I circled around to some classic SFF short fiction this month, and some of them are classics for a reason–there are some real gems out there. It was my sparsest month of the year for novel-reading, with just a single novel both started and finished in the month of September. But I also read the last 1150 pages or so of perhaps the biggest chunker I’ve ever encountered, so I’m going to give myself a break. To the mini-reviews!
- “Exhalation” (2008) by Ted Chiang. This was my first reading experience with Chiang (I had seen the movie Arrival), and I get the hype. It’s a quiet, heartfelt, sad story that is not altogether hopeless, and I highly recommend it. It’s not at all hard to see how this won a Hugo.
- “The Game We Played During the War” (2016) by Carrie Vaughn. I admit to being a sucker for culture clashes, and this one is just exquisite, with remarkable development of cultural differences in such a short space. It’s head-and-shoulders above the story that beat it for the Hugo Award (admittedly, I have the minority opinion that the 2017 winner was an unexceptional story that got credit for pushing boundaries that had already been pushed several years before), and it would’ve had my vote against this year’s or last year’s crop of finalists as well–it’s that good.
- “Homecoming is Just Another Word for Sublimation of Self” (2021) by Isabel J. Kim. Another story with some tremendous worldbuilding in a small space, yielding a poignant tale of immigration and the pull between two worlds. This has a very good chance to make my nominating ballot at the end of the year.
- “Egoli” (2020) by T.L. Huchu. A brilliant work of Africanfuturism about a grandmother reflecting on a world of scientific development so out of step with the world she knew as a girl. It’s plot-light but packs a punch regardless.
- “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959) by Theodore Sturgeon. The farthest I’ve dug in the archives for quite a while, this 1960 Hugo Finalist (it lost to “Flowers for Algernon,” which I know is a classic and which I should probably try to read some time) is disorienting but poignant and masterfully written. While my reading tends to be concentrated in the last few years, there is some fantastic science fiction farther back.
- “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” (2018) by Mel Kassel. A story about wishes gone wrong that was good enough to take the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It may not be in my top group this month, but it’s a really good story.
Other September Reads
- “Odette” (2020) by Zen Cho. You can tell from the early going that this won’t be an up story, but it’s a heartfelt and well-told tale of a young woman trapped in a dead end job for her verbally abusive (and yet, a pillar of community, because of course he is) uncle.
- “The Sky Didn’t Load Today” (2015) by Rich Larson. A good flash fiction, but doesn’t have that something special to make a story of that length stick in your head.
- “Deal” (2021) by Eris Young. An intriguing alien contact story that peters out a bit and becomes background for a more personal story of fear and emotional scars.
- “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” (2021) by Maria Dong. Not necessarily a story that wraps everything in a neat bow, but a solid story about melancholy ghosts spreading unchecked through America.
- “The Wizard’s Book Tastes of Flight” (2021) by Jennifer Hudak. Again, a solid flash fiction, but not one that necessarily stuck with me.
- “Narmer and the God Beast” (2021) by James Weber. A Kindle Unlimited short from a fellow book blogger, telling a Egypt-inspired mythic origin story.
Novels and Novellas
- Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke. A delightful short novel featuring a sharp but naive protagonist exploring an infinite house. A real contender for my vote for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
- Gideon the Ninth (2019) by Tamsyn Muir. Notorious for its prose (excellent, but aggressively colloquial) and its concept (lesbian necromancers in a haunted house in space), but undercut somewhat by a structure that holds too much back until the final stanza.
- The Poppy War (2018) by R.F. Kuang. A dark magic school novel that turns into a brutal war story inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War. Heavy but riveting, with more internal turmoil than you could ever ask.
- The Relentless Moon (2020) by Mary Robinette Kowal. My other contender for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, an alternate history spy novel on the Moon, with a fantastic lead and a remarkable eye for nuance, especially in dealing with battles against oneself.
- Riot Baby (2020) by Tochi Onyebuchi. An angry novella about race in America that alternates between frustratingly disorienting and absolutely brilliant.
Other September Reads
- The Dragon Republic (2019) by R.F. Kuang. I mostly read this in August, and mentioned it in last month’s round-up, but a powerful finish brings it close to the heights of its predecessor and definitely has me ready for the third book.
- Come Tumbling Down (2020) by Seanan McGuire. The fifth novella in the Wayward Children series tries to do too much and ends up unfocused and mediocre, for all that it features McGuire’s typically excellent writing and some fascinating recurring characters. Full review to come.
- The Way of Kings (2010) by Brandon Sanderson. The 1250-page chunk that took most of my time in September ended up really good, despite mediocre prose. If you enjoy epic fantasy and underdog stories, there’s a lot to like here. If you dislike either, probably spend your 1250 pages elsewhere. Full review to come.
- The Jasmine Throne (2021) by Tasha Suri. Perhaps the buzziest book in my social media circles ended up underwhelming despite obvious quality in several areas. I finished on the last day of the month and am still sorting out my thoughts on why this didn’t grab me the way it has others. Full review to come.
I didn’t post any content for the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t hard at work. I’ve now read extended previews of 80% of our 30-book first round batch and have begun collecting votes from the other judges on my team. Expect updates to begin trickling in soon and become a flood later in the month.