2021 Hugo Ballot: Best Novella

After months of reading, I’m finally ready to finalize my first Hugo Awards ballot for a category that isn’t meant for reading in a single sitting. And I have to say that after really enjoying the finalists for Best Short Story and Best Novelette, I found the Best Novella finalists to be a disappointing group. Some of that is personal taste, and I’ll say more about the books that do certain things very well but just aren’t my kind of book. But even granting that taste was working against me, the category still has a large bottom group that just feels uninspired. Is that just luck of the draw, or perhaps a feature of too few eyes on quality novellas that aren’t published by Tordotcom? That I can’t say. I hope it’s just a blip on the radar, but I suppose we won’t know until we see the next few years. But enough global musing. There are still good books here, so let’s get on with the finalists, which I’ve split into three tiers. 

Tier Three

Seventh Place: Finna by Nino Cipri

Finna tries to do three things in a relatively short space, and it only does one of them successfully. On the surface, it’s a portal fantasy, but a forgettable one with neither the magic nor the terror to truly capture the reader’s imagination. Second, it’s an eye-rollingly over-the-top satire of soulless capitalism, with a mustache-twirling corporate villain that had me on the verge of DNF. And third, it’s an unusual and well-developed lovers-to-friends tale that intersperses flashbacks to motivate the dissolution of the relationship and doesn’t settle for too easy a reconciliation. It’s the strength of this third aspect that partially redeemed a book that was in danger of becoming a hate read, but I still disliked more than I liked, and I have it below No Award. For more, see my full review

Sixth Place: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

The fifth installment of the Wayward Children series centers the main characters from the fantastic second entry, but it multiplies the size of the cast and the number of storylines far beyond the capacity of the novella format, leading to a story that’s well-written but doesn’t really land any of its major subplots. With fewer plotlines or a novel length, this could’ve been a solid story, although it never really threatened to hit the greatness of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but it just didn’t come off as currently constituted. For more, see my full review

Fifth Place: No Award

Tier Two

Fourth Place: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

I split this category into three tiers, but I really could’ve done four, because Upright Women Wanted doesn’t quite fit with the next two, for all that I had them rated the same. The next two on the list have hints of greatness but didn’t really hit for me personally. Upright Women Wanted never hits those heights, but I generally enjoyed the ride. It follows a group of subversive traveling librarians in a dystopian, homophobic state reminiscent of the Wild West. It’s engagingly-written and fun to read, but the romance feels rushed and the ending introduces significant plot threads that it doesn’t even begin to adequately address. I never really saw Best Novella potential, even as I enjoyed my read, but those flaws dropped it to 13/20 on my rating scale. For more, see my full review

Third Place: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Riot Baby is where my ballot crosses over from “this is just a weak crop of novellas” to “it may be that I’m just not appreciating some genuinely good stories.” It’s an intense, angry story about race in America, with plenty of powerful scenes and a stunning final chapter. It’s also intentionally disorienting, particularly in the middle, with wild jumps back and forth in both perspective and time. That wore on me, and led to me not enjoying the book as much as the aforementioned powerful scenes might’ve warranted. But there’s definite quality here, and I can see why it’s worth consideration for Best Novella, even if it isn’t a personal favorite. For more, see my full review

Second Place: Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Ring Shout is an even clearer example of a book that does many things well but just doesn’t mesh with my tastes. The 1920s period piece with the KKK replaced by literal monsters delivers powerful themes with remarkable care, and it’s no surprise to see it win the Nebula. But it’s action-horror, and I prefer my monster stories to have a little more creepiness and a lot fewer explosions. Clark does try to build an atmosphere, but it doesn’t quite come off. And, while the action scenes seem fine, I’ve long been on the record about being bored by too many action scenes. Which gives me a novella whose quality I can see but that just doesn’t grab me. Ring Shout may be the favorite for this category, and the tremendous setting and theming are enough for it to ascend to second place on my ballot, but it’s not enough for me to get excited about it. For more, see my full review

Tier One

First Place: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is so far above everything else in this category that I honestly considered putting No Award in second place. Ultimately, I don’t think that would’ve been fair to a couple quality novellas that just weren’t really to my taste, but Empress was an absolute gem in what has been a dud of a category for me. Coming in on the lower end of the novella word count, it felt a bit more like a novelette with time to breathe than a novel compressed into a smaller package. The Empress of Salt and Fortune uses an inventory of found objects to tell an oblique epic, with the next piece never clear until after it’s placed, but after which you wonder how it could’ve been anywhere else. It’s an understated, quiet story, but it lacks neither big events nor emotional impact. I can’t begrudge Ring Shout its Nebula, for all that it wasn’t my kind of story, but The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a beautiful tale, masterfully told, and it’d be a shame not to see it take home some hardware. For more, see my full review

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