Basket Case (Of Novellas): Eight Short Reviews of Eight Short Books (in English)
Diese Kolumne ist nichts für schwache Nerven, denn hier wird getrunken, geflucht und diskutiert: Nicolette Stewart von Bookpunks liest sämtliche Kurzromane von Tor.com und gibt hier ihren Lese-Eindruck wieder.
In these dark times it feels frivolous to set books up on dates or make them fight or drink or tenderly caress each other in a dark room. What is a book reviewer slash court jester to do? Prison visits? Firing squads? Internet mobs? Humor seems both utterly pointless and utterly, desperately necessary.
With no master plan or framework to guide my reading, I started devouring novellas, stuffing them whole into my mouth and swallowing without much chewing. And of course I fell in love with novellas (the length) all over again. It is so satisfying to be able to read an entire book—maybe even two!—in one day, stuck in between the obligations and the full-time job and the need for things like food and sleep and human interaction.
The more of the Tor.com novella publishing line I read, the more confidence I gain in their catalogue. Tor novels have, in the past, failed to satiate me. They are fun and sometimes interesting, but above all, they strike me as a line selected for entertainment over depth, and I need both in my fiction to feel truly full. (The more layers the better! Remember, you're dealing with a M. John Harrison-Simon Ings-China Mieville-Adam Roberts-Jeff VanderMeer-Jeanette Winterson fangirl here.) I've never been one for the fluff of dessert—in my meals or my books—and Tor novels feel like too-large desserts. They taste good, but all the cream gives me a stomach ache and in an hour I'll be sugar crashing and flailing for something more substantial. Fun for fun's sake better be really fucking fun if I'm not going to end up bored and searching for nutrients elsewhere (in recent years the only fun for fun sake's SFF I have truly admired were Amy Kaufman and Jay Kristoff's Illuminae Files series).
Not so the Tor.com novella line, which appears to be attempting to cover SFF from more angles—genre-wise, representation-wise, style-wise, and subject-wise. While my cynical side natters in on about how this is just because novellas are so god damned short there's barely time for boredom to set in before you're finished, I'm ignoring that voice until it provides some hard evidence. Because there is plenty of evidence of my former point, and below I'll show you in eight short, ecstatic reviews of the last eight Tor.com novellas I read.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
In a nutshell: Hippo cowboy caper
Yeah, you heard me right. Hippo. Cowboy. Caper. Wot?! This concept. This concept! The caper was all well and good (read: fun), but it was the hippos that got me, and I would have been happy if Gailey had given them to full equestrian romance treatment that the horse so often gets (and that I am so fucking tired of). And get this: this almost happened. Apparently, once upon a time in crazy land (read: the United States) some politicians debated domesticating the hippopotamus for meat. John Wayne on a hippo. That is a world we almost had. I'm grateful to Sarah Gailey for both informing me about the failed history of hippo farming, and for giving me a little glimpse of what that world might have looked like, motly crew of thieves and hippo wranglers and all. Also: diversity representation is A+ in this novel, to the point where it comes close to feeling like box ticking. That is until you remember that is what the real world looks like, and that it only feels like box ticking when compared to the "white sauce on everything on the plate" landscape of most of the rest of fiction. However, I came very close to boredom with this one because while the caper was fun, I couldn't call it filling.
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
In a nutshell: All-queer, all-female magic-lite trip to the Chicago World's Fair
Halfway through this novel I put down the book and looked up in a daze and thought: holy shit, there are no men in this book. I thought about it some more and remembered that, oh yeah, there were two or three, if you can count two-bit-ers and set dressings. Everyone else in this book is a woman and a lesbian and those lesbians like to sit around and discuss science and art and oh my this book checks some boxes I didn't even know I had on my wish list. There are quite a few popular books that are 100% dudes (Blood Meridian, most of The Lord of the Rings spring instantly to mind), so you'd think there would be a few featuring 100% ladies. But there are not, I can't think of a single one, and finding a book that is feels like a fucking revolution. But that is reductive, and sells the magic tricks performed by Ellen Klages in Passing Strange short. She also brings 1940s Chicago to vibrant life as backdrop for a sweet and engaging artists' romance, with a hint of magic to keep things interesting.
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
In a nutshell: Oh my god there are so many horrible monsters somebody please kill all these monsters oh god
A delightfully creepy tome so intent on avoiding the info dump that the world building occasionally felt sparse. Still, it did the job, and I never felt lost in this creepy detective story about monsters and monstrous contagions. Hammers is Khaws debut, and a book that marks her as an author to follow, especially as her work continues to evolve, mutant, and grow so many tentacles it couldn't let you go even if it wanted to.
Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny
In a nutshell: Punk activists take on evil pharma tech
Everything Belongs is set in places (punk collective houses) among people (activists and punks and outsider drop outs) where I feel at home and yeah, that did a lot of work of endearing this dystopian future to me, but for the most part this 128-page tale put in the work to win me over. Science fiction factor: a tiny blue pill that allows people to live for hundreds of years, remaining at whatever age they began to take their medicine. The dystopian factor element follows automatically: the pills are so expensive that only the rich elites and the artists considered culturally significant enough to be sponsored can afford them. And so the rich are granted immortality, while the poor continue to work meaningless jobs and suffer and die in 50-100 years. Though the story does poke at the idea of whether or not fucking with our biology in this way is a good idea, it doesn't drown in it (thankfully, I'm weary of tech-phobic SF), and the main focus is the ethics of this imbalance of power between classes. (Depth! Woooop!)
Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal
In a nutshell: An expertly crafted if brief slice of a near-future world, as seen through the eyes of kidnapping victim
Forest of Memory was stylistically the most interesting of this set, though it was more snapshot than story. Which is not to say there was no story, but that it implied more than it said and raised more questions than it gave answers. The kidnapping story propels the reader quickly from page to page as hints of interesting SF-future concepts were dropped in to create effortlessly realistic effect. (When a made up word works it just works. You know? There is a certain magic to the creation of SF-inal words that is more gut than grammar.) The strong narrative voice was a big flashing neon sign telling me that Kowal is a writer I should be paying a hell of a lot more attention to. (Oh and look, she's signed for a pretty cool looking SF trilogy.)
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
In a nutshell: Children who have visited another world and been sent back try to copy with the disappointments of reality at a school for "Wayward" children
From the same thematic family as The Magicians series, Every Heart a Doorway is sad and inventive and well told, even if I number among the readers who found the ending a little too easy. I will be exploring Every Heart (and the two books that follow it) in more detail in a separate column, but for now suffice to say, this is a dark and yet rewarding tale of how fucking disappointing it can be to look reality right in the face.
The Devil You Know by K. J. Parker
In a nutshell: Man makes a pact with the devil, tries to bamboozle his demon chaperone
Parker never fails to immediately suck me into his stories. (Which was exactly how I felt about his first novella in the Tor.com line, The Last Witness.) The Devil You Know brings readers another immediately interesting and unique narrator (also a contracting demon) with a strong and engaging narrative voice. Clever concept. Neat little tale. Neat little twisty ending.
Arcadie by Dave Hutchinson
In a nutshell: A space colony of gen-modded geniuses is being hunted by their Earth-born ancestors
Oooh what one can cram into 51 pages! A lot has been made of Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn/at Midnight/in Winter series, though I have yet to get to them. Still, because of them, I arrived to the pages of this novella with high expectations. (Met!) The writing is strong, the ending twisty and interesting, though I admit to feeling that it cuts off just when it was starting to get truly fucking awesome. This meant that I was left with the feeling of having a lot to think about and an interesting little SF puzzle to mentally pick at in the days to come. Bonus points for the delightfully Banksian ship names.
And so ended my novella binge. And so begins the next...
This column was brought to you by "These Deathless Bones", a short story by Cassandra Khaw. May contain: Evil stepmothers, righteous women, spoiled children, and sweet sweet revenge. Read it here now.
Tor.com ist nicht nur das führende Onlinemagazin für Science Fiction und Fantasy in den USA, sondern auch ein unabhängiger Verlag für Novellen. Welche man davon wirklich gelesen haben sollte, verrät dir Nicolette Stewart in ihrer Kolumne – auf Englisch!