Much like last year, we read a number of fantastic novellas that deserve a lot more attention. We didn’t want to put these great picks in our best books of 2021 and have them get lost. So instead, here is a shortlist of some of our favorite novellas of the year that we think you might enjoy. 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 2021’s best novellas. We encourage you to check all of them out, as their short size makes them great breaks to any of the huge epics we recommend.
5) Inside Man by K.J. Parker – “As if Deadpool had slipped into the body of the Witcher Geralt,” reads the NYT book review of K.J. Parker’s Propser’s Demon. And the NYT is mostly correct in that description. We reviewed (and unilaterally enjoyed) Prosper’s Demon last year, going so far as to give the novella a perfect 10. Inside Man, the sequel novella echoes some of the deranged wonderment found in Prosper’s Demon, though it fumbles the handoff a little. Much like in Prosper’s, Parker’s prose is still delectable. The demon’s thoughts and descriptions of his existence serve pithy passages that summon the occasional smile or chuckle. Descriptions are punchy, the pacing is fast, and Parker is here to get things done. Frankly, Parker’s prose is just plain fun to read. Inside Man executes on the promise and gives readers a real treat in the form of a hellspawn deemed fragile who has to find his way in a predetermined “Plan.” These characters offer more chutzpah than a cavalcade of cookie-cutter fantasy competitors. Despite being nameless, these characters’ identities shine through dialogue, inner thoughts, and interactions with the world. You can find our full review here.
4) A Psalm For The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers – A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a novella about what it means to be human, and how it’s up to you to define what that means for yourself. It is the first installment of Becky Chambers’ novella series about a monk that decided to quit their job and go live in the wilds and search for crickets. Although Psalm is short and sweet, it is a perfect story for those who have felt alone, frustrated, and directionless in the last year. I think a lot of us in the last year have been disenchanted with the way we live our lives. Many of us wonder what our purpose is and if we are living our lives the best way possible. Psalm has numerous powerful dialogues about the nature of how we live and our purpose. All of it paints Chambers as a woman with an enormous amount of intelligence and provides a novella full of sage advice. If you are in the market for some new ideas, take a look. You can find our full review here.
3) Light Chaser by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth Powell – Right off the bat I’ll tell you, Light Chaser was more enjoyable than I expected. Given my history with Hamilton’s stories, I was more or less reading this to get a quick taste of what he’s been up to, expecting to see the typical strengths and weaknesses of his other works. Hamilton and Powell teaming up though make the story far more interesting than I had planned. Hamilton brings his classic sharpened skills, chiefly his classic gigantic worldbuilding based around a pairing of technological innovations. I wish there was a little more variety, and a little more meat on the bone in some of these scenarios, but Hamilton’s contributions are on shining display and serve the story well. Powell, on the other hand, seems to be in the driver’s seat for character and story, of which there is plenty. There is a frenetic and deliberate pace to the narrative that is focused on Amahle’s development and complicity within the system she participates in. It is a more character-focused story, the worldbuilding serves as impetus instead of it being the main focus. The plot and the worldbuilding enhance each other, creating a pleasant if a sometimes bombastic mixture of the authors’ strengths. You can find our full review here.
2) Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Race, at the time of writing this, is a story that I haven’t even managed to review yet. It just came out as we were putting together our lists, yet it still managed to make a huge impact on me. The core premise is a two POV short story told by a scientist from a technologically advanced Earth and an evolved human who no longer recognizes the science of their ancestors. When the story is seen from the scientist’s POV, the narrative is heavily based on science and technology. When the story is told in the descendant’s POV, everything is told from the lens of magic and mysticism. It is an extremely creative idea and it makes use of Tchaikovsky’s dual talent for both science fiction and fantasy. The insight into the old adage that ‘sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’ is delightful. Highly recommend.
1) City of Songs by Anthony Ryan – Another year, another slamming sword and sorcery novella from Anthony Ryan. Welcome back to the third Ryan installment of “novellas that are killing it that you have never heard of,” starring City of Songs. What I loved about this story is that it starts somewhat lighthearted and quickly starts to descend into a pit of madness. The artistic pieces on display in the city defy imagination and leap off the page into the mind. His use of limited information and clever foreshadowing result in a very satisfying mystery that sticks around the perfect amount of time. Finally, there is some fantastic character growth which is not an easy task when writing a novella series. City of Songs manages to be both fun and depressing at the same time and it was one of the most exciting adventures of the year despite its tiny package. This set of seven novellas continues to be one of my favorite stories of recent memory. You can find our full review here.