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2021 Hugo Reviews: Novellas

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Note: I'll try to avoid major spoilers here, and will talk generally about the stories nominated for the 2021 Hugos. You may intuit some plot points as I do so.


Current Novellas List:

#1 - Ring Shout – P. Djèlí Clark

#2 - The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo

#3 - Finna – Nino Cipri

#4 - Upright Women Wanted – Sarah Gailey

#5 - Come Tumbling Down – Seanan McGuire

#6 - Riot Baby - Tochi Onyebuchi


Overall Thoughts

I have never been disappointed in a book by P. Djèlí Clark, and this one continues the tradition! I was a little hesitant going in, as the story has large sections of dialect and even Gullah language (which I happened to be familiar with as my family comes from South Carolina), but in the end, the blending of history and the explanation of racism, while bringing in elements of horror and lovecraftian mythos, while also containing a version of the hero’s journey, make a very satisfying story of fear, hatred, understanding, and redemption. There’s a lot of really great competition in the Hugo Novellas this year!


Plot

Clark manages to put a much larger story into this novella, starting with placing us in an alternate 1922 history where Gullah and indentured servant rituals hold great power, as well as having other-dimensional horrors. I was actually a bit thrown off in the beginning (and not sure how to express this as a white person reading this…) because it’s sort of implied that KKK members weren’t actually responsible for their actions, but driven by other forces. However, Clark admirably gives us a full explanation as the book goes on, and makes some great insights as well.


Setting

This is one part I really admire in Clark’s works, from the steampunk Middle-Eastern aesthetic of the Dead Djinn universe to the bayou magic in The Black God’s Drums. Ring Shout continues his excellent alternate history, this time combining Gullah and indentured servant songs from the south, voodoo magic, horror and haints, and portals to other worlds. He also shows the anger and determination of Black people to great effect.


Character

There is a lot to love with these characters, both protagonist and antagonist. The strength of the characters drives the story, with sacrifices that are well developed and strong personalities that feel very real. There are a lot of different speaking characters for a novella, but none are forgettable. I’d love to see more in this universe and what else the main character is capable of. Pretty sure this one will be my top pick.

Rating: 1 of 6


Overall Thoughts

This was an excellent Asian-influenced journey told partially as memories of events many years past. A cleric of an order that records all happenings in the empire finds a lakeside retreat recently unsealed following the previous empress’ death. After a surprising introduction, the cleric, Chih, learns much from an old woman who was there many years before. I was surprisingly drawn in to the historical accounting style and the simple understanding by Chih. Very happy to learn there’s another adventure in the works!


Plot

This is almost plotted as a mystery, where Chih is attempting to find out what happened to this retreat and why it’s sealed off. The revelations included and surprising yet inevitable, and slowly build a very complete picture of tumultuous events some sixty years previous.


Setting

The Asian setting, very reminiscent of the Chinese monarchy, contains hints of all the court intrigue and scandal that occurred in the time period. However, Chih makes it clear this is only one piece of history, and references other places and times that give the world surprising depth considering the brevity of the story. It really makes me want to journey along with Chih to other destinations!


Character

There are only three characters in the tale, Chih, a nonbinary cleric who records history, Almost Brilliant, their bird/friend who remembers everything, and Rabbit, an old woman. However other politicians, the empress, fortune tellers, and more are brought to life in the stories Rabbit tells. We see a subtle humor and strength in Chih, while Rabbit slowly reveals more about her history. This one might have jumped to the top of my list (Edit: knocked down one peg by Ring Shout!).

Rating: 2 of 6


Overall Thoughts

Another excellent story from Gailey, dealing with queer culture and how to be yourself. This starts out like a straight western, but is revealed pretty quickly it’s likely an alternate future rather than an alternate past. I really enjoyed the main character’s journey to find herself, as well as great LGBTQIA rep from all the characters. While the story itself isn’t as deep as some, it absolutely achieves what it set out to do.


Plot

This is a journey in both the literal and metaphorical sense, with the main character finding herself as well as traveling with the mysterious Librarians, who (supposedly) disseminate the “Approved Literature” to people so they stay in line with what the nation wants them to think. Of course, hijinks ensue, and there is a much greater depth to how the Librarians operate and what types of thought they actually protect. I’d love to read a follow up to this story if there is one!


Setting

Gailey has some excellent worldbuilding, and this is no exception. A future America, devastated by years of supporting war rather than the country, things are barely held together and so things have largely recessed to a wild west type situation. It’ a cool take on future dystopia while still using a lot of aspects from the past.


Character

The characters in this piece are lots of fun to read, from the naïve Esther, who is our viewpoint to learn about the world, to the pair of Bet and Leda, accomplished Librarians with several big secrets, to Cye, their apprentice, who is able to be their nonbinary self out in the wilds, but must appear as a woman in towns because an alternate is not acceptable. Last, there’s the shadowy figure of another mentor to Esther, and I love what is done with this gray character.

Rating: 3 of 6


Overall Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The premise is that wormholes to other dimensions can open up in the twisty aisles of an alternate universe IKEA, which of course sends the lowest-paid employees into them when someone goes missing. There’s a lot of great anti-capitalist satire in here, plus a moving story of relationships, with a lot of queer representation. There’s a lot of story for such a quick read!


Plot

There’s not a lot hidden from view here, and the beats are pretty much what you expect, but the story is fun to read, carrying the protagonists from one place to another. The romance is just enough to make the characters people you care about, while dangling death in front of our faces.


Setting

Alternate dimensions give a lot of space to play with here, and Cipri has some cool places to travel to. The base setting of the big-box furniture store is filled with awesome room setups like “Nihilist Bachelor Cube,” “Parental Basement Dweller,” and “Massage Therapist Who Lived In Their Studio,” while the other worlds of the multiverse, though few included, are interesting to see.


Character

The two main characters have an instant conflict set up, as they just broke up, and are forced to both go through a wormhole together. Of course hijinks ensue, and the few other characters are given some good depth with quick strokes. It’s also nice to see a queer main character and a nonbinary secondary character.

Rating: 4 of 6


Overall Thoughts

Another awesome Wayward Children book! I love the detail of the Moors and, that we've gotten to visit more than once in the series. It lends a lot of depth to this world.

There's mostly the same characters in this one, and the book develops them all in little ways. I will say this particular story almost felt a little rushed through the "quest" because we already know so much about the Moors. Still, we do get some new locations, and little more explanation of how it works. Very interested to see what comes next!


Plot

If you’ve read the other Wayward Children books, this is the first to return to a location previously explored. I will say I think that detracts just a bit from the story because a lot of what McGuire writes is an exploration of new ideas. Here we have an expansion of an idea, and it’s most evident in skipping over a few steps to complete a quest in favor of more time on the setup and the conclusion to the story.


Setting

The Moors is an excellent world to read about, but not one to visit. Because this is a revisiting, we learn a little more about the borders and the other types of people that live there. We also learn about the forces that interact and how the rules of the world keep them in balance. Like all of McGuire’s works, the setting is intricate where it needs to be and expected until the moment it isn’t.


Character

Jack and Jill are two of my favorites of the Wayward Children, right up there with Kade and Christopher. This story develops their rivalry in interesting directions and we see down to some of the things that (literally) make Jack tick. I love her pragmatism and acceptance of who she is, all the while trying to save her sister from what she wants to become.

Rating: 5 of 6


Overall Thoughts

The concept of this book is very interesting, told between a sister with powers and her brother who watches over her. It contains a lot of righteous anger, directed at justifiable targets. That said, this story covers so many time periods, so much injustice, and so many areas of societal concern, that I feel it doesn’t quite bring home the point it’s trying to make. I would have either read a shorter, more concise version, or had an entire book to flesh out the story more.


Plot

I think most of my issues with the story lay in this aspect. There are some jarring POV switches that take a bit to get used to, and jumps in time are not always clear. Some of the references were not completely clear to me, and the theme of the book jumped between exploring the sister, Ella’s powers, and following the brother, Kevin’s journey through his life, including time in prison. I wanted just a little bit more of one or the other, but as is, it didn’t completely gel for me.


Setting

The setting is largely contemporary, but transitions between the 80’s, 90’s 2000’s and even slightly into the future (I think). There are a lot of descriptions of prison life which are quite eye opening, especially given the events of 2020, and there are many thought-provoking descriptions of how inmates are treated.


Character

This is, to me, the most compelling part of the story. Ella and Kevin each have their own ambitions and journeys, and this is what pulled me through the story, even when I didn’t fully understand some of the events. Learning about how their lives unfold was the best part of this book, seeing how their determination and ambition fuel their struggle for their goals.

Rating: 6 of 6

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