Hugo 2019 Novella Round-Up

Collectively, we have a set of stories with clever plots, fascinating characters, interesting settings and well-crafted prose. Individually, I’m not convinced that all of these stories are successful novellas. I don’t mean ‘commercially successful’, I mean that some of the stories didn’t really fit into the space they were delivered in.

Of the six finalists, only two did not fit into a broader series but the extent to which the other four depend on previous books was highly variable. The skill and talent between each of these finalists is obvious, as is the ambition within the stories themselves. I’ve pointed out before that I’ve a soft-spot for heroic failures but my top picks in this category are the novellas that delivered a story that was both entertaining and satisfying.

Top 2

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells [my review] enters the fray with buckets of good-will from fans of the emotionally vulnerable killing machine Murderbot. It is appropriate then that the strongest contender is a similar kind of being, the tea-concocting former war ship aka The Shadow’s Child, the Watsonian protagonist of The Tea Master and The Detective by Aliette de Bodard [my review].

Both are entertaining and thought-provoking space-adventures that stretch are ideas of characters and perspective. I’m not sure I can pick between them. Tea Master currently has an edge because I just read it. I suspect if I re-read Murderbot 2 it would go back to the top of my list.

Middle 2

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark [my review] and Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson [my review] have nothing in common other than “god” in their title. Clark’s novella is the more satisfying of the two, delivering an adventure story in an original steampunkish world. However, Robson’s story is the more ambitious of the two and when it fails, it is because of how much it tries to accomplish in a small space.

Just purely in terms of being ‘a good read’ The Black God’s Drums has the advantage but Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach asks more of its readers and pushes the genre more.

The valiant bottom

Structurally Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire [my review] works as a story but the most interesting aspects of it were done better by the previous two novellas in the series. It is an entertaining and satisfying read if you want to read a children’s portal fantasy pitched at adults.

More ambitious is Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor [my review] but much less satisfying. Either I’m completely out of sync with this story or it isn’t coming together as a whole. Perhaps if I re-read the Binti series again from the beginning the story and the central character would click back into place for me but my experience of the story was just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Even so, it’s a pretty good endorsement of the other finalist that I can list popular and accomplished writers like McGuire and Okorafor last in my list.

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6 thoughts on “Hugo 2019 Novella Round-Up

  1. Your rankings are similar to mind, except that I’d place The Black God’s Drums in the top three with Murderbot and The Tea Master and the Detective. I also rank Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach lower than you do, because it doesn’t really work for me. Lots of good ideas, but it’s overstuffed.

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  2. I’m pretty similar but Black God’s Drums is in my top two instead of Artificial Condition. I really liked AC as well but wasn’t sure how well it stood alone.

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  3. I actually liked Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach the best. I found the post-apocalyptic worldbuilding to be excellent, the incluing deftly done, the characters interesting and believable, and the narrative structure very effective. Also, speaking as someone who’s generally bored by time travel stories, the mystery of how time travel actually works in this story and what that means for the characters–both the ones in the past and those from the future–was an intriguing spin on the trope that really captured my interest.

    The weaknesses that you pointed out in your review are definitely a problem: the rushed and unresolved ending; the opaque motivations of the expedition’s financial backer who had set the entire plot in motion. But the story as a whole is so exciting and thought-provoking that I rate it very highly despite those flaws.

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