshall, Beneath Ceaseless Skies

    When Reyna kills a rot hound, she knows her dead sister’s prophecy is coming true, and there’s not much time to convince the rest of the hold they all need to flee.

    Strong Characters, Intricate Plot, Lots of Surprises

  14. Farewell, Doraemon by A Que (Clarkesworld)

    (I often don’t get on with the Chinese translated stories in Clarkesworld so take with with a pinch of salt) I didn’t dislike this story but didn’t find much to recommend in it either. It’s a leisurely slice-of-life tale with copious flashbacks that paints a good portrait of small village life in China, and very slowly reveals a SFnal element. That element doesn’t really add much to the story and is probably the weakest part of this tale, which is a decent character portrait but lacks any sense of urgency.

  15. Mark-kitteh: I often don’t get on with the Chinese translated stories in Clarkesworld so take with with a pinch of salt

    After having read several translated Chinese SF works over the last 3 years, I have come to the conclusion that the style of those stories (flat characters, dry narration which reads like the diary of a not-terribly-interesting person) is just not my thing, which is why I didn’t try this one.

  16. Great, great info, JJ and all.

    I’ll check through the list and add whatever vellas I’ve missed to the Goodreads Hugo novella listopia in the next couple of days. I also encourage everyone to add vellas and/or vote there — the more exposure, the better! –> 2019 Hugo novellas .

    And JJ, my apologies! I completely forgot that you were waiting for me to figure out those two vella files we were talking about. I’m too tired to want to try messing with them tonight, but if you’re still interested I’ll give em another try tomorrow!

  17. JJ & Mike,
    Could really long articles like this one have a lede and then the rest behind the cut? Like the video articles?
    Just a suggestion

  18. BravoLimaPoppa3: Could really long articles like this one have a lede and then the rest behind the cut? Like the video articles?

    It does, and I did, but that only works on the main page of the blog. I checked, and WordPress’ support site specifically says that this does not work on the actual post page.

    However, I did just find their support post on how to paginate, so I’ve implemented that, and broken this post into 4 pages. Let me know if this works for you.

  19. Contrarius: my apologies! I completely forgot that you were waiting for me to figure out those two vella files we were talking about. I’m too tired to want to try messing with them tonight, but if you’re still interested I’ll give em another try tomorrow!

    No worries, it’s a busy time of year, and I figured you were doing the holiday thing. But yes, if you’re up to trying to sort it out, I’m still interested. 🙂

  20. The problem with translated stories, for the most part, is that magazines have already paid for the translation (at ~ 50 US-cents per word) before they get to read them. Since they normally pay ~10 US-cents per word for stories, that makes these very expensive stories, so they have to print them, no matter how bad they are.

    The problem with Chinese stories in particular is that, until recently, nearly all of the natively written stories were very low quality stuff aimed at small children. Chinese SF/F fans almost exclusively read stories translated from English and turned their noses up at the local product. That means that even something that was professionally published in China (even award winning stories) might well be unfit for publication in the US.

    The big exception is Ken Liu’s translations; he reads Chinese stories for pleasure and translates ones he likes, submitting them like any other stories. (I.e. they can get rejected.) His translations–and his alone–score as well or better than stories written by native English speakers. No surprise; they’re the only ones subject to the same editorial standards.

    That said, I think there’s been some improvement in the past year or so. I asked Neil Clarke about that, and he told me that he thought the people he worked with in China had, over time, learned what he’s really looking for in stories. If he can get his folks in China to apply the same editorial standards he does in the US, he’ll have accomplished something pretty major.

    I also chatted with the Chengu folks at WorldCon 76 in San Jose, and they told me that although there was still a great deal of kid stuff being produced, the government had been subsidizing production of more “Western-style” SF (not fantasy though–the government disapproves of that), and that that meant there was a lot more adult-quality stuff being produced than before.

    And an acquaintance who’s a professional translator told me that there’s a great deal of discussion in China right now about things like “show don’t tell” and what sort of principles in general make for excellent stories. (He was specifically talking about SF/F writers.)

    So although the general quality of translated Chinese stories has been pretty poor, I do think it has been improving (I actually recommended a few this past year), and I’m optimistic that it’ll get much better over the next few years.

  21. Thanks for that interesting information, Greg, that makes some things more clear. I thought that What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear had an interesting idea, but that it wasn’t developed in a way that would have made the story a great one, and I thought that it read almost like a children’s story (and it was completely a tell-don’t-show story), so I was really mystified by all of the acclaim it was getting.

  22. re: “Kingdom of Needle and Bone”

    (from my Goodreads review)

    I suspect this will prove to be a marmite of a book: people will love it or hate it. I definitely don’t hate it, but I’m not quite sure I love it either.

    This is not the fault of the author. This book is typical Mira Grant–well researched, thought out, and written. The POV here is omniscient, an unusual choice for this kind of book (previous Grant books have been first- or tight third-person narratives), but the reason why becomes apparent at the end. What’s also apparent from the get-go is the author’s dislike (to put it mildly) of the anti-vaxx crowd, and the reader soon realizes this is a thought experiment of what could happen if they get their way.

    I don’t think it’s one of her best, but YMMV.

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  24. The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed (self-published, about 28,000 words)

    This is set in an alt-history Edwardian Britain, with bits of newer technology creeping in here and there, in the aftermath of a continental war. Lt. Benjamin Braddock has returned home from that war haunted by the massacre of his unit and the death of his commanding officer, Wickersley. He feels a strong connection to his late commander and ends up being the only person prepared to stand up at his funeral and say the expected words – Wickersley being widely blamed for the massacre of his men. For some reason this leads to the Wickersley family taking him under their wing, and possibly is also the cause of his late commander deciding to haunt him…
    This is very much a character piece, Ben is recovering poorly from the traumas of war but does have some friends to help him. It successfully gives a sense of melancholy and wistfulness as Ben works through the sense of comradeship he had in the military versus the inevitable trauma and loss it caused. The haunting adds verisimilitude for Ben’s emotional journey but perhaps little else. The alt-history element could be very interesting but there’s no real exploration of it at all – and to be fair that’s not the thrust of the story.
    Overall I enjoyed this but felt like the component parts weren’t adding together as successfully as they ought to. I’d happily read more by the author though.

  25. Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire), Subterranean Press (excerpt)

    Synopsis: Vaccination and treatment for many diseases have been widely available for years – so much so that the populace has come to take their immunity for granted, and complacency sets in. Then a new pandemic appears, from which even the survivors suffer irrevocable damage.

    What I thought: This is a standalone novella; however, the text hints that there is going to be a sequel. The author has done extensive research in virology, and this shows in the veracity of the details. This is a cautionary tale about not just the dangers of non-vaccination, but of the difficulties in defining an answer to the question: when is it okay, and not okay, for the government to tell people what they can do with their own bodies?

    There are no easy answers here, and this is not easy reading – but there is plenty of food for thought. And the characters are developed enough to make the story feel personal. I’ll be interested to see how a sequel develops this story further.

  26. Compost Traumatic Stress by Brian Koukol, GigaNotoSaurus December 1, 2018 (full text)

    Synopsis: The lone survivor of a combat unit annihilated on an alien planet does penance after the end of the war by cleaning up leftover cartridge brass and clearing the alien vegetation, supplanting it with flora which is compatible with humans. As he weeds and plants, he flashes back to scenes from the war and how his own actions, or lack thereof, may have influenced the outcome.

    What I thought: This is a really different, interesting story with some unusual and intriguing worldbuilding. The different ways in which PTSD can manifest, and the challenges faced by disabled people, are authentically portrayed by the author, who has spent a lifetime dealing with these conditions. This is a grim story, but it is also a hopeful one, and it is well worth reading.

  27. I don’t really have much to add to what’s already been said regarding The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Umbernight, and everything Murderbot, but will n+1 the recommendations for them.

    Beneath the Sugar Sky

    To me this was the best one so far, mostly because I found the Down Among the Sticks and Bones narrator to be painfully didactic and distracting from an otherwise enjoyable story. Didacticism is not completely absent here but I didn’t find it particularly intrusive, and the narrative was strong and coherent. I think this would probably work fine on its own storywise but you’d lose a lot of emotional resonance without having read Every Heart a Doorway first.

    Binti: the Night Masquerade

    I am hesitant to call deus ex machina without a reread but that’s how Ovagv’f erfheerpgvba felt to me in this volume.

    The Emotionless, in Love

    I liked this a lot and didn’t know it was a sequel until after I had finished it. (And immediately added the prequel to my TBR.)

    Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

    I really enjoyed the first half of this but share other Filers’ frustration with the second half. I’m not sure I agree that it doesn’t have an ending, but what we got wasn’t very satisfying. More broadly, I thought the second half generally was trying to do too much thematically in not enough space; the bit about the younger generation’s attitude towards the older in particular felt underdeveloped. Upon reflection I think the pacing issue is exacerbated because much of the first half is process and worldbuilding and there’s not that much room for surprises until the second half.

  28. +1 to Compost Traumatic Stress by Brian Koukol

    This was a tough read at times but a really strong story.

  29. Yay, I’m glad you took the time to read it, and found it a good story.

    I’m not sure where I happened to see it listed as a 2018 Novella; I think it might have been when I was listing all the Short Form Editor credits (and I think it’s the first novella that GigaNotoSaurus has ever published), but I’m glad that I made a point of finding and reading it.

    Yes, it’s a tough read, but an authentic one and really worth it.

  30. Icefall by Stephanie Gunn, Twelfth Planet Press (excerpt)

    Synopsis: The Mountain on the planet of Icefall holds the mystery to a lost colony and an irresistible, fatal allure to the climbers of the universe – every one of whom has mysteriously died in the attempt to reach the summit – but Maggie is determined to be the first to reach the top. Aisha, once seriously injured in a climbing incident herself, has always supported her wife, trusting that Maggie would always return from her adventures. But no one ever returns from the Mountain.

    What I Thought: This finalist for the Aurealis Award for Best SF Novella is a story of obsession and how it can lead people to make choices which destroy them – but it’s also a story of strange mysteries, and learning to cope with traumatic physical and psychological injury.

    Although this story takes place hundreds, if not thousands, of years from now, when planets all over the galaxy have been terraformed and colonized and the geography of the Earth has long been destroyed, it contains numerous references to 20th-century people, countries, ethnicities, and geographical features, which is incongruous enough to impair suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story steeped in mountain-climbing lore and technical details, with some intriguing futuristic technology.

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