Monthly Round-Up

August 2021 Round-up and Short Fiction Focus

August in the Tar Vol household was an attack of real life, and I had to consult my spreadsheet to even remember what I read this month. But the whirlwind-hampered memory doesn’t mean there weren’t some excellent reads this month, both short fiction and more extended work. So let’s get right to it.

Short Fiction

August Favorites

  • The Martian Obelisk” (2017) by Linda Nagata. I have now read three of the 2018 Hugo Finalists for Best Short Story, and every single one has been incredible, with Nagata’s surprisingly hopeful tale in the midst of environmental collapse rising above several worthy contenders as the best piece of short fiction I read last month, I don’t know what was in the water in 2017, but there were some fantastic SFF shorts that year.
  • A Compilation of Accounts Concerning the Distal Brook Flood” (2021 novelette) by Thomas Ha. An experimental science fiction novelette told entirely as series of depositions about a disaster in a mining community on another planet. Strongly recommended for people who like experimental formats, but the narrative here is clear enough to satisfy those who like more straightforward stories as well. This will almost certainly be on my Hugo nomination list this year.
  • Shame” (2014) by Nerine Dorman. A story that’s as much about racism as it is a zombie horror, and it does both very well. As an American reader, it’s also interesting seeing such a story set outside of my home country, with this one set in the author’s home of South Africa.
  • The Man Who Ended History” (2011 novella) by Ken Liu. Another victim of my idiosyncratic sorting system (yes, it’s a novella, but it’s a short one that I read online, so it gets lumped in with short fiction), and the second thing I read in a month’s span drawing historical inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War, with Liu’s novella formatted as the text of a documentary. It can be a slow-mover, but Liu’s prose is evocative at always, and it’s still a powerful work that’s easy to recommend if you don’t mind a story that takes its time.

Strong Contenders

  • The First Stop is Always the Last” (2017) by John Wiswell. You know what to expect with Wiswell–sci-fi, fantasy, and horror tropes taken in a heartwarming direction, and this is another excellent example, with temporal manipulation on a bus.

Other August Reads

  • A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at an All Girls Superhero Academy” (2019) by Jenn Reese. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin, a second-person story about a mindreader feeling self-conscious about her powers in a superhero academy. Doesn’t do anything necessarily wrong, but isn’t going to surprise you either.
  • The Tyrant Lizard and Her Plus One” (2021) by John Wiswell. Again, sci-fi tropes (and disability) with a hopeful bent is pretty much on-brand Wiswell, but the Jurassic Park inspiration doesn’t hit as well for me as most of his others.
  • An Account of the Land of Witches” (2013) by Sofia Samatar. A story formatted as a series of found documents giving an account of the land of witches. It seems pretty well-respected, but for me, it doesn’t quite come together like some of the found document stories that have become favorites.
  • Guidelines for Appeasing Kim of the Hundred Hands” (2021) by John Wiswell. An entertaining 500-word flash fiction, but it takes a lot for such a short story to really stick.
  • Selkie Stories are for Losers” (2013) by Sofia Samatar. A story about those left behind that garnered nominations for all three major fantasy awards. It didn’t stick with me quite like it apparently did with the various nominating groups, but it’s a good story and I can’t say it didn’t deserve recognition.
  • Peristalsis” (2021 novelette) by Vajra Chandrasekera. A really interesting story with one storyline taking place inside a TV show and another storyline taking place outside the TV show, but in a world watched on TV by the people in the show. Got that? It doesn’t all come together with as big a finish as I may prefer, but it’s hauntingly-written, and if you like interesting formats and don’t mind sitting with some ambiguity, I strongly recommend giving this story a look.
  • The Lay of Lilyfinger” (2021 novelette) by G.V. Anderson. Loss, coming-of-age, and the playing of a true epic.

Novels and Novellas

Reviews Posted

  • From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court (2018) by Benedict Patrick. A dark fairy tale set in Patrick’s Yarnsworld universe, which has some really outstanding myths mixed in with extended work that can feel a little repetitive.
  • The Last Graduate (2021 upcoming release) by Naomi Novik. The sequel to A Deadly Education has plenty more of El’s meandering narration and lots of fighting monsters. It’s a whole lot of fun and increases the scope from the first book.
  • The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020) by Nghi Vo. An epic told obliquely through a quiet inventory of objects that feels like an experimental novelette given room to breathe. Really doesn’t put a foot wrong, and my clear front-runner for the Hugo Award for Best Novella, with just one more left to read.
  • Raybearer (2020) by Jordan Ifueko. A YA that hits so many heavy themes and ties them all together in a really exciting story. The ending may be a little convenient, but there’s a whole lot to like about this one, and it’s easy to see why it garnered a nomination for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel.
  • The Quiet Invasion (2000) by Sarah Zettel. Finally writing up one of my favorite reads from the pre-blogging section of 2020 with a standalone first contact novel with a fabulous alien perspective.
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) by Seanan McGuire. A prequel to the Wayward Children series of portal fantasies that perfectly captures the fairy tale atmosphere, for all that it turns in a darker direction.

Other August Reads

I’m far enough behind now that “other August reads” is just “all August reads (that didn’t fall into the short fiction focus),” but just go with it.

  • The Unspoken Name (2020) by A.K. Larkwood. An epic fantasy opener that seems to check most of my usual boxes but didn’t quite draw me in as I might’ve hoped. Full review to come.
  • Riot Baby (2020) by Tochi Onyebuchi. A novella about race in America, with fantasy themes that become more or less significant as the story progresses, with some truly powerful scenes but without a driving plot. Full review to come.
  • The Relentless Moon (2020) by Mary Robinette Kowal. The third novel in the Lady Astronaut series introduces a new main character and adds an espionage dimension to the already successful base of “hyper-competent women breaking barriers in an alt-history space race.” This is in the running for my favorite novel of 2020. Full review to come.
  • Project Hail Mary (2021) by Andy Weir. I hadn’t read Weir before, but I had seen the movie based on The Martian, and this is much of a piece, with science problems replacing gunfights in a general thriller plot. But Project Hail Mary has an additional first contact storyline that really makes it come together for me. Full review to come.
  • Silver in the Wood (2019) by Emily Tesh. A cozy and engrossing mythic novella about the flirtatious meetings between a folklorists and the Wild Man of the Wood–so cozy that it’s almost a surprise when an antagonist appears. Full review to come.
  • The Dragon Republic (2019) by R.F. Kuang. I’m still only about 70% through this one, and it doesn’t have the raw power of the series-opening The Poppy War, but the character study certainly offers plenty of intrigue.


Although August was probably my lightest reading month of the year, it also saw the beginning of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, for which I will lead one of the judging teams. I introduced the team here, and I also posted our 30 first-round entries, along with a little bit about how the early stages of the competition work. It will be another few weeks before the judges make our way through our first pass, but keep an eye out for more.

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