In this post I have seven recommendations for getting over a reading slump. Novellas are my go-to when I’m in a slump. But because novellas are condensed novels, getting the reader invested in the story can be tricky if the author doesn’t grab the readers attention from the start. Worldbuilding is more difficult, as is plot and characterization. Everything in a novella is a lesson in editorial work. It has be concise and pack a punch.
Do you like the sound of pre-Colonial inspirations, sapphics, poly but gothic, the adopted daughter of death, Queer Black love, a gay empress, Queer elders, Black monster hunters, and Native ghosts? All of these novellas are fun and a quick read. A really good novella always helps me get over a slump.
Here are some of my favorite novellas.
Pitched as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Goblin Emperor, Fireheart Tiger became one of my favorite of Tordotcom’s publications. You want a pre-colonial Vietnam? A gay princess? Intelligent discussions about self love and abuse? The ‘buy me now’ button is right there.
Fireheart Tiger sizzles with magic, subverting tropes of the genre while planting new roots and new walls for perspectives in a clamor for more fantasy like this. Dark and glimmering like a deep and bright fire in the woods, Aliette De Bodard’s writing is all consuming.
A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson
A Dowry of Blood is a vampire novel that sparkles of gothics, decadence, and delights but hits hard with a sexy bite. A Romanian peasant, a Machiavellian, and a dramatic Russian. All Dracula’s brides and all fit snuggly into a gothic and poly relationship. What I loved most about Gibson’s novella is the lush prose. It almost seems to be referring to Angela Carter’s prose and the like. Like eating gayness in the form of a velvet cake.
Gibson takes a classic and turns it into one that is romantic and a box of horrors all at once.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor writes a short science fiction novella into a whimsical yet frightening tale that weaves and thinks about the lore of a place.
In Ghana, a girl holds a seed that fell from the sky. A girl that dreams of being a goddess and writes words she sees in the sky soon finds that power is dangerous. When a politician becomes interested in the seed, it is stolen from her. Death comes to her door and Sankofa must survive in a world much too dangerous for children. Encountering American robots, angry people, fearful people, Sankofa is renamed as “The Adopted Daughter of Death” for bringing death wherever she travels.
Nnedi Okorafor writes a fragment of a life, pushing the boundaries of what a well told story can do. Okorafor shows the tests of humanity from a girl surviving in a place surrounded by injustices, corruption, and all its dangers. Fans of both fantasy and science fiction will find that Okorafor’s Remote Control brings robots, star gazers, and a razor-sharp girl new life into what science fiction novellas are able to do.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
Wilson is one of those storytellers that I not only want to see full length novels but a thriving career. He’s one of those talented and unrecognized talents. A true gem amongst speculative authors.
In his novella A Taste of Honey he weaves, quite literally, in and out of time and story. The format and structure is not something you would expect. Quite honestly the book is like a puzzle.
In a world of Black royalty, dark toned gods with neon hair, and matriarchal women Wilson fuses mathematics and magic. He tells the love story between a prince and a soldier, so close to the royal/bodyguard trope it might as well be.
Wilson does something very interesting. Not only does he give a speculative story featuring a Black Queer love story but he also does something interesting by having a diversity of different Black cultures and classes in his world. His world is both of African inspirations and of African American cultural inspirations, such as his use of AAVE. There are so many layers that it’s the type of novella I would re-read to pick up even more detail.
I want to read more fantasy not only featuring Black gay men but written by Black gay men. Kai Ashante Wilson tells a beautiful, atmospheric tale that grips hard, like he is determined to show you what he can do.
The prose in this novellas is gorgeous, the world is fascinating, and a non-western setting is just what I want in a good story.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is like a novella of beautiful fables. Utterly magical both in prose and narrative. Rocks transforming into peonies, mammoths roaming the world, girls kissing, and non-binary students listening to a romantic tale from their queer elders.
Vo writes a poetic and beautifully drawn novella inspired by Chinese culture, history, and storytelling. Queer empresses get to exist in a Fantasy without centering homophobia. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is exactly that type of a swanky novella.
Read this for clear skin.
Ring Shout by P. Djélí Clark
Ring Shout is one of those novellas I would recommend if you want something really intense and different.
Clark makes every sharp ring of Mayse’s sword sound as loud as a shout in your ear. Her sword is the culmination of all her ancestors rage and pain. It is The Shout. It is a movement, about surviving slavery and praying for freedom.
When a witch and his group of believers read from a conjuring book, they conjure monsters: the Ku Kluxes. Surrounding an imagined world where D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation conjured not just a surge of the Ku Klux Klan but created monsters they call the Ku Kluxes, monstrous beings with mouths that feast on flesh, claws for ripping, and the likeness of Ku Klux Klan robes.
What Clark did is create a supernatural world in which the rage and hatred of our world is understood through the supernatural. His prose inspires the tone and pacing of early 20th century novels in combination with the eerie tales of Southern African American culture. The build up in the story reminds me of The Marrow of Tradition, a bloodthirsty tale of white people’s call for a race riot on African Americans.
Ring Shout calls forth The Conjure Tales, supernatural tales inspired by African American folklore.
This is not ‘the rage the protagonist feels is wrong’ type of novella. This book doesn’t give a tale of morality which feeds you all the answers. I don’t read enough SFF centering African American folklore and this book certainly shines as an example of what the genre could look like in the future.
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones
Mapping the Interior centers around a young boy struggling with the death of his father. A ghost walks the floors of his home, all decked out in Blackfeet regalia. It’s his father.
The question Stephen Graham Jones suggests in Mapping the Interior comes down to what happens when a family carries the weight of being Native in a country that once wanted their people gone from the land. Stephen Graham Jones also does something interesting with the home. Ghosts transform into something other than a family member but something connecting Native people to colonialism. ‘Interior of our home’ starts to look much more than just blueprints.
Mapping the Interior is eerie and there’s always something around the corner. All the characters are full of depth and imperfections. Junior has the feel of a true teenager, not an imagined idea of what teens are like. Everything feeds on your ability to picture it as if in real life. The smushed cigarette, the silence, the burned spaghetti feels more like something happening next door rather than on a page.
No one does horror like Stephen Graham Jones.