Subjectively speaking: novellas

Black and white photo of some pebbles, each painted with text: Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards

This year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards had what may be the strongest line-up of novella nominees yet. It’s been an absolute pleasure to read them, and a nightmare to try and choose between them to select our finalists. Today I’m looking back briefly at them all, because hell yes you should read them. All of them.

Sweet Harmony – Claire North

Book cover: Sweet Harmony - Claire NorthIn a near future where nanos have revolutionised our relationship with our bodies, Harmony Mead can’t afford the monthly payments on all the apps she has installed to improve herself. 

Sweet Harmony is a biting satire of credit plans, beauty standards and near-instant gratification. It considers the impact of Instagram and airbrushing and asks ‘but what if you could be perfect for a modest monthly fee?’ then invites us to look at what we’re prepared to do to protect our idea of who we are (or rather: who we want to be; who we believe we should be). There’s nothing feel-good or wholesome here; it’s a pitch black shot of cynicism and a brilliantly-executed character study that takes time to eviscerate privatised healthcare before it’s done. Best avoided if you’re trying to keep any flickering faith in humanity alive. I simultaneously hated and admired every minute of it (for me, Claire North’s off-kilter futures cut a little too close to the bone).

Upright Women Wanted – Sarah Gailey

When Esther’s lover is executed by her father, she runs away to join the Librarians who distribute Approved Materials to reshape a broken nation. Esther means to atone for her sins with her service, but there are wider possibilities beyond her town’s narrow horizons… if she dares reach for them.

Full of preachers, posses and gun-toting lesbians, Sarah Gailey’s fuel-starved future is both socially regressive and entertainingly subversive. While this is another tale of being confronted by who you really are and having the strength to decide who you want to be, Esther is a lot more lovable than Harmony Mead and the Librarians are a dissenting mirror to classic visions of the Wild West. This is a novella that warns against letting other people define who you are allowed to be and encourages you to resist the instincts inculcated by a lifetime’s indoctrination. It’s also a hella lot of fun with a warm heart and a side of romance that I appreciated for acknowledging insta-love as raw attraction and contrasting it with an enduring relationship between long-term lovers. Huge fun – if you enjoyed this, you should check out Stark Holborn’s Triggernometry novellas.

Riot Baby – Tochi Onyebuchi

Book cover: Riot Baby - Tochi OnyebuchiElla is born with the gift – or the burden – of seeing the future, but in South Central almost every future is bleak. Kev, born during the Rodney King riots, has his future stolen by a cruel system weighted against the promise of young black men. What will it take to rebalance the scales?

This powerful novella is a genre bombshell, balancing moments of lyrical beauty and urgent, rhythmic prose against an uncompromising depiction of the violence inflicted by structural racism. It’s a magnetic read and an important one: we need more stories rooted in black experiences in genre and beyond. Still, I admired more than I enjoyed, finding the fragmented sideways narrative hard going: the novella’s structure is as unsettling as its subject matter. It’s absolutely worth the effort though – this came within a hair of being one of our finalists, and I’m delighted to see it win the Ignyte Award. Sure, I’d have liked the world-building to have a little more room to breathe; a little more space to get to know the protagonists beyond Ella’s powers and Kev’s predicament. I would have liked to see the next act. But you know what? Riot Baby isn’t about or necessarily for me; and I wholeheartedly admire Tochi Onyebuchi’s choices for it.

The Four Profound Weaves – RB Lemberg

Book cover: The Four Profound Weaves - RB LembergTwo transgender elders seek the help of a death-weaving witch queen, but she will only aid them in return for a magical carpet locked away by a villainous tyrant. 

The Four Profound Weaves was not the best point of entry to RB Lemberg’s Birdverse for me. A desert fairy tale of transformation, resistance and acceptance, the opening act cuts straight to the heart of its characters but feels like it assumes prior knowledge of its magical, intricate world. Perseverance will be rewarded – Lemberg slowly weaves everything you need to know into a deeply moving tale that balances big themes with personal stakes, told in a poetic style that begs to be read aloud. A novella that will certainly reward rereading now that I have a basic grounding in the Birdverse – watch out for a fuller review in the future.

Ring Shout – P Djèlí Clark

Book cover: Ring Shout - P Djèlí ClarkThe Great War may be over, but the fight for America’s soul has only just begun. The Klan is on the rise and the shapeshifting Ku Klux demons with it. Hate hard enough and they will consume you – and with Birth of a Nation due a rerelease, a tide of hate is about to sweep the country… 

P Djèlí Clark has a knack for packing his novellas with world-building, character and plot without overburdening them: Ring Shout is no exception, a dark fantasy of the Jim Crow era South. I was worried that the premise of demon agitators would kind of let white people off the hook, but while there’s a sideways look at how easy it is to lead people astray by fuelling hate (as relevant now as ever), there’s also complete clarity that letting hate win is a choice. Come for fierce black women running booze and killing demons; stay for music as magic, the interweaving of history with folklore, terrifying otherworlds and a rousing tale of hate and vengeance, love and friendship, heritage and redemption; solace, pain, grief and endurance.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo

Book cover: The Empress of Salt and Forrtune - Nghi VoThe Empress is dead. When a priest is sent to catalogue one of her rural estates, they meet an aged handmaiden whose reminiscing reveals the secret history of the Empress’s rise to power.

If my precis sounds like a literary history, well that’s arguably what this novella is. Rabbit gives us wry anecdotes of a foreign princess sold into a political marriage; Chih gives us snapshots of the goods she left behind. It’s a history of a woman organising a rebellion from the margins, told obliquely through Rabbit’s carefully-curated stories. Gorgeously written, this evokes the broad strokes of an epic fantasy by focusing on its details: the relationship between exiled Empress and handmaiden; the items Chih catalogues; the conversations with characters who pass through. A novella that sings to the soul, and tantalises the imagination.