ARB Guide to the ’21 Hugos: Novellas

Jake Casella Brookins


The novella as a form has been growing in popularity for a little while now. While popular genre novels have been subject to various species of bloat—massive wordcounts, sprawling series, or both—the novella offers a complete, novel-like experience in terms of plot, character, and themes, but with the promise to keep it under 200 pages. Whatever else it was, 2020 was a great year for novellas, with dozens of really strong entries—this Hugo slate is a rockstar list.

There’s a few factors at play in the novella’s rise, but I’d be remiss not to point out the influence that the publisher Tor (actually, slightly confusingly, their Tordotcom offshoot) have had in the last decade. Since Tor began actively printing more novellas, and bringing their editorial & marketing powers to the medium, there has been a lot more buzz about SF novellas, and a lot more of them available as physical objects—until recently, novellas were more likely to be restricted to magazines or collections, or perhaps expanded to full novels for printing. In the last five years, Tor.com has accounted for more than half of the Hugo novella nominees; this year, they published all six nominees.

For each of the 6 nominees this year, I’ll give a quick summary, some context, and then a tiny personal review, along with my terribly unscientific guess as to their chances. Enjoy!

***

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

McGuire’s Wayward Children series are framed around a school for kids who went into various kinds of portal fantasies and have a hard time re-adjusting to life in the mundane world; one part magic school and one part “Narniaholics Anonymous”. In this fifth entry in the series, we’re reintroduced to Jack and Jill, twins we met in the first book, when Jack returns to the school to bring allies back to their nightmarish world. The Moors are a pastiche of classic gothic and horror—Frankenstein, Dracula, and Lovecraft most prominently—and the novella plays around a lot with the question of what it means to be a monster. Like previous entries in the series, Come Tumbling Down is notable for including and working through questions of identity along a number of axes. McGuire is a remarkably prolific author (who also writes under the names Mira Grant and A. Deborah Baker), with three previous Hugo wins, including for the first entry in the Wayward series, and a whopping seventeen Hugo nominations to date.

This novella is fun, but not really to my taste: too much of the meaning is deferred to previous or future installments and the source material. It’s a bit Burton-esque, also, and readers’ mileages may vary on that score. I love a good homage, but this feels more like rather broad collage; to do anything but pale in comparison to Shelley or Stoker—comparisons it doesn’t suggest so much as demand—it would need to be doing more than it is. McGuire is incredibly popular and the Wayward books have a solid core audience, so I expect Come Tumbling Down will make  decent showing, but I’d be surprised if this one in particular snagged another Hugo.

***

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Chinese history, this novella follows a historian monk as they catalog the contents of an abandoned royal estate; with the stories told by an old servant, they piece together a secret history of the empress’s rise to power. This is Vo’s first novella; since it came out she has published a companion novella and her first novel, the Gatsby-retelling The Chosen and the Beautiful.

I’ve been comparing Vo to Le Guin a lot, not because their writing styles are particularly similar, but because Vo has that rare combination of an anthropologist’s eye and a poet’s ear. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a quiet, meditative little book, empathetic and observant, landing its most potent revelations with a really effective kind of understatement. And, there’s ghosts and talking birds and weather magic! I don’t know if it will be enough to carry the Hugo vote against all the other superb contenders this year, but this easily gets my nod for the best-written novella of the list, and I am eagerly anticipating Vo’s work in the years to come.

***

Finna by Nino Cipri

Two coworkers—recent exes—at an IKEA-type store are forced to go on an interdimensional adventure when a customer accidentally steps into a wormhole (which is apparently a recurring problem at these stores). Ava & Jules move between various and frequently deadly versions of their own store, fending off strange dangers, venting frustration about their corporate employers, and trying to figure out their post-dating relationship. Cipri has been making a strong showing with short fiction over the last few years; while this is their first Hugo nomination, they’ve had a slew of nominations for other awards, and published a sequel to Finna, Defekt, earlier this year.

Finna is easily the most fun read on the novella list, and its queer protagonists are sympathetic and enjoyable. While its critiques of retail capitalism hit hard, it’s also a quite humorous book, with a dark Sliders-esque goofiness. It’s fairly light compared to the other nominees this year, but I highly recommend it.

***

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Set in 1920s Georgia, Ring Shout follows a team of Black women who are hunting literal demons in the Klu Klux Klan. Mixing several fantastic and mythological traditions, the novella tackles racial prejudice, hate, and trauma in a fast-paced narrative. Another fast-rising author, Clark has received Hugo nominations for two previous novellas and a short story; his first novel came out this year, and Ring Shout has already been tapped for a television adaptation.

Dang, this is good: a wildly impressive book, and a good case study in how the novella as a form can really shine. There’s plenty of complexity and character development here, but it’s a tight, lean story, digging into its heavy themes with some real nuance, and it moves at an exhilarating, swashbuckling pace. I can’t say enough good things about it; extremely strong contender for the award this year.

***

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Starting in 1992 (the year of the Rodney King riots) and extending into an extremely and depressingly plausible near-future, Riot Baby follows two siblings—one developing immense superpowers, the other caught up in the prison industrial complex. Told in a snapshot, fragementary style, the novella has more harsh literary realism than other works on the list this year. Onyebuchi has previously published a number of books aimed at younger readers; he has an adult full-length speculative novel coming next spring.

A truly brilliant work, incandescently angry, channeling “Magneto was right” energy through a Black American lens. It’s less conventionally structured than the others on the list, but its combination of superhero tropes and biting social critique make it a strong contender.

***

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Set in a near-future but technologically and socially regressed Southwestern United States; Upright Women Wanted is a pulp Western story that’s all about queerness, fascism, and resistance. The “Upright Women” in question are the traveling Librarians who supposedly distribute government-approved propaganda, but are actually key players in a resistance movement. Like the other writers on the novella slate, Gailey has been blowing up—this is their sixth Hugo nomination (they previously won a Hugo for fan writing); Gailey has published a handful of fantasy and science fiction novels already, and has previously worked in the alt-Western mode with their River of Teeth series.

This is a lively, action- and idea-packed novella, one that uses traditional Western tropes to attack that genre’s patriarchal and colonial projects. Brave and queer, and holding fast to a kind of youthful energy, this is another novella that feels relevant to the current moment, and I expect it will make a strong showing.

***

That’s it for the novellas! Join me next time as I take a tour through the novelette, short story, and a few other categories. Hugo voting is this week, and the awards will be announced at WorldCon in December.


Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.


Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by an internal pitch among the ARB editors. Review copies were not arranged by ARB; access to some titles was provided by the Hugo Voter’s Packet, which the author had access to through their personal Worldcon membership.

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