Category Archives: Novella

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange is an absolutely magical story and by far my favorite thing I’ve read so far in 2017. In this gorgeously imagined romance, Ellen Klages brings the queer side of 1940s San Francisco to glittering life and peoples it with characters who are fresh and interesting and yet still feel like the kind of old friends one wants to visit with over and over again. It’s a book that works precisely because of the specificity of its characters and its setting in time and space, and Klages does a great job of balancing the reality of history with the light fantasy elements she introduces over the course of her story. It’s still early in the year, but I fully expect Passing Strange to make a lot of year’s best lists, my own included.

Structurally, Passing Strange is slightly odd, with a lopsided framing story that leads off with an almost too-long sequence in the modern day (or possibly the near future) that introduces an extended flashback and then a final very short coda that wraps up both stories with a clever punchline. While the payoff is totally worth it in the end, it did make for a bit of a slow start to the book, and I was a little disappointed that Helen Young didn’t get more page time in the middle parts, especially when there were other characters introduced who felt much less consequential overall as a consequence of the bookends of Helen’s present day story. The problem, however, is mostly a matter of managing expectations. It’s not that Helen is unimportant after all or that other characters are given too much importance in the narrative. It’s simply that the early focus on Helen kind of leads the reader to think we’re getting more of Helen’s story, and the realization that we’re not takes a while and then doesn’t fully make sense until very late in the book. That said, once I figured out what Klages was doing, I found it easy to appreciate the deliberate way in which she reveals her story.

Passing Strange is less a straightforward love story (though romance figures largely in it) and more a detailed portrait of a specific time and place and an examination of a particular set of experiences, here, the lives of queer women in San Francisco in the 1940s. I love the way Klages introduces her characters once the flashback starts, and the picture she paints of all these interconnected women, their struggles and friendships and the joy they have in spite of often difficult circumstances is vivid and real-feeling. Klages seamlessly weaves together scenes of sweetness with scenes of visceral pain without shying away from depicting the ugliness of the era (which is sadly not always very different from our current one) but without dwelling on darkness. It’s a balancing act that can be hard to manage, and Klages does so superbly, crafting a story that is true to reality but still ultimately optimistic.

If there’s any real complaint to be made about Passing Strange, it’s that the fantasy elements of the story are only slight until the very end, when magic is almost (but not quite) a deus ex machina. It’s hinted at throughout the book that magic is both real and not very uncommon, but there’s only one actual magical event of any significance, and it’s not tied to the other magics that are described elsewhere in the book. Just in general, I would have loved to see all of the various magic and witchery suggested in the story be expanded upon more fully, to be honest. The richness of 1940s San Francisco is a lush backdrop for the story already, but Klages hints at an equally rich world of magic just out of the reader’s sight.

All this said, Passing Strange is still a near-perfect novella. The few complaints I have about it all amount to just wanting more of it. I want more stories about women loving women, and I want them to have grand romances, magical adventures, and happy endings. As delightful as Haskell and Emily and their friends are, they aren’t enough. Passing Strange deserves to be more than a singular work of its type, and if Ellen Klages ever decides to revisit this setting or any of these characters, I’m here for it. If anyone else is writing anything like this I’m looking for it.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

It’s early enough in the year that I don’t have much to compare it to yet, but I feel confident in saying that Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is one of the year’s great novella-length works. It’s smartly written, well-paced, has a compelling cast of characters and an original mythology, and is altogether compulsively readable. It’s perfect reading for a cold day or a rainy afternoon, exactly the sort of thing that is easy to zip through in a single sitting like I did.

It might be easy to just focus on the characterization of this book as “that book about the ghost who works at the suicide hotline,” but Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is something really special and interesting that isn’t done justice by that facile, humorous-sounding description. Yes, Jenna is a ghost and she works at a suicide hotline, but this isn’t a funny book and, while a fast read, isn’t really the kind of light reading that superficial description would suggest, either. There’s some lightness here, but this is a book that deals mostly with themes relating to grief and mortality and Seanan McGuire has something quite serious to say about these issues. She does touch on some ideas about community and found family, but those are mostly incidental to the story and more implied than explicitly examined in the text.

Because the book is so emotionally and thematically weighty, the plot is a fairly basic one. After the introduction of Jenna’s predicament and some explanation of her life as a ghost, Jenna and her friend, a witch, have to rescue a bunch of other ghosts when they mysteriously disappear. We never meet any of the disappeared ghosts, so there’s not much emotional stake in their rescue, but the book isn’t really about them at all. Instead, the first person narrative puts the reader completely inside Jenna’s head for the duration of the story. And while Jenna is a kind and caring person, there’s an interesting detachment in her ways of caring for her pets (all elderly cats) and the people in her after-life, and McGuire does a great job of exploring how Jenna’s circumstances have changed her perspective and her understanding of life and death.

McGuire also has an interesting take on witches here, where they have magics tied to any number of things–streets, rats, corn… presumably the options are basically unlimited–that fuel their powers and inform and limit their abilities. The relationship between witches and ghosts is complex and adversarial rather than symbiotic, but it adds another dimension to the reader’s understanding of the themes. Like ghosts, witches exist in a social space somewhat removed from humanity, and both ghosts and witches live extended lifetimes and are subject to forces and motivations outside their control. McGuire’s “What If?” question in this book is broad and perhaps ill-defined, but I love the multiple angles from which she’s chosen to try and answer it.

Looking back on the reading experience of this one, I think the genius of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is that McGuire has used an extremely simple and fairly straightforward plot in order to hang a ton of mythology and worldbuilding upon, but she’s managed to do it in a way that feels complete and not as if it’s just an introduction to a bigger fictional world or a longer series. Sure, there’s tons of storytelling potential here, and there is at least one character (Delia, if you want to know) that I’d love to see McGuire return to in the future. But Jenna’s story in this volume is completely self-contained and entirely emotionally satisfying. I would definitely like to read more about this fantasy world, but I don’t think any sequels are necessary. I’d love for these kinds of singularly lovely standalone stories become a trend even more than I want to see sequels or companions to this story.

This review is based upon an advance copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Best of 2016: Novellas

love novellas, and this year they constituted about a third of my reading. I’m still reading almost all of the Tor.com novellas as they come out, and I’ve started paying more attention to other novella-length work, though I still stick to professionally published books rather than delving into the vast world of self-pubbed stuff out there. Consequently, this list is definitely a bit biased towards the Tor.com books, but I did try to check out some different stuff in 2016. If I missed one of your favorites, be sure to leave it in the comments.

Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
2016 was a good year for Foz Meadows, whose most recent novel, An Accident of Stars, is a fun, fresh and feminist take on the portal fantasy genre. However, this short novella–included in Abaddon Books’ Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World–is wonderful. It’s a new perspective on The Tempest‘s Miranda, and Meadows takes a look at what it might really mean for a young person’s identity to be brought up in that kind of isolation. It’s a thoughtful portrait of an outsider figuring out their place in the world, a clever riff on Shakespeare’s own themes, and a playful update to a very old classic.
Buy it here.
Or buy the collection here.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
There were several Lovecraft-inspired novellas published in 2016, but Victor LaValle’s is definitely the best of them. The Ballad of Black Tom is directly in conversation with Lovecraft, being a retelling of sorts of the insidiously racist short story “The Horror at Red Hook,” and LaValle ably weaves together a general critique of Lovecraft’s racism with a fairly straightforward tribute to Lovecraft’s enduring influence on the genre, crafting a smartly written and well-paced homage that perfectly encapsulates the complicated feelings that many people have towards Lovecraft.
Buy it here.
Read “The Horror at Red Hook” here.

Lustlocked and Pride’s Spell by Matt Wallace
Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series continued this year with its second and third installments, and they are excellent. Matt Wallace has a gift for telling funny stories that aren’t trying to be too clever, and each volume of this series is better than the one before. Wallace starts with a simple joke and focuses on creating a diverse cast of interesting characters to carry the story, and it works. Every time.
Buy Lustlocked.
Buy Pride’s Spell.
Buy Envy of Angels (the first book in the series).
Pre-order book four, Idle Ingredients.
Read the Sin du Jour short story, “Small Wars.”

Runtime by S.B. Divya
I would never have guessed I would love Runtime as much as I did, as I’m generally not into anything even remotely sports-related, but this story about a young woman entering a cyborg race with the hope of bettering herself and achieving a more secure future for her family is a fantastic fast read.
Buy it here.

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky
While I haven’t been as into nostalgia in my media as some have this year, I absolutely adored this D&D-ish sword and sorcery adventure from Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s got an unexpected and unique protagonist, some interesting ideas, and an entertaining villain. Tchaikovsky pokes gentle fun at some classic tropes and deftly uses others in a way that shows his deep love for and broad knowledge of the genre.
[Edit: Just learned that Spiderlight is actually 300 pages long, so not actually a novella. I was so delighted by it that I rushed through it in a single sitting and didn’t even notice.]
Buy it here.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
Kai Ashante Wilson’s 2015 novella, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, marked him as an author to watch, and this 2016 effort, set in the distant past of the same world, establishes Wilson as one of the most original and compelling voices in fantasy right now.
Buy it here.

The Convergence of Fairy Tales by Octavia Cade
The Convergence of Fairy Tales is this year’s Book Smugglers Halloween horror story, and it’s also their very first novella. Hopefully, it’s the first of many, because it’s really, really good. The unifying theme behind many of my favorites of 2016 is rage, and this is a very angry book. Which makes sense, as it’s the story of the princess from some of Western culture’s most beloved–and most monstrously unfair–fairy tales, stitched together here as the story of a singular heroine who learns to channel her pain and fury into action that helps her move on from what has been done to her. It’s a powerful validation of rage as a response to injustice and victimization, and it’s beautifully written to boot.
Buy it here.

carrigernovellasPoison or Protect and Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger
I have enjoyed Gail Carriger’s steampunk-ish romance adventure novels in the past, but I’ve never gotten hugely into them, and this year I learned why. They’re all just too long. 2016 found Carriger kicking off not one but two novella series–the first dealing with the now-grown characters from her YA Finishing School books and the second detailing the romances of queer minor characters from the Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol series–and the first installments of both are delightfully fun and sexy enough to be exactly what I need to fill my occasional desire for light smut.
Buy Poison or Protect.
Buy Romancing the Inventor.

The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)
The Snow Queen reimagined as a queer romance adventure? Yes, please. I do think this book might be over the word count for eligibility as a novella for the Hugo Awards but not by much, and it’s short enough and a fast enough read that it feels more like a novella than even a short novel. Simply magical. If you haven’t read this one yet, it’s the ideal book to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and a blanket and read on a cold winter’s night.
Buy it here.

Book Review: Runtime by S.B. Divya

I read all of Tor.com’s novellas, which is a good thing because I otherwise might have missed out on this gem by S.B. Divya. I would never have picked up a story about a cyborg endurance race on my own, but I’m glad I read this one. Runtime is a marvel of world building and character portraiture wrapped around a perfectly executed straightforward plot and just the right amount of smart-but-not-overbearing social commentary. It’s a near-perfect use of the novella length, and I cannot wait to see what S.B. Divya does next.

Marmeg Guinto is as prepared as she’ll ever be for the grueling Minerva Sierra Challenge, but she’s nonetheless not nearly as prepared as some of the other racers, with their support teams and wealthy sponsors. In a race where people compete and win on the strength of extreme body modifications, Marmeg has cobbled together her cyborg enhancements from cheap parts, black market materials, and sometimes literal garbage. Still, she’s determined to race well enough to win a better future for herself and her family. When she actually gets out on the trail, however, things don’t go entirely as planned, and Marmeg soon has to make some hard choices that put her future plans in jeopardy. The surface narrative here is simple enough and fits neatly into the popular genre of stories about young people who participate in extreme sports or contests in order to help their families in dystopia-ish futures. It could have been banal, but S.B. Divya does several things in Runtime that elevate it above the usual stories of its type.

Partly, this is accomplished by cleverly adding layers of meaning and nuance to a simple story. Within the simple framework of the race/survival story lies a cleverly integrated fable with something to say about cheating and good turns. Wrapped all around the story and built into the fabric of Divya’s excellent world building is some insightful social commentary about capitalism, gender, immigration, and community. It sounds like a lot, but it never feels like too much for the reader to take in. There’s never any obvious lecturing or moralizing, which is often a mistake made in these kind of stories, and the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate without feeling pat.

The heroine, Marmeg, also accounts for a great part of Runtime’s appeal. She’s a nicely complex character but without falling into either any of the common Strong Female Character tropes or the common Morally Grey Character tropes. Instead, she’s highly distinctive, with a backstory and personality that are both well-considered and well-constructed. The key here is the specificity of this character and her background. Marmeg isn’t a Generic Dystopian Heroine, and the reader’s understanding of her situation, her family, and what she’s willing to sacrifice for them is absolutely necessary for the story to work. Fortunately, Divya communicates all of this information clearly and concisely with sparely elegant prose that is perfectly styled for the story she’s telling.

Where S.B. Divya excels most notably, however, is in simply balancing all the many moving parts of this novella. The race itself necessarily takes center stage, but Marmeg is a strong enough personality to really carry the story by getting the reader invested in it. There’s a nicely cinematic quality to the action, enough to earn this little book a place on my ever-growing list of things I’d like to see adapted for film or television. Marmeg’s peril feels like a very real threat, and there are a couple of small subplots that nicely augment the main story and could provide fodder for more stories or even a full-length novel in this same universe. Every piece of Runtime is meticulously crafted and fitted together with every other piece in order to make a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Book Review: The Ghoul King by Guy Haley

I didn’t hate Guy Haley’s first Dreaming Cities novella, The Emperor’s Railroad, though it wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to read this second installment of the series. The Ghoul King seemed to promise more action and a female character with something to do besides die for male character development, and I was hoping to see Haley dig a little deeper into some of the potentially very cool world building of his post-apocalyptic landscape. Sadly, I found myself disappointed on all counts with this book, and this is another series that I’m very unlikely to continue with.

Here’s the thing about these books: they’re fine. Haley has a handful of neat ideas, and a solid (if a bit hackneyed) premise. Quinn is a perfectly serviceable anti-ish-hero; the angels are theoretically compelling antagonists; and a post-apocalypse full of zombies and robot dragons marauding brigands and petty feudal-esque politics should offer plenty of minor conflicts and quests for an itinerant adventurer. Unfortunately, once you get past the initial observation of “huh, that’s cool,” there’s very little actually happening under the surface. Haley is great at window dressing, and the books’ appeal is helped along by sharp-looking covers, but when I finished both of these books I was just sort of like “is that it?”

Quinn is as inscrutable and laconic as ever in The Ghoul King, but he never manages to be in the least bit likeable or even interesting. Perhaps because of the choice to have the action narrated again from a point of view that isn’t Quinn’s, Quinn remains a bit of a cipher, as the first person narrator is never quite able to connect with him or get to know him on a personal level at all. Once again, Quinn is a sort of cowboy-ish character who rides into town, impresses the locals and rides away with his cloak of mystery intact. He’s a notably old-fashioned construct of stoic masculine heroism that just… isn’t fun to read about at all. Unless that’s your thing, in which case do you, but it’s not much fun for me.

There are a couple of female characters this time around, though only one, Rachel, plays a major role in the action. In fact, she’s the instigator of this novella’s adventure. Unfortunately, she’s also—through sheer ineptitude and ignorance—kind of the story’s main antagonist as well, and Rachel’s search for pre-apocalypse technology doesn’t end well for pretty much anyone. It’s an almost archetypal arc, with Rachel cast as a sort of Eve who lures men on a fruitless quest for knowledge that ends in tragedy and, ultimately, their expulsion from the seat of knowledge and into an uncertain future. On the one hand, there’s something almost mythologically epic going on. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as if Haley has anything in particular to say with any of the mythology he’s crafting.

Certainly not every story has to be deep and insightful, and there’s something to be said for straightforward, uncomplicated adventure stories, but there still has to be something to engage the reader, make them care about the events they’re reading about, and keep them coming back for more. Without a likeable protagonist or any discernable message, and with the world building stalled out (there’s not much new information revealed in this volume at all, sadly) this series doesn’t do that for me.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: Return of Souls by Andy Remic

I won’t be reading anything else by Andy Remic. I didn’t care for most of his first Tor.com novella, A Song for No Man’s Land, but it got interesting right at the end. Unfortunately, Return of Souls doesn’t deliver on what little promise its predecessor held. Instead, it doubles down on everything I didn’t like about the first book in this planned trilogy and adds a heaping dose of blatant misogyny that makes it a deeply unpleasant read.

Spoilers at the end, so beware.

Once again, we’re following Robert Jones through his time in World War I, only he’s come somewhat unhinged since the events of the first book and we’re now navigating his deteriorating mental state and his journeys through a sort of dark, war torn Wonderland, still pursued by the walriders that were introduced in A Song for No Man’s Land. Though all his friends died in the last book, this time around Robert is joined by a mysterious young woman named Orana who also seems to be running from the walriders. I’m sure that there are other things going on in this novella (I think I remember Bainbridge’s ghost showing up at least once), and I still get the feeling that Remic has some point that he’s trying to manfully make about war or something, but all of that is eclipsed by the sheer disgustingness of Robert’s relationship with Orana.

I mean, come on.

First off, Orana is barely even a character at all. Instead, she seems to be a sort of generalized embodiment of Remic’s ideals of womanhood, created to both tempt Robert and to motivate him to new acts of chivalrous heroism. Over and over again, Orana is described in infantilizing and fetishistic terms as childlike, naïve and in need of protection. When Robert and Orana finally have sex, even Robert feels as if he’s raping her, and indeed it’s difficult to understand exactly how this strange child-woman in need of rescue could be truly consenting. Either way, it’s gross to read.

But, wait! It gets worse. After about a hundred pages of detailing Robert’s creepily paternalistic relationship with Orana, the final revelation of the book is that Orana was a walrider all along and was, I guess, using Robert Jones to help her reach her home? Or maybe she was just tricking him deep into walrider territory? Or maybe Orana’s transformation really is just a misogynistic commentary on the inherent duplicitousness of women? I don’t even know, and it’s hard to care very much. Robert Jones is a highly unlikeable and, frankly, boring character, and honestly, by the time I got to the end of the book I was just ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, there’s no real ending here, just this major revelation and a sort of teaser for the trajectory of the final book in the trilogy, which I just don’t think I can bring myself to read.

I’d like to say that it’s not Return of Souls, it’s me, but I’m having a hard time even thinking of reasons why other people might enjoy this title. Its pace is slow, and its prose is only workmanlike. Its horror elements are sloppy, and its fantasy elements, drawn from real-world mythology, are poorly researched and badly implemented. Robert Jones is a character in turns profoundly dull and remarkably despicable, but he’s at no point enjoyable to read about. There’s no humor to speak of in the book, no spark of fun or joy to speak of; rather, it’s just unrelentingly dark and almost nihilistic in tone. But, hey, maybe that’s your thing. I won’t be back for more, though.

Book Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

I adored Fran Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft, so I was thrilled when I learned she had written one of Tor.com’s novellas. The Jewel and Her Lapidary was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of 2016, so imagine my surprise and dismay when I turned out to just not care for it very much.

Where Wilde excels, of course, is with world building, which was proven amply in Updraft and confirmed here. I loved the idea of the Jewels and Lapidaries in this novella, and I found the magic system Wilde describes interesting enough. And I liked the framing of the story as piece of folk history. Unfortunately, for all the fine world building on display, there’s just not a whole lot else going on here. I knew going in that this novella was somewhat on the shorter side, but there’s barely even a short story worth of actual story buried under all this world building, and it’s not that interesting of a story.

Instead of a proper novella, this feels like background work for a novel, which would be a much better use for such a complicated premise and would have given the characters, in particular, much more room to breathe. It’s hard to really get a sense of Lin and Sima and their relationship with such limited exposure to them, and most of what we learn about their friendship feels like an awful lot of telling rather than showing. For that matter, it’s unclear whether we should even consider their relationship a friendship or not, as the bond between Jewel and Lapidary is kind of weirdly symbiotic, not entirely consensual (they are assigned to each other in infancy), and has the Lapidary in a decidedly subordinate position. The thing is, none of the implications of this—which are all genuinely fascinating—are examined in the text, and instead Lin and Sima’s relationship is portrayed as somewhat simplistically sister-like.

Worst of all, the story, such as it is, ends so abruptly that it feels unfinished and was certainly unsatisfying. While I don’t require a happy ending, the melancholy of this one was an unpleasant surprise; the vague cover art and the book description suggested something that was going to be much lighter in tone than what I got. Sure, one isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this one is misleading at first glance, and being an ebook reader I only really looked at the cover the one time. Things get fairly dark very quickly in this little book, and then they just end bittersweetly—with a distinct emphasis on the bitter part. Which would be fine if this story was part of some longer work to give it some context, but the framing device (much as I do like it) of it as folklore just isn’t quite enough to keep it from being rather unrelentingly and yet meaninglessly sad.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary isn’t the worst thing I’ve read this year, but it wasn’t great. There are the bones of a potentially great fantasy world here, but they’re wasted without a compelling story to bring them to life. I’m bummed by how little I liked this much-looked-forward-to book, but do I have to say that I’m definitely here for it if Wilde decides to revisit this universe in a longer format. In the meantime, I can always reread Updraft, and I’ve got Cloudbound to look forward to next month.