After a month hiatus stemming from SPSFC responsibilities and a truncated lunch break, November has brought me back to sci-fi/fantasy short fiction, and I’ve come across some truly exceptional work. I didn’t read a bad short story all month, with the monthly “other reads” category both shorter and higher in quality than it usually is. And “November favorites” section has seven stories in it. This was a great reading month for short fiction. So let’s get to it.
- “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” (2017) by Tobias S. Buckell. Just three nominations away from becoming a finalist in the absolutely stacked 2018 class of Hugo nominees for Best Short Story, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” tells a clever and enjoyable story about a maintenance not-quite-robot compelled by Core Laws to aid a mortal enemy. It’s hard to complain about it being behind something like “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” but it’s still a really fun read.
- “Amber Dark and Sickly Sweet” (2021) by Lulu Kadhim. A dark but beautiful story about women forced to sell their bodies, not just for sex, but as literal containers for honeycombs on bee farms. It’s extremely heavy, but it’s powerfully told.
- “My Sister is a Scorpion” (2021) by Isabel Cañas. A beautiful and heart-wrenching story of loss with the flavor of magical realism.
- “A Better Way of Saying” (2021) by Sarah Pinsker. A small-scale period piece (set in early 20th-century New York) that just does such a perfect job of capturing the main character’s voice. It skips forward and doubles back and just feels like a (particularly adept with storytelling) grandfather sitting in a rocking chair spinning yarns.
- “Men in Cars” (2019) by Lisa M. Bradley. If you enjoy feminist short stories about creepy urban legends, don’t miss this one–it’s excellent.
- “That Story Isn’t the Story” (2021 novelette) by John Wiswell. An intense but cathartic story about a familiar trying to escape–both physically and mentally–from his abusive master.
- “The Language Birds Speak” (2021 novelette) by Rebecca Campbell. It’s not necessarily a surprise where Campbell takes this story about a family with some strange linguistic development, but it hits hard and doesn’t let up.
- “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (2012) by Ken Liu. A creative format with the artistry I’ve come to expect from Liu, but doesn’t quite come together well enough to hit the favorites list. Still, it’s hard not to recommend anyway.
- “Marked by Bears” (2021) by Jessie Loyer. I read a lot of stories in early November that were beautiful, powerful, and emotionally heavy, and this is another from that list. But this one was just too dark for me. The quality is in many ways on par with the stories in my favorites group, but at some point, it’s too much to really enjoy the read.
- “Eight Reasons You Are Alone” (2021) by Benjamin C. Kinney. This is another story that I appreciated a little more than I enjoyed, but the format is interesting and the exploration of post hoc rationalization is really fascinating.
- “Godfather Death, in His Own Words” (2021) by John Wiswell. Wiswell’s work is just such a joy to read, and this one is no exception. It may not hit quite as hard as some of his others, but it still brought a smile to my face.
Other November Reads
- “Leaving Room for the Moon” (2021) by P.H. Lee. This is a story I’m seeing on a lot of early “favorites of 2021” lists, and the quality of writing and exploration of cultural loss makes it easy to see why, although it didn’t come together as more than “solid” for me.
- “The Stop After the Last Station” (2021) by A.T. Greenblatt. Another quality story exploring transition and regret that’s appeared on quite a few “best of” lists, but again, it doesn’t quite reach the level of my favorites list.
Novels and Novellas
- Elder Race (2021) by Adrian Tchaikovsky. An absolutely tremendous blend of sci-fi and fantasy that tells an engaging adventure story while also exploring cultural differences and mental health battles.
- Axiom’s End (2020) by Lindsay Ellis. A sci-fi political thriller with a first contact premise that works well enough but really doesn’t stand out from the crowd.
- Silver in the Wood (2019) by Emily Tesh. An atmospheric, small-scale fantasy novella with gorgeous prose and good chemistry between the leads that doesn’t quite nail the ending.
- Project Hail Mary (2021) by Andy Weir. A sci-fi thriller with science problems instead of battles and a really fun first contact storyline, which mostly makes up for some extremely flat tertiary characters.
- Lobizona (2020) by Romina Garber. A Spanglish love letter to Harry Potter that handles heavy themes with aplomb and proves impossible to put down. This book belonged among the finalists for the Lodestar Award for best Young Adult Novel, and its relative obscurity is to the detriment of the YA fantasy subgenre.
- The Way of Kings (2010) by Brandon Sanderson. The book is out on Brandon Sanderson, and this one delivers what was expected: tremendous worldbuilding and a setup for a frenetic finish, but average prose with a tendency to spoonfeed the reader. An excellent underdog subplot made it well worth the read for me.
Other November Reads
- In the Watchful City (2021) by S. Qiouyi Lu. Another on the “dark but beautiful” list, Lu’s debut novella provides a whole lot to be excited about from a new talent. Full review to come.
- Bypass the Stars (2021) by Kate Sheeran Swed. My first full read as an SPSFC judge is a YA sci-fi novel with a well-constructed plot and solid lead that was held back a bit by the secondary characters. Full review to come.
- The Fall of Babel (2021) by Josiah Bancroft. The finale to The Books of Babel keeps the inventiveness and the tremendous prose and really brings the overarching plot together in a satisfying way. This has become one of my favorite series, and it deserves a bigger audience. Full series review to come.
- Bloodlines (2018) by Peter Hartog. Another SPSFC entry delivers a murder mystery that leans into some of the detective tropes in a futuristic setting that blends sci-fi and fantasy. Full review to come.
- Drained (2021) by Marc Daniel Acriche. My third SPSFC read provides a straightforward dytopian YA thriller that just doesn’t maintain the tension well enough to suck me in to a book outside my preferred style. Full review to come.
- Speaker for the Dead (1986) by Orson Scott Card. I thought Ender’s Game had such a perfect ending that it took me over a decade to get to the sequel. I needn’t have worried–Speaker for the Dead is a sci-fi classic for a reason, an absolutely stunning work of anthropological science fiction. Full review to come.
- The Curse of the Mistwraith (1993) by Janny Wurts. I’m about halfway through the opener to the epic Wars of Light and Shadow series as part of a Reddit readalong. Full review to come, once I finish.