#balisebooks – 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella

After making choices for the Short Story award for the Hugo, I started reading the novellas, and ranking as I went as well. So let’s talk about all the Hugo nominated novellas 🙂 As for the short stories, any one of these is absolutely worth reading; I ended up having preferences… not necessarily where I was expecting (I was honestly thinking my #2 would finish #1, and I was expecting #5 to arrive much higher… and yet.), and all the works are very different, which I enjoyed.

6. The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark

This is a story set in an alternative Cairo at the very beginning of the 20th century. Alternative, because djinns, magic and alchemy have been a thing enough that there exists a Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. We follow Hamed and Onsi, who have been tasked with understanding the why and the how of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – as the title helpfully hints 😉 The atmosphere (including some great background about women’s voting rights) and world-building were fascinating, and I liked the character dynamic between Hamed, a fairly senior agent, and Onsi, a wonderfully enthusiastic newbie. For me specifically, it lacked something (I don’t know what!) to make it entirely memorable, which I regret.

5. This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I really, really wanted to love this one. Time travelling Romeo&Juliet? Yes please. Epistolary novel where the protagonists explain in detail their medium of writing, and every single one is more wonderful than the next? YES PLEASE. Absolutely gorgeous writing, to the point of real poetry? Doesn’t hurt, and check. Buuuuuuuuuuut I wasn’t able to connect with that book to the point I feel I should have to enjoy it fully. I think it’s a matter of “it’s not the book, it’s me” – and I think it’ll be high on the list of “things I need to re-read when I think I’ll be able to connect with it more”. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this one gets the Best Novella award, and I’d be happy with it; it was just not my thing this time around (and I’m sad about it.)

4. The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

The Deep talks about the wajinru, a folk that lives in the depth of the ocean. The wajinru have a historian, who’s chosen in every generation to hold the (traumatic) memory of their people. We follow the story of Yetu, the current historian – who has a very hard time holding that history in herself. The history of the wajinru is haunting, and its description in The Deep is fantastically well-rendered. The story of Yetu is heartbreaking and yet very relatable. And there’s a whole lot of philosophical questions around sacrifice, and around the idea of identity versus history, that I found very interesting too. This was not a fast-paced book, but it was very impactful.

3. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, by Ted Chiang

The premise of this is very cool – consider a device, called a prism, that allows SOME communication between two parallel universes that differ from the point of a quantum event shown recorded by the device in question. Now, consider the use that quantum event as a “coin flip” – and boom, you have something that allows you to answer the question of “what if I had made that other choice?”. And since that quantum event has some chaotic consequences, you can find prisms in which things diverge in larger or smaller measures. On top of that setting, add some people who are trying to make profit from these communications with parallel universes, and boom, you get Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom (love that title, by the way). I really liked the exploration of what worked and what didn’t in the setting, and the questions about “what is actually ‘core me'” was fascinating too. All in all, this was a very enthusing read 🙂

2. To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers

This was the only novella I read before the Hugo nominations were out – because Becky Chambers, if you think I’m going to wait months before reading anything Becky Chambers writes… well. (Yes, I’m fangirling hard. Deal with it.) At the time I read it last year, I was writing: “A chronicle about a long-term space mission – 4 people on a starship, exploring 4 very different planets. It has a solid, competent crew, and science, and feels, and it feels so much longer (in a good way!!) than the small amount of pages, and it’s lovely, and am I fangirling a little bit too hard here? naaaahhh…”. I’ll keep it at that; and since it was the first I read and I loved it so much, that was a very high bar.

1. In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire

My vote for Best Novella will go to In an Absent Dream. It’s about the tale of Katherine Lundy, who finds a door to the Goblin Market, where rules are important and fair value is an absolute rule (what “fair value” means is also discussed and a whole part of the book). I loved the main character, I loved the concept of the Goblin Market, and I profoundly enjoyed the fact that the more “epic” parts of the story were actually not shown but barely mentioned as “events that happened” (and that actually had important consequences!). This was a magical read – and definitely not all rainbows and unicorns, it also had a fair amount of sadness and of bittersweetness – and I loved this novella so much. Seanan McGuire (and the series of which In an Absent Dream is a part of) is definitely on the list of people from whom I want to read more stuff (… as soon as I’m done with reading all I can for the Hugo voting, I mean!)

“Hugo Award”, “Worldcon” and The Hugo Award Logo are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.

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