Subjectively speaking: fantasy novellas

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

I’ve been making steady progress on my Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards shortlists, thanks in part to traveling a lot this past month. There’s nothing quite like the enforced downtime of flying to motivate me to inhale books I’ve been looking forward to or bull through ones I haven’t. Today I’m looking back at the fantasy novellas in a Wyrd and Wonder cross-over.

I’m nearly done with the novella category now – I’m currently reading the final nominee. What an interesting and rewarding category this has been: our longest shortlist, and hugely varied in the tales being told.

There are 5 fantasy nominees in this category, of which I’ll cover three today, having read and reviewed Fireheart Tiger last year (although I may reread it to work out my final vote as it sits high in my preferences). Sadly, Tower of Mud and Straw was a DNF from me and I doubt I’ll revisit it as it left very little impression on me (and that mostly negative).

So, one with the other three titles: A Spindle Splintered, The Future God of Love and A Manslaughter of Crows.

A Spindle Splintered – Alix E Harrow

Book cover: A Spindle Splintered - Alix E Harrow

I realized a while back that I don’t enjoy retellings as much as I like the idea of retellings, so this was a novella that kept sliding down my TBR. In A Spindle Splintered, Harrow injects Sleeping Beauty with attitude and agency by way of the multiverse, with a dying heroine who is a lifelong student of fairytales (especially this one) transported to a darker Disney world to rescue a more traditional princess.

I spent the first half of the novella unconvinced, but by the midpoint it had won me over with its subversion of the tale and its disregard for the fourth wall. It turns out there’s a great deal of mileage in revisiting material that is as familiar to its protagonist as it is to you. I enjoyed the geeky references and seizing of agency, and ended up delighting in the outcomes (not least the cheeky sympathetic magic of its multiverse).

Recommended both for those who do love a retelling and those who – like me – can be sold by sly humor, queer romance and smashing of patriarchies. That said, I probably won’t buy the sequel – although that has entirely more to do with Tor’s awfully high pricing for retail and the way they price out libraries for lending. Seriously, folks; if you want people to read your material, you need to make it more affordable.

The Future God of Love – Dilman Dila

cThe Future God of Love - Dilman Dila

Dilman Dila evokes a fascinating world by supporting his intriguing central concepts with an array of throwaway references and fabulous ideas (flying bikes!). It’s an excellent bit of smoke and mirrors to create the setting for a folkloric battle for a storyteller’s soul.

Our tale-telling hero was recognized young, when his first story redefined marriage and gender roles. Now, he’s middle-aged and lonely and his stories are growing stale. When a beautiful young woman comes to compete for his position, he’s surprised when the community don’t recognize her talent – and ‘seduced’ into leaving anyway to follow her.

Cue a romance I had zero time for – not just instalove with an age imbalance, but a self-involved man centering his needs, feeling sorry for himself and taking very little responsibility for his actions. It’s always easier to blame a friendly young woman for leading you on (and maybe wanting to eat your soul, but hey, can you really blame her?)

The final act lost me entirely, casting away an intriguing subplot in which the storyteller might redefine the world of demons in favour of a violent crash-stop ending that seemed to reinforce all the unexamined misogyny that had gone before. Or maybe my sympathies were simply in the wrong place (but seriously? Fuck this protagonist).

However, I loved the idea of a society defined by its storytellers in a very literal way, and that examined the dark side of this seemingly attractive notion. Here, communities literally die without new stories to sustain them, putting the storytellers under enormous pressure to churn out new tales each month. A community that kidnaps (and – after a fashion – sacrifices the souls of) storytellers so that the village can profit from their undying blessing was the icing on the cake; top notch world-building, blurring the lines between fantasy and horror as good folklore should.

A Manslaughter of Crows – Chris Willmot

Welcome to the Imperial capital, where elections are fast approaching and someone is enchanting birds to commit macabre murders. These two facts may or may not be related, and our heroine Shadowdrop – grumpy, competent and most certainly not the Emperor’s pet (although she may be his favourite) – is the cat to get to the bottom of it.

Yes folks, this is a humorous political fantasy narrated by an enchanted cat, and if that doesn’t immediately charm you, it’s probably not the novella for you. For those who are intrigued, expect a lot of worldbuilding spun out fast (and, if I’m honest, in rather more detail than is strictly required, but Willmot was clearly having far too much fun… as was I) and a lot of smart-ass remarks from a heroine who – as you would expect from a cat – has no doubt she is the best and smartest person in town.

The novella is as heavy on exposition as it is on world-building, but thankfully also possesses oodles of charm. I enjoyed both the colourful characters (human and animal) and whimsical nature – I recommend it to cat lovers seeking plots and laughs.

This novella appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, so if you’re intrigued you should head over and start reading!

I’ll be back for another Subjective round-up next month, when I shall be focusing on SF.