Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Great Novellas

So, of course the Murderbot novellas really hit it big, deservedly so, and tor.com gets a lot of credit for providing a place for novellas to be published other than in rare collections of authors’ shorter works. Of course Tor priced those novellas high, no question about that; there aren’t many novellas for which I’d pay $9.99, though granted these are long novellas. Still.

A collection of the Murderbot stories is due to come out shortly, by the way, and I’m interested to note that this collection — hardcover only available for preorder at this moment — does not offer ANY price break. $17 apiece, $70 total, for four novellas! Wow. That’s priced for the serious fan, that’s for sure.

But this post is actually not about the Murderbot novellas and the prices thereof.

This post is actually about three other novellas that are worth paying a little more for, if you can find them at all. All three are embedded in books, so you have to buy the whole book, and in these specific cases, I’d say that’s more than worth it whether or not you particularly want to read the other stories in the books.

So, three novellas. I’ll start with the one that you’re perhaps more likely to have read and move from there toward the more obscure novellas you might have missed.

1. The Gorgon in the Cupboard by Patricia McKillip, which is found in the collection Dreams of Distant Shores, published in 2016, which is essentially yesterday. There are six other stories in the collection, most shorter and one longer. Gorgon is 65 pages long. It starts like this:

Harry could not get the goat to stay still. His model, who was an aspiring actress, offered numerous practical suggestions as she crouched beside the animal. In fact, she rarely stopped talking. Harry didn’t like the look in the goat’s eye. It wasn’t very big, but it seemed to him arrogant beyond its age, and contemplating mischief.

This is a funny beginning, but Gorgon is not as lighthearted a story as this opening may make it seem. Let me skip forward a bit and find another scene … how about this …

She was walking with her husband on the other side of the street. He was speaking fervidly, gesturing, as was his wont, probably about something that had seized his imagination. It might have been anything, Harry knew: a poem, the style of an arch, a pattern of embroidery on a woman’s sleeve. She listened, her quiet face angled slightly toward him, her eyes downturned, intent, it seemed, on the man’s brilliance. He swept fingers through his dark, shaggy hair, his thick mustaches dancing, spit flying now and then in his exuberance. Neither of them saw Harry, who had stopped midstream in the busy street, willing her to look, terrified she might raise her dark, brooding eyes and see what was in his face. She only raised her long white fingers, gently clasped her husband’s flying arm, and tucked it down between them.

Then they passed, the great Alex McAlister and his wife, Aurora, oblivious to the man turned to stone by the sight of her.

This story is about … it’s about the women men don’t see, as the phrase goes; about the projected images they may see instead, and about learning to see the actual woman behind the obsession. It’s a very good story, goat and obsessions and all, and hey, it’s Patricia McKillip. I will say that the longest story in this collection is Something Rich and Strange, which for whatever reason is one of the few McKillip stories I never really liked, I don’t quite know why. You might feel differently, and anyway, Gorgon is a good enough story to justify picking up the collection, especially if you generally like McKillip, which surely you do.

Next:

2. Blood, by Sharon Shinn, in the collection Quatrain, published in 2009. As implied by the title of the collection, there are four novellas in this collection, each one longish, each one set in one or another of the worlds of her novels. They’re all perfectly fine stories, but Blood is actually one of the very best stories Sharon Shinn ever published, way up at the tippy top of her oeuvre. (She thinks so too, btw; we had a conversation about that once.) It’s 88 pages long, but the print is small, so it’s long for that page count. It starts like this:

Finally the train stopped. Kerk stared out the window, as he had for the last four days, but there was less to see here in the underground city terminal than there had been along their entire route through Geldricht. People waved and shouted, men pushed carts, women urged their children out of harm’s way, and all the purposeful chaos took place under high artificial lights insufficient to illuminate the cavernous interior of the station.

He kept staring anyway. So many of those people were blueskins. More than he had ever seen together in one place in his entire life. He had been told that the whole city was full of the indigo – far more blueskins than gulden like himself – but he had had a hard time making his mind form the images. He wondered how long it would be before he could stop staring at them.

“Kerk,” said a deep voice. He turned swiftly to see Brolt already on his feet, pulling luggage down from the wall racks, filling the small compartment with his height and bulk. “Watch the Tess and the children. Don’t let them stray.”

Reminded of a sense of duty, Kerk jumped up too.

This outstanding novella is about family. Although there are a zillion important relationships in the story and the ostensible focus is on the relationship between Kerk and an indigo woman, the best part is actually the relationship between Kerk and Brolt, so it’s good to see them both in this simple opening. The ending is first brutal and then, a breath later, redeemed. Both the crash and then the recovery are completely believable, arising naturally from the way the story is framed. Honestly, it’s a great story. The other three are okay too, but you should absolutely pick up the collection for this one.

And here’s the third:

3. The Scapegoat by CJC, published in a collection of three novellas called Alien Stars that came out in 1985. I’m still a little startled to realize that’s thirty-five years ago – a whole generation! The other two stories in this collection are by Joe Haldeman and Timothy Zahn, and I must admit I read those two only once and remember nothing about them. While not available in Kindle, this paperback is available on Amazon.

But The Scapegoat is the most powerful novella I’ve ever read, and one of Cherryh’s best works, even though it’s only 68 pages long. You can see her working with themes she developed in a lot more detail later, especially contact between humans and aliens and the disasters that can unfold because of deep misunderstandings at the level of instinct. It’s hard to pick out a sample. I’m going to give you some fragments from the beginning, including the first couple of paragraphs, with a little skipping around. I’ll add here that this story itself moves back and forth in time, not very far, but the situation starts almost at the end and then moves backward and forward. The story is set against a backdrop of a grinding war where humans have been far superior technologically from the beginning, but the enemy, the elves, will not stop fighting and the humans are unable to disengage, unable to end the war, deeply unwilling to commit genocide, and in a word the situation is just terrible.

DeFranco sits across the table from the elf and he dreams for a moment, not a good dream, but recent truth: all part of what surrounds him now, and true as any memory ever is – a bit greater and a bit less true than it was when it was happening, because it was gated in through human eyes and ears and a human notices much more and far less than what truly goes on in the world –

– the ground comes up with a bone-penetrating thump and dirt showers down like rain, over and over again; and deFranco wriggles up to his knees with the clods rattling off his armor. He may be moving to a place where a crater will be in a moment, and the place where he is may become one in that same moment. There is no time to think about it. There is only one way off that exposed hillside, which to go and keep going.

… and his second thought, hard on the heels of triumph, that there was too much noise in the world already, too much death to deal with, vastly too much, and he wanted to cry with the relief and the fear of being alive and moving. So the base scout found the damn firepoint, tripped a trap, and the whole damn airforce had to come pull him out of the fire with a damn million credits worth of shells laid down out there destroying ten billion credits worth of somebody else’s.

“You did us great damage then,” says the elf. “It was the last effort we could make and we knew you would take out our last weapons. We knew that you would do it quickly and that then you would stop. We had learned to trust your habits even if we didn’t understand them.”

“They sent me out there,” deFranco says to the elf, and the elf – a human might have nodded, but elves have no such habits – stares gravely as they sit opposite each other, hands on the table.

“You always say ‘they,’” says the elf. “We say ‘we’ decided. But you do things differently.”

“Maybe it is we,” deFranco says. “Maybe it is, at the bottom of things. We. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way.”

“I think even now you don’t really understand why we do what we do. I don’t really understand why you came here or why you listen to me, or why you stay now – but we won’t understand. I don’t think we two will. Others, maybe. You want what I want. That’s what I trust most.”

And the two of them work out a peace, and end the war, and it is absolutely devastating.

If any of you have read one or more of these novellas, what did you think? If you have a particularly favorite novella of your own, give it a call-out in the comments!

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6 Comments Great Novellas

  1. Elaine T

    Another CJC, The Only Death in the City, which was published in Sunfall , and is, (I think) novella length.

    I will dig out Scapegoat and reread. I only read it once and found it confusing. My memory of the experience feels like I had a migraine at the time, which wouldn’t have helped.

    I think that McKillip, Something Rich and Strange suffered from being written about or around Brian Froud paintings for the “Faerielands” series.

    Susan Palwick’s first published work was a novella that made a great impact, but I’m not sure now. Flying in Place . Haven’t gone back to it in years. But it does the same thing the opening of Deerskin does: Gives off creepy wrongness while not spelling any of it out.

    Hope there’s good news for Pippa soon.

  2. Rachel

    Kathryn, absolutely. I would love to have seen a novel set after “Blood” with the same characters.

  3. Amara

    Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War” is one of my all-time favorites AND is free to read on Tor’s site: https://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/

    It skirts the line between short story and novella, but it hits me a little differently every time I read it. The summary says it’s about two soldiers on opposing sides of a just-ended war to meet up to finish a game of chess, but it’s really about people and what war does to them.

  4. Rachel

    Oh, yes, I really liked “That Game We Played.” You’re right, Amara, I’ve read it several times and it’s doing a lot in a relatively small number of words.

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