Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novella

The Best Novella category this year is dominated by Tordotcom more than ever. Since the publisher started their novella initiative, the popularity of novellas has risen dramatically, not just in SFF fandom in general but also when it comes to my own reading. I used to think of novellas as “not quite novels” for some reason, like they were somehow lesser because they needed fewer pages to tell a story. I have since learned the error of my ways and come to appreciate the novella for the amazing form it is.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

This year, I had already read four out of the six finalists, although one of the unread ones was already on my TBR. The sixth was a book I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been nominated. As I quite liked the latter and didn’t much like the one I had had on my TBR, that just goes to show you that awards ballots are great and can push you to read better books. 🙂


The Finalists for Best Novella

As much as I love Tordotcom and their novellas, they have become so numerous that the quality isn’t as top notch as it was in their first year of the novella initiative. They are still publishing amazing stuff, don’t get me wrong, but there is one book among this list whose appearance on the ballot I just can’t understand. But let’s talk about the individual titles a bit.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark is my clear and absolute favorite. I nominated it myself and I’ve been wanting it to win a Hugo since the moment I finished it. Of course, I first had to read some other finalists but I honestly didn’t expect anything to get much better than this. It’s about a group of women who hunt Ku Kluxes – the very real monsters you turn into when you’ve been part of the Klan too long. What I enjoyed so much about this was the mix of exciting adventure, crazy cool world building, deep characters, and a clear message. And when I say message, please don’t think you’re going to get a “don’t be a racist” lecture in this book (although, obviously, don’t be a racist) but rather that Clark manages to give us sympathetic characters we care about and then shows how unfairly the world treats them. Plus, the monsters are extra cool, there is a magical sword, and I actually cried during one chapter… Yeah, this is an easy number one for me.

It’s been a bit longer since I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo and unfortunately, I didn’t review it here so my memories aren’t as clear as I would like. But I do remember the gist of the story – a young historian finding out the story of the former Empress through stories evoked by common everyday objects. And that story turns out to be how women, even when they are seen and used as pawns on a political chess board, have power if they stick together. A quiet power, sure, but power nontheless. It’s also about finding happiness in the most dire of situations. I remember loving the language of this novella and how slowly, over the course of its pages, an image evolves of the Empress that is quite different from the first idea we have of her. I’d be totally fine if this book won because although I liked the Clark more, Nghi Vo is an author I (and many other SFF readers, I suspect) will follow closely.

The middle of my ballot gets a little tricky. You may know of my strange relationship with Seanan McGuire, especially with the fact that all her work gets Hugo nominations simply because, but on this not-super-strong ballot, her fifth Wayward Children novella Come Tumbling Down is going to end up on my number three spot. At least for now. It is by no means a perfect novella, not even a great one, but it does many things right. Presenting intriguing protagonists, setting up a cool problem for them to solve, and sending them off to a creepy world togehter – what’s not to like?
The story does fall flat in the second half when it turns out McGuire bit off too much to chew when it comes to world building and juggling too many characters who all want to be protagonists when really, there should be a maximum of two per novella. But the story does reach a rounded ending. While I didn’t find it emotionally impactful, it was satisfying from a storytelling point of view.

To my own surprise Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is not at the top of my ballot. I expected to completely love this book but, well, I just didn’t. I had different expectations from the blurb and while there are many lines that feel like they perfectly encompass certain truths about our world, what I was missing the most was story. It’s about a brother and sister, the sister has superpowers but somehow they barely make an appearance or rather they don’t become important for the plot until very late. As for plot, there really isn’t any. The brother goes to prison, which goes about as well as you can expect for a young Black man, and Onyebuchi shows us harrowing scenes of that life, but that’s not a story, is it? So for that reason, while I liked the writing and I have adored Onyebuchi’s book War Girls, this one just didn’t work for me. It’s got a lot of things to say that are important but it didn’t manage to wrap them in an engaging story.

Another novella by an author I normally love but which didn’t work for me was Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted. This book has a story, although not a particularly original one. It’s set in such a cool world that could be a parallel universe or a post-apocalyptic Earth where the Wild West has made a return of sorts but LGBT+ people aren’t accepted at all. Our young protagonist is a lesbian and has run away from home to join the Librarians – which is a group of people travelling the land. With horse-drawn wagons. And guns.
This book was more about coming of age and coming to terms with your own sexuality and how to stay true to yourself in a world that doesn’t want you to be yourself. It’s about finding family in unexpected places, and maybe even finding love. So I’m all for the message but I just didn’t connect with the characters and I didn’t feel the world building came across as that well thought-out.

The last novella I read and the one I think shouldn’t be on this ballot is Finna by Nino Cipri. The idea is sooooo great! A wormhole suddenly pops up in an IKEA-like store and an elderly shopper wanders into it. In order to save her from whatever parallel world the multiverse has opened up, Ava and her very recent Ex Jules go on a mission into the wormhole. I mean, this could have been so much fun, but sadly nobody told Cipri that rushing through seven worlds in less than 100 pages is a bit too much.
The characters just made me sad because they didn’t get to be proper people. Jules’ only concern and the thing that apparently defines them in this story is that they’re nonbinary (serioulsy, real people’s personality consists of more than they gender identity or sexuality… like give them a hobby or something) and Ava is just annoying until we find out she suffers from depression. Neither of them have hopes, dreams, goals in life, or any human connection beyond their failed relationship.
The world-hopping itself could have been fun and the worlds we get to see aren’t bad. It’s just that arriving, staring in wonder, getting into danger, fleeing , and getting to safety in the matter of 3 pages doesn’t make for good reading. It’s too fast, none of the worlds felt real or got to shine, and so this read more like something you’d write in school for an assignment than a professionally published novella. This needed a lot of work and maybe full-novel length. The way it stands, I am not impressed.


My ballot (probably)

  1. P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout
  2. Nghi Vo – The Empress of Salt and Fortune
  3. Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down
  4. Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted
  5. Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  6. No Award
  7. Nino Cipri – Finna

So my top three spots are pretty firmly set. I don’t know if I’ll switch Sarah Gailey and Tochi Onyebuchi around but as I don’t plan on re-reading either book, I don’t see why I would do that. I am still debating on whether to leave Finna off my ballot completely or simply rank it last. The thing is, I really don’t think it should win an award. It does nothing award-worthy whatsoever. All the other books, even the ones I didn’t enjoy, either do something new and original and/or they tell a great story. Finna is just a nice idea badly executed.

All things considered, I am not too impressed with this ballot. Sure, I liked most of the books in some way, but there has to be more out there than what Tordotcom publishes. Which would also mean a greater diversity of ideas. Let’s all try to read at least one novella not published by Tordotcome this year, okay? Maybe this way, we’ll discover a hidden gem and get other publishers on the ballot for next year.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

4 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novella

    • Dina says:

      YES! Ringshout is the best! 🙂
      I see lots of people loving Finna, so I’m glad I’m not completely alone in disliking it. Also, it’s funny again how we can have an inverse ballot in one category and then mostly agree in this one.

      Liked by 1 person

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