You may have noticed we didn’t include any novellas on our Best of 2020 list. As we combed through the year’s many magnificent reads, we struggled to balance the short, punchy narratives of 2020’s various novellas with the sweeping stories of the novels that made our top rankings. To give credit where it is so rightfully due, we opted for a different approach this year, one that gives us a “Best Novellas of 2020” list to complement our top novels list. Novellas tell intriguing and often very specific stories, and with such a treasure trove of short(ish) fiction out this year, we want to recognize some of the amazing stories that emerged. Here’s our list of 2020’s best novellas.
5) The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan – What’s really interesting about The Kraken’s Tooth, and The Seven Swords series as a whole, is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novella is unfinished, but it feels stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It’s like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a tried and true fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.
4) The Empress of Salt and Fortune/When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo – Nghi Vo has just killed it this year with two novellas about a wandering archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the plot. The two novellas have very different subjects, but are both fantastic. Empress tells the story of an outcast in a high court outwitting their rivals, while Tiger is a sorta rap off between two bards retelling the same story of a tiger falling in love with a human. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in no matter what story she’s telling. The two shorts are dripping with emotion that easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.
3) Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker – K.J. Parker’s exorcist main character is hated for who he is and reviled for the pain he causes people when he forcefully removes their demons. But he doesn’t care, and his open nonchalance about his less-than-stellar reception makes the nameless character intensely fun to read. When he discovers that one of the great artists and philosophers of his time is possessed by a demon who’s calculating the artist’s every move and inspiration, he has a bit of a dilemma on his hands. Exorcise the thing and risk losing one of the most cherished minds of the era, or let the demon do its dirty work, knowing it all serves some grander, more nefarious purpose? Prosper’s Demon only clocks in at 100 pages, but those pages pack a punch. This is a succinct and hard-hitting story that very much deserves the sequel Tor announced in mid-October.
2) The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky – This novella is the story of a woman investigating a missing person case, told entirely in the second person. This means we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet (the lead) – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing. The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.
1) Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby is an explosive novel that is fueled by Onyebuchi’s ability to target his reader’s emotions. Taking place over decades, the novella follows Kev and Ella, a brother and sister who happen to be black in America over decades of their lives. It’s a harrowing novel about the pain and anger that the African American community has suffered throughout its history on this continent, but more specifically about the nineties and onwards. Onyebuchi is careful not to alienate the reader though by weaving a moving story about a family wrestling with the weight of this history. It has a clever and impactful back and forth between siblings who rely on each other, yet still have an enormous amount of tension due to Ella’s gifts that Kev is worried she will never use to free him from prison. It’s dystopian, but Onyebuchi’s writing makes sure the reader never succumbs to despair. It’s perfect for this moment and the future.