Welcome to the second of my ballot posts for the 2023 Hugo Awards for the year’s best in sci-fi and fantasy! Yesterday, I considered Best Novel, and today I’ll be looking at Best Novella, for works between 17,500 and 40,000 words.
I’m a little more positive on this year’s novella shortlist than the novel shortlist, although it’s still disappointing to see five of the six finalists coming from the same publisher. But there’s nothing here that I hated, and two things that I liked a whole lot. As such, my ballot breaks pretty neatly into two tiers: the solid-but-unexceptional tier and. . . well, the exceptional tier.
Sixth Place: A Mirror Mended by Alix E. Harrow
The sequel to the extremely fun A Spindle Splintered (and if we want to talk about books as pop songs that you can bop to for a summer and then forget, that’s actually a pretty good candidate) shifts from fractured Sleeping Beauty to fractured Snow White, with a humanizing take on how villains are created, a lead with severe problems communicating adequately with her friends, and a whirlwind romance and possibly collapsing multiverse for good measure. It’s a lot! It’s actually a bit too much.
Harrow is a good writer, and so I stayed engaged for the duration of the story, but I struggled to connect to either the insta-lust or the lead’s baffling stubbornness in her personal relationships. The main thrust of the story–the Snow White retelling from the perspective of an evil queen who was backed into a corner and felt she had little alternative options–was by far the best part, but there were so many subplots clamoring for attention that the main plot didn’t have quite enough room to breathe. It’s still a solid story, but it felt like there was a great story hiding inside that just wasn’t able to break free.
Fifth Place: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire
The seventh entry in the perennial finalist Wayward Children series offers more of the same for series fans, with a few familiar characters searching for a way to escape an evil boarding school for adolescents struggling to adjust to the real world after returning from portal worlds. It’s paced a little more quickly than I’d like, with the escape plan coming off so smoothly that it occasionally broke my immersion, and the villains are fairly one-note. But the perspective characters are endearing as always, and the escape plot is gripping, even if there was never really cause to worry about failure. It’s not an exceptional novella, but it’s a fun one, and it’s easy to see why fans enjoy this series so much.
Fourth Place: Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk
A fantasy noir set in 1940s Chicago absolutely nails the narrative voice, but it doesn’t quite nail the ending. The lead has sold her soul for her brother’s life, and she has a chance to earn it back by identifying a notorious serial killer. Even as a reader who doesn’t especially enjoy noir, I felt the narration transported me to another time and place, and it was easy to get hooked into the story. Unfortunately, the selling of souls that was so integral to the plot felt a little bit underbaked, leading to an ending that had narrative resonance but made less sense the longer I thought about it. There are plenty of strengths here, but the ending kept me from having it higher on the list. Full review here.
Third Place: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
How do you get to the top of tier two? By not giving me a whole lot to complain about. Kingfisher’s retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is solid across the board, with likable characters, a creepy atmosphere, and a well-paced plot. The only problem is that none of those elements are really exceptional. The ending is signposted in blinking neon from the opening pages, and neither character nor theme nor creepy atmosphere are quite enough to make this feel like a true best of the year candidate. Nearly every element is pretty good. But none are great. Full review here.
Second Place: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo
Nghi Vo continues her Singing Hills Cycle with a third novella written as a functional standalone and alternate entry point into the series. At this point, I’ve read three of the four–and voted the first for Best Novella in 2021–and they’re all good. Of the three I’ve read, Into the Riverlands probably best fits the conceit of a cleric traveling the countryside in search of stories. It’s mostly a travelogue, with characters swapping legends around a campfire, and it’s endearing from the start. It also becomes clear that some of these stories have more truth than the tellers are letting on, leading to a story that coalesces wonderfully into an action-packed ending. It’s beautifully crafted and a whole lot of fun to read. This was on my own nominating ballot, and it would be a worthy winner. Full review here.
First Place: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This may only be my second-favorite Tchaikovsky novella (after the one I voted as Best Novella in 2022), but it’s still everything I’d like to see in an award-winner. The second-person narration is used to great effect and justifies its use in an absolutely tremendous ending. The thematic work hits hard and never takes the easy way out. And it’s a whole lot of fun to read. I could go on, but this is one that just checks all the boxes. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage doing so, and I very much hope to see it receive some well-deserved recognition with a Hugo win. And the fact that a win would break Tordotcom’s stranglehold on the award would be a pleasant bonus. Full review here.