I’ve been promising a recommendations post, and I’m frantically reading through the last few things I know I want to see included, but uh a rare good thing that happened in 2020 is there were so many novellas I adored, and I have enough to say about them to make a full post, and I know people need their own time to read and consider nominating soooo… this is a slightly breathless post about 2020 novellas I loved.
You may want to read them for their own sake - you may also want to nominate them for awards. I believe all of these are eligible for the Hugo and Nebula novella categories. The three marked with * are from NZ authors and can be nominated for Sir Julius Vogel Awards (anyone anywhere can nominate - if you enjoy them please do!). There of course may be other awards I’m unaware of, and I expect they’ll fit in similar categories.
The Factory Witches of Lowell by C. S. Malerich
Do you ever feel a book has been written just for you and your nerd interests? I read this in one go, and felt exactly that. I’m a union history nerd - the type who, the last time I was in the US, made a very ill-planned solo train trip from Boston just to see Lawrence, the location of the Bread and Roses strike of 1912. I am also very interested in the complexities around the relationships of workers with machines (see also: my rant every time someone misuses the term luddite - I’m a fucking joy at parties) and have thoughts about magic and weaving analogies. This had all of these and it was a delight.
If these aren’t your particular interests, why should you read it? Malerich makes really skillful use of the novella form and this is a really well balanced and delicately written book, the sort where the words are just right to the point they almost melt away. There’s a beautiful, understated, queer love story, some excellent twists and turns about who one’s allies really are, and in these weird times we really need to know that we can work together and there’s a chance… just a chance, that we can win.
Finna by Nino Cipri
I hate to sound like this is going to be another rant about my nerd interests but… I really like flat-packed furniture (do you know how hard it is to live in a country where you have import your IKEA furniture via agents?). So I was excited about this from the start. I loved it on many uh dimensions. On the one hand, it’s a ridiculously fun exploration of alternate worlds, vivid and creative. But it also captures the queer-late-millennial experience in a way that really resonated. It’s about flat pack furniture but it’s also about capitalism and shitty jobs and queer friendship and it was just a delightful read, with the right balance of fun and punch-in-the-gut feels. The ending was to me a perfectly balanced affirmation of both who you are, but also what you could become, and I loved it.
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
If you know me, you’ve heard me talk about this one. If you live near me you may have had a copy literally waved in your face. This novella is set in the Birdverse secondary world; I’ve read most of what’s been published from it so far, and I was actively twitchy with excitement about this being published. It did not disappoint.
The Four Profound Weaves follows two trans elders on a journey. It’s so many things all at once: an affirmation that it’s not too late to be who you are, or to finish what you started, an exploration of ageing and death and life, about finding community and the choices that are yours to make about where you fit in and outside of it, and the choices you cannot make. The prose is absolutely gorgeous; you can almost feel words running over your fingers as times, shifting like the sands of the desert it portrays. There’s a love of detail and beauty in it, even when the topics are difficult.
This is a work that means a lot to me in ways I’m still unfolding. It also has many bird bones(!!!), and a brief appearance by one of my favourite Birdverse characters. If you can, do get the paperback; the illustrations, though simple, add a layer to it that is less prominent in the ebook.
Hexes and Vexes* by Nova Blake
I do have a personal connection to this one: in the early days of the pandemic, as we were facing a harsh lockdown, a group of my friends and colleagues decided to write fun witchy novellas set in New Zealand to keep us occupied and connected. We ended up with 8 novellas (and one short story collection) released in 2020, with more to come this year.
It was a very hard time picking from them; they were fun to read and fun to write, but I’ve ended up with two that gave me particular delight on this list. Hexes and Vexes is a story of going back to your small home town and facing what you ran away from. It’s about tarot and family and building relationships and there’s a magpie, and it’s warm and cosy even when it covers some more uncomfortable topics. It’s well crafted to the novella form as well, and really, a good solid read for when you want something that makes you feel good to have read it.
No Man’s Land* by AJ Fitzwater
Hell yeah queer shapeshifter story! No Man’s Land is set in New Zealand’s South Island during WWII, and tells the story of one of the young women assigned to farm work. The people she meet and the things she learn about herself change her in more ways than one. This books is so visceral; so connected to bodies and earth and water, vivid and sensual in its description, and it connects in carefully with queer history. There’s so much going on and I love it.
Riverwitch* by Rem Wigmore
MORE EEL RELATED CONTENT. This is another of the witchy fiction books and… I’ve loved how Rem writes dialogue for a long time and it comes through wonderfully here. It’s a cosy story about environmental protections, trying to do what’s right in a world that wants to slowly break you down. There’s a very satisfying f/nbi enemies to lovers (I’m never going to stop making the enebies to lovers joke) relationship and absolutely wonderful familiars. This is an extremely fun and satisfying read and you should go get it now.
Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling
Yellow Jessamine is darker than the other novellas here, but in the right frame of mind it’s exactly what I needed. It’s extremely well crafted on a sentence (even a word) level, atmospheric and deeply creepy. A besieged city, mysterious poisons… this was one hell of a read.
I unfortunately haven’t yet had chance to read the other novellas Neon Hemlock published at the same time, but all of them look of interest, and I’d encourage you to check them out.
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(Disclaimer: I make friends with people whose writing I love, and many of these authors are friends or acquaintances - I also beta read early drafts of Riverwitch and No Man’s Land. I make no claims of being unbiased. However every word I’ve said here is sincere, and I have no direct financial interest in any of these works. I bought all copies myself, except for Factory Witches which was a present from a family member.)