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.
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.
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.