2022 marks my second year voting in the Hugo Awards for the best science fiction and fantasy published in the previous year. Today I will be looking at Best Novella, for works between 17500 and 40000 words.
Last year’s Best Novella shortlist was my least favorite of the categories I read, with one outstanding entry (that won!) and five that didn’t work for me for various reasons. But this year’s is just the opposite–I enjoyed every single work on the ballot, and didn’t even consider ranking No Award. But even though I found everything entertaining, I still think there’s one work that stands far above the crowd.
I posted full reviews for all six finalists, so if you’re a regular reader, you can guess how my tiers shake out. For those who aren’t, I’ve included links to all of my full reviews. So let’s get to the ballot:
Sixth Place: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
The Past is Red is a novella expansion of the Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning novelette “The Future is Blue,” telling of a Candide-like optimistic narrator living on an island of floating trash after climate disaster. As with so many stories about climate crisis, this is more about worldbuilding than plot, and I’m not a reader often won over by extended world-driven narratives. The additional length does allow for some interesting further exploration of the crimes of the rich, but it also adds more than a little bloat. This story will be a winner for readers who are enamored with the unusual narrative voice, but for me, it’s merely good—well above No Award, but not a real contender in a very strong group of finalists.
Fifth Place: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire
Perennial finalist Seanan McGuire has been nominated for Best Novella for the sixth consecutive year with her sixth entry in the Wayward Children series, which has won once (for the first book) and is also a finalist for Best Series this year. Across the Green Grass Fields offers a compelling portrait of elementary school bullying followed by a heartwarming portal fantasy found family tale. That’s enough to move it into fifth place on my ballot, but a messy ending that tries to do too much and doesn’t really land any of it prevents it from rising any higher.
Fourth Place: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
Fireheart Tiger is another novella that suffers from trying to do too much, but its core is excellent. At its heart is the story of a toxic relationship between the heiress of a colonial power and a princess of one of their Southeast Asian-coded exploited allies. De Bodard expertly produces red flag after red flag, along with corresponding reasons to ignore each warning sign until the web is bound far too tightly, neatly reflecting the colonial relationship itself. What I didn’t think worked as well was the balance between a lead described as clever and perceptive and one whose actions tended toward the impulsive and short-sighted, and that’s enough to keep it in my third tier.
Third Place: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
Another regular finalist, Becky Chambers opens a new novella series with her customary cozy, low-stakes science fiction—this one a tale of a monk feeling a crisis of purpose in his utopian futuristic society. The ensuing story doesn’t have much plot, but it’s beautifully told and asks a lot of perceptive and relatable questions about obsession with purpose and finding ultimate fulfillment in one’s profession. But the lead also has a couple frustrating foibles, and some of the critique of purpose leads in a direction that hints of nihilism. It’s all very well done, and it resonated with enough readers that I honestly expect this one to win the whole thing, but I just didn’t find the resolution as satisfying as so many others did, keeping this in my second tier.
Second Place: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow
This is the second category where I have a Harrow story second to a competitor that I see in a class apart, and in both cases, it’s the narrative voice that steals the show. A Spindle Splintered is a feminist fairytale retelling in which a terminally ill young adult finds herself transported into a multiverse full of variations on the Sleeping Beauty story and takes it upon herself to fix one. It’s not a story that’s breaking new ground—we’ve seen plenty of multiverses, plenty of feminist fairytale retellings, and certainly plenty of jaded protagonists making constant pop culture references—but it’s told in a way that just makes it so easy to slip into the lead’s perspective. Add a couple truly moving passages and an excellent friendship at the story’s heart, and this story ascended my ballot on execution where it didn’t on originality. And, though I expect A Psalm for the Wild-Built to take home the prize, A Spindle Splintered is a fun enough story by a popular enough author that it has a real chance to win.
First Place: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
While I expect the award to go to a familiar favorite author, there isn’t another novella on the list that has the combination of creativity, satisfying plot, and strong thematic work to come close to Elder Race. Each chapter alternates between a third-person tale in an epic style and a more colloquial first-person account. The former tells of a princess seeking the aid of a powerful, reclusive sorcerer to defeat a demonic threat, and the latter of a depressed anthropologist distantly observing a technologically backward people. Of course, the anthropologist is the sorcerer, and the two tales are two sides of the same story. The concept is a lot of fun, and the execution is better, as Tchaikovsky really nails both voices and uses them to explore cultural differences and the moral quandary of researchers who have pledged detachment but have tools that could aid the societies they observe. I have a thing for stories about communicating across cultures, and I also love effective experiments with form, so those factors alone probably would’ve been enough to secure my top vote. But then it added a truly spectacular exploration of depression and tied it all together into a satisfying conclusion.
The novella field this year is sufficiently deep and stocked with popular authors that I wouldn’t be shocked to see a newcomer like Tchaikovsky finish fifth or sixth. On the other hand, there’s nothing else on the shortlist that really demands consideration for the top spot, and I think Elder Race could’ve made a solid case on just the character work or the structural contrasts between the two lead perspectives. With both together, it’s my top choice by an absolute mile—nothing else comes close.