Category Archives: Novella

Book Review: Domnall and the Borrowed Child by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Domnall and the Borrowed Child is the definitely weakest of Tor.com’s novellas published to date. It’s not bad, but it’s a little too short and doesn’t have any standout qualities to elevate it above the ordinary.

The story has the kernel of an interesting idea, but it’s not very well-developed, and even just hours after finishing the book I find myself struggling to remember details of it. I like the concept of a faerie people in decline and struggling to survive on the margins of modern society, and this is alluded to throughout the story, but the story is too small and too personal to be really effective at communicating anything substantial about these hinted-at themes. I could see it being a nice fit for a larger collection of work exploring these ideas in greater depth, but it falls a little flat as a standalone tale.

None of the characters are particularly distinguished, and the elderly Domnall’s sexual interest in his young protégé is just plain creepy. Domnall had the potential to be an interesting character, but I just never felt like he truly came alive. The characters that I found truly fascinating were Micol and the human girl the fairies entranced, but neither of these characters gets a point of view in the novella and the human girl doesn’t even get a name. Sadly, what this means is that there are more interesting stories here than Domnall’s, and that knowledge colors the whole experience of reading Domnall and the Borrowed Child.

It’s bad enough reading a dull story; it’s far worse to read a dull story with potentially wonderful stories trapped inside it.

Book Review: The Builders by Daniel Polansky

The Builders is a wild ride from start to finish, and it’s my favorite so far of Tor.com’s new series of novellas. It’s a wonderful use of the form, and Daniel Polansky has managed to make a great many parts move like clockwork in a fast-paced, riveting revenge story with a deeply satisfying ending.

The best thing, on a technical level, about The Builders is Polansky’s clever use of its short length and the cinematic effect he produces by chopping the story up into short chapters, most only one or two pages long. There’s very little telling here, just showing, and each chapter is like a scene in a movie, painting a compelling picture that moves the story forward. It makes the book compulsively readable, and I could hardly bear to put it down.

There’s not much about The Builders that is particularly original or groundbreaking, but that is more than made up for by the sheer skill Polansky exhibits by arranging a collection of old tropes and a commonplace plot into a masterfully woven tapestry of a story. It goes to prove that, while there is very little new under the sun in the realm of storytelling, there’s definitely something to be said for doing something that’s been done before—but doing it very, very well.

Of course, this isn’t to say that everything about The Builders is expected. Indeed, I’ve never seen this kind of getting the old gang back together for one last revenge quest job story done in quite this way before. You know, with animals. It’s, perhaps surprisingly, pretty great.

Cute little forest animals have never been so grimdark, which also makes this the funniest thing I have read this year. ­­­I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

Probably my favorite thing about this first round of Tor.com novellas has been the wide variety of different stories they have included, and this one is definitely the one that is most different from all the rest. I didn’t have any particular expectations for Envy of Angels, not having read anything else by Matt Wallace, and I increasingly find that I rather enjoy reading like this. It turns out that Envy of Angels is a smart and very funny urban fantasy.

I love any book that makes me laugh out loud, and Envy of Angels did so more than once. It is a seriously hilarious story involving a couple of down-on-their-luck chefs, a catering company whose only clients are demons, and an angel that tastes just like chicken nuggets. Basically, Darren and Lena are looking for work, they get hired on at Sin du Jour, and this story deals with basically their first day of work.

It’s been a good while since I’ve used the phrase “hijinks ensue” unironically, but it’s definitely appropriate here.

I can’t write too much about the plot without spoiling half the jokes, so I will just say that this is an excellent little story to read if you need a break from reading all of this year’s fantastic more-serious novels. I finished Envy of Angels in a single afternoon because I didn’t want to put it down, so I’d also suggest being sure to just go ahead and make sure you’ve got a couple of hours free when you sit down to it.

I won’t say that Envy of Angels is a masterpiece, because it’s not. Some of the characters are a little too one-dimensional, the tone of the story can be uneven at times, the prose is workmanlike at best, and I occasionally felt as if the author wasn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is. Still, this is a super fun read, and sometimes that’s enough.

I don’t see myself searching out Matt Wallace’s other work anytime soon, but I’m definitely looking forward to the next Sin du Jour novella. Goodness knows, by the end of January I’m sure I’ll be ready for another light, fast, humorous read to chase away the winter doldrums.

Book Review: Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such is a thoughtful piece of work whose contemplative tone would be restful if its subject matter wasn’t so infuriating. I love a good witch story. The thing is, stories about women being mistreated make me actually angry. This one does so in a great way.

I adore witches of all sorts, and I have had a special place in my heart for these sort of vaguely historical witch stories since the first time I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond over twenty years ago. Edda’s Meadow is much less historical and much vaguer as a setting, but it definitely scratches that same itch. Also like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Of Sorrow and Such is a book that is fundamentally (even more so, really) concerned with the relationships between women and how we help each other survive (or not) in hostile, sometimes murderously, misogynistic societies.

I think what I love best about witch stories is the way that they work on multiple levels to examine ideas about how women exist in the world. To be a witch is both a metaphor and a depiction of a kind of reality, and not just a historical one. Angela Slatter’s practiced deployment of these ideas tells me that she knew exactly what kind of story she was writing, and she skillfully manipulates her characters and setting for maximum emotional effect.

Mistress Gideon is a great character. In many ways she’s exactly the sort of woman that can be a role model for readers, but Slatter never places that burden upon her protagonist. She’s therefore allowed to be much more than that, and Slatter gives us a main character who is kind and wise and motherly and loving and fiercely protective of her daughter and friends, but who is also not all-knowing, who can be cruel when she thinks she needs to be, and who is quite capable of murder.

The other women that surround Mistress Gideon are just as well-drawn. Her daughter, Gilly, is both lovable and infuriating. The other women we meet also have their own assortments of good and bad qualities. From the passionate young shapeshifter who desperately wants to be herself to her repressed spinster sister-in-law to the pastor’s wife who won’t leave her husband but also won’t submit to his literally poisoning her, these might not be women I want to be, but they are certainly lifelike enough that I can imagine meeting them.

This, really, is Angela Slatter’s gift. She brings these characters to life and I love them and want to read more about them. Though this is the only thing I’ve read by this author, it’s most assuredly only the first thing. I am very much looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Book Review: Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

Speak Easy is every bit as weird and wonderful as I could hope for or expect of a new novella by Catherynne M. Valente. As is characteristic of the author’s work, Speak Easy is a lush tapestry of beautiful prose, full of cunning wordplay, richly detailed descriptions, and a cast of eccentric characters.

My favorite thing about any Cat Valente book is the sense of space she achieves in every world she creates. The hotel Artemisia is no different. Reading Speak Easy is like walking into the hotel and taking a guided tour with someone who has lived there their entire life. They know all its nooks and crannies, but there’s really no end to the secrets of the place. Every page of this book is full of life and color and drama, and Valente seems to almost effortlessly weave a picture of a vibrantly wonderful world.

Speak Easy is being sold as a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but you may not see it unless you know the original fairy tale very well. Valente is a shrewd scholar of fairytales and mythology of all kinds, and she has a keen talent for adding her own embellishments and twists. Her deep love, appreciation, and understanding of the form shines from every single page.

At the same time, though, there’s an awful lot packed into this slim little story. It’s not just an old fairytale; it’s also A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a particular moment in America’s literary history. It’s tragedy and comedy and heaven and hell and the exploration of these dualities. It’s a story about creativity and what it takes to be an artist. It’s a story about stories and where they come from and who they belong to.

It will break your heart in the best way. Not gently, though.

My first exposure to Valente’s work was her Fairyland books for young readers, which I read aloud to my daughter until she finally decided she was too old for bedtime stories any longer. I’ve since decided that every single thing Cat Valente writes deserves to be read aloud, just for the sheer joy of feeling her words roll off one’s tongue. Read it to a baby (goodness knows they don’t know any better) or to your pet or just to yourself in the privacy of your own home. Just do it, because it’s beautiful. Then go do the same with all of Valente’s other work.

The only negative of this book is that the hardcover is extremely expensive. Unless you are a collector of books, I’d suggest opting for the ebook, which is the best $5 you could spend this year.

Book Review: The Last Witness by K.J. Parker

The Last Witness is decidedly not my kind of book. If I wasn’t making a point of reading all of the Tor.com novellas in publication order, I would never have picked this one out based just upon its back cover copy. Needless to say, I’m glad that I’m working on this reading project, because I would be sad to have missed this little gem of a story.

The Last Witness deals with some rather heavy ideas about memory and storytelling—specifically the stories that we tell others and ourselves. It’s a fascinatingly speculative story with an intriguing perspective and a main character with a powerful magic that is the very definition of a double-edged sword. He can steal memories, but he remembers them all perfectly, himself. The story answers some of the questions that must be asked as a matter of course once you think up that kind of magic power.

As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about Parker’s wonderfully unreliable narrator, where he came from, and what having this power has made of him. There’s not a lot in this premise that is terribly surprising, but the story is well-constructed, and when the twist comes near the end it’s, well, not unexpected exactly, but so perfectly placed and executed that it provokes a deep emotional response as one is forced to change the way one thinks of the narrator and the story he’s told up to that point.

My biggest criticism of the book is that there are parts that are just plain confusing. Because of the mechanics of the narrator’s magical ability, he sometimes has a difficult time differentiating between his own natural memories and those that he’s gleaned through his work. While everything becomes clear by the end of the story, there were several times in the first third or so where I found myself struggling to make sense of it. This isn’t aided, either, by the fact that there are no chapters or other markers to clarify shifts between the narrator’s memories and other people’s memories that are being remembered by the narrator or between flashbacks and the present day events of the story. It’s not bad enough to make the story unreadable, but I could definitely see this being off-putting for people who (unlike myself) have no problem abandoning a book partway through.

I don’t expect that The Last Witness will be among my favorites of the Tor.com novellas, but I’m happy to have read it. It’s a solidly written story with an interesting protagonist, a clever twist, and a satisfying conclusion.

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

binti-book-coverBinti is the first of the Tor.com novellas that has turned out to be slightly disappointing to me, but I think that’s because my expectations were so very high after reading Nnedi Okorafor’s previous work over the last few years. It was always going to be hard for this story to live up to the power and beauty of Lagoon or Who Fears Death or The Book of Phoenix.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Binti. Indeed, there’s a lot to love about this little book, although probably my first complaint about it would be that it is so very little. Of the Tor.com novellas I’ve read so far, Binti has by far the lowest page count, which is a shame if for no other reason than I never want any book by Nnedi Okorafor to end.

My second complaint, and a more substantive one, is that Binti relies a little too much on magic in order to move the story along. Okorafor has always created worlds with a synthesis of magic and science, but here the magic becomes too much of a deus ex machina. Considering the book’s hefty messages about colonization, racism, and the nature of humanity, this excessive mysticism may be intentional, but I found it a bit much at times.

Binti‘s greatest strengths, on the other hand, lie in Okorafor’s gift for crafting characters and cultures. Binti herself is a wonderful heroine, if perhaps a little unrealistic in her lack of any real flaws, and her Meduse counterpart Okwu is excellently conceived and nicely-written. The Meduse people in general are fascinating, although their grievance was resolved a little too neatly in the end.

The very best part of the book, though, is the way Okorafor weaves in Binti’s personal history and shows the complicated feelings Binti has about her people, her culture, and her sense of self. There’s something rather melancholy about the ways in which Binti’s journey changes her, but I quite like the idea that every journey–no matter how much we start on our own terms–is a journey into an unknown and uncontrollable future. What I like even more, however, is the idea that we can always save something and take it with us. I love the idea of something as culturally and regionally specific as the Himba people’s otjize lasting long enough in time and space for someone to wear it to college on another planet, and in Binti otjize becomes a perfect symbol of resistance, endurance, and connection to the past.

I just wish there was a little more plot happening. There’s just not much going on, and the novella ends up feeling both uneventful and overstuffed with meaning. Without a strong story to support all of the big ideas Okorafor is weaving together, Binti starts collapse under its own weight. It’s a shame, because Binti herself is a great character that I’d love to see more of.

Book Review: Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss

sunset-mantle-coverSunset Mantle is a sort of strange little book. It’s an interesting mix of things that I love (epic fantasy, low key romance, a huge battle scene) and things that I usually hate (military stories, few women characters, overly stoic and maladaptively principled hero), and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it.

Cete is exactly the sort of outcast slightly grizzled warrior character that would normally bore me to tears, but the first thing we learn about him is that he appreciates and longs for beautiful things. This is a simple, honest desire, and it’s a small aspect of the character of a man whose only business and skill is death, but who loves art. It’s this desire that is always at the core of the story in Sunset Mantle, and its frankly miraculous that Alter S. Reiss manages to make this novella work without it becoming mawkish and trite, but he does.

Marelle, the artisan who created the titular sunset mantle, is kind of a fascinating character to me. I really appreciate the first physical descriptions we get of her which are pleasantly unsexual and focus on qualities that are representative of her experiences and the unique ways she exists in the world. Her age is unstated, though it’s clear that she’s a young-but-mature woman, and her beauty or lack thereof is never remarked upon, though it’s shown amply later in the story that Cete at least finds her desirable. In the beginning, though, we learn about the way she carries herself, the ways that hard work has marked her, and the way she smiles directly at Cete–“the smile of one man to another, rather than that of a woman to a man.”

This particular passage is one that Reiss handles with delicate precision, establishing Marelle as a character who is both comforting and challenging to Cete and establishing Cete as a man who (sadly unusually in the epic fantasy genre) respects Marelle in a way that is refreshingly unpatronizing. The first two pages of this novella might be my favorite thing I’ve read in the fantasy genre in years, and they are the key to understanding and appreciating the rest of the book. It’s a great cold open that, while light on action, deftly and economically introduces the two most important characters in the story and makes them interesting and likable without resorting to any hackneyed or offensive tropes.

The world-building in Sunset Mantle is similarly superb, although there was a stretch between the opening scene and the end of the first third of the book where I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what was going on. This might have been intentional, to build suspense or something, but I found it just confusing, and I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation for how some of the political structures of this world are organized. All the same, when I finally got my bearings, I was impressed by the depth of detail Reiss has packed into such a short book. I’ve read 800-page novels with less world-building than Reiss packs into just over one hundred pages, and this world could easily support a much bigger story than the one told here.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Sunset Mantle is that it’s just plain well-written (aside from the above-mentioned early confusion about the political situation). It’s tightly plotted, generally easy to follow, contains an excellent battle at its climax, and has a satisfying ending that feels natural and earned. It’s a small and personal story that still manages to feel epic, and it has enough darkness and high stakes to be compelling but stops well enough short of being grimdark that the word “fun” can still be reasonably used to describe one’s Sunset Mantle reading experience.

Book Review: Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford is every bit as beautiful as its truly lovely cover (somewhat reminiscent of the posters for my favorite ’90s teen witch flick, The Craft) suggests. Like its cover, Witches is a story painted in subtle tones to develop its themes with both a clear sensibility for small town life and a gentle humor that makes it a joy to read.

The story deals largely with themes related to the disruption and destruction of small towns by corporate interests. The villain here seems to me a pretty thinly veiled reference to Walmart (or Asda, I suppose, in the UK), and we learn that what’s at risk is not just destruction of the expected small town community virtues but also the destruction of the border between two worlds.

The really standout aspect of this novella, though, is its characters. The three women around whom the story revolves all have their own separate and unique personalities and character arcs, which unfold at a pace that is both tightly managed to fit inside just 144 pages but also leisurely enough to be enjoyable reading. Judith, Lizzie, and Autumn are exactly the sorts of women that I love to read about: smart, funny, brave, resourceful, flawed enough to feel real and with just the right amount of magic. They’re also supported by a cast of small-town characters that feel familiar without the use of any tired tropes and have enough depth to make me care about them and become even more invested in what happens to their town by making Lychford feel like a real place.

The plot is simple and straightforward, which is ideal for novella length works. It’s never too complicated and Paul Cornell has a real gift for knowing just how best to develop his story and characters. While the urgency of the story builds throughout the book, events never feel rushed, and emotional moments happen exactly when they need to. The ending is satisfying, but it isn’t too tidy or trite, and it’s open-ended enough that I could easily see this story being continued in another novella or novel.

Recommended reading for a lazy Sunday afternoon in fall. I’d suggest making a day of just reading and watching stuff with witches in it. Combine with Practical MagicHocus Pocus, and something pumpkin spice flavored.

Book Review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is the first thing I’ve ever read by Kai Ashante Wilson, and I’m so glad I did, if for no other reason than that I went out right afterwards and also read his short stories, “The Devil in America” and “Super Bass,” which are similarly excellent. As the first of Tor.com’s new line of novellas, which have all been heavily promoted, I had high hopes for this book. I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a book that is deeply concerned with language, and this is apparent in every intricate detail of Wilson’s superbly crafted prose. The plot is thin and linear, with most of the “story” functioning as character portrait and world building. I could see this being a problem for readers who are looking for something more exciting, but the adventure here is less the physical journey of the caravan and more the emotional and spiritual journey of the titular character.

Demane is a character who has come a long way already by the time we meet him at the beginning of Sorcerer. He’s very much an outsider in the group of caravan guards that he’s currently traveling with as well as their more well-to-do employers. As the caravan travels into a large and untamed jungle, amidst rumors of a beast that is marauding along the road, we’re treated to a thorough exploration of Demane’s outsider status, largely through his interactions with other characters.

The worldbuilding is where The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps really stands out, though. It reminds me a little bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker, which also contained a large and mysterious jungle and a city on the edge of it, but Sorcerer is much broader in its scope and is focused less on the exploration of the forest and more on an exploration of Demane’s interactions with the people he meets on his journey. Even the monster Demane must defeat at the end is never concretely described.

I would have liked to see more actual adventure and less standing around in a town talking about stuff. Because so much time was spent on what mostly amounted to a whole lot of incredible worldbuilding mixed with some incisive social commentary, the action at the end of the book felt rushed and the ending felt a little tacked on. While this was somewhat frustrating, it did whet my appetite for the setting, and I really, really hope that Wilson revisits this world in some longer fiction.

A final note: I bought an .epub version of the book, and I found the formatting to be a little bad. It wasn’t always clear when the story shifted between the present and flashbacks, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not. Either way, it was sometimes confusing and took me out of an otherwise immersive story.