Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016 anthology, edited by Paula Guran

YBSFFNovellas2016-600Published by: Prime Books
ISBN: 1607014726
ISBN 13: 9781607014720
Published: July 2016
Pages: 528
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

Novellas are currently my favourite thing. Longer than a short story so you get some meaty character development and/or world building, but only need half an hour to a few hours to lose yourself in before it sets you free to go flail about it to a friend.

This is a collection of the best of the best, and it shows. Highly recommended.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

This piece I’d already read previously, when reading for voting for the Hugo Awards.

This novella packs such a powerful punch in around 100 pages. Binti is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University – an amazing place of study that has a human population of 5%. To say that leaving her family and her people behind is hard is an understatement, it simply isn’t done and there’s little chance of going back thanks to the shame she’s now brought her family for leaving, and utterly ruining her marriage prospects. This is soon the least of her worries though, as the journey to the uni takes a turn for the worst no one could have expected…

This is a powerful piece of work as one can expect from the author. Binti is such a strong and amazing character, who somehow manages to defy everything yet remain humble and as though it is possible to do something for yourself without being an awful person, despite what her people may think.

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

Suu Nuoc travels on a ship called The Turtle’s Golden Claw, which has an artificial intelligence on it who was once the empress’ youngest daughter. She wakes him in a panic in the middle of the night, worried that she can’t contact grandmother who disappeared in the middle of a call, a fact so worrying Suu Nuoc dresses and leaves immediately. As a military man, he has a mind for strategy whilst being utterly careful; experience that seems like it will serve him well in this case.

Upon a quick check of the last whereabouts of Grant Master Back Cuc (grandmother), who should be in the laboratories, Suu Nuoc is forced to use his privileges earned through spectacular battles to dismiss the protective seals that have been left, to see if there’s any trace or clue as to what happened, even if it means looking into her private notes…

I’m not sure of how much of De Bodard’s work I’ve read up until now – though I’ve certainly meant to. This is nothing but encouragement, the novella being both engaging and intriguing to read. Both the relationships between the characters is simply explained and easy to follow, and the history flows effortlessly from the little titbits we’re given or casual references made by the characters.

When this one was over I was suddenly reminded I was reading a novella rather than a novel – I felt so immersed that I’ll probably keep remembering to reach for that novel I was enjoying.

Gypsy by Carter Scholz

What an epic opening.

‘The launch of Earth’s first starship went unremarked. The crew gave no interviews. No camera broadcast the hard light pulsing from its tail. To the plain eye, it might have been a common airplane.’

And then this line is able to perfectly sum up the current status of the world:

‘The U.S. was no longer the global hyperpower, but it went on behaving as if.’

We meet Sophie of the year 2043 who has seen the best of life as one of the privileged before the world fell down around her, so she knows how far she’s fallen, and how lucky that these few slivers of remaining privilege mean the separation that saves her from having to fight a war in some country far from home. Instead, she works for a defence system in IT and it’s here that she receives a special invitation…

This piece has some very creepy parts ‘say it’s not, Roger’ and some very beautiful, and it’s incredibly interesting to see Scholz’ take on what happens physically after a long journey of a certain nature. These people are brave and it’s a scary and hyper-realistic option of what could happen in the very, very near future. I’d love a novel of this, really.

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik

A boy is told stories of a pauper princess by his Gramps. The Mughal princess Zeenat Begum, lost her kingdom to British rule and her great-great-great Grandfather King Bahadur Shah Zafar exiled. This all seems a world away to the boy in humid Florida, but they move him to tears and he takes it all in regardless and begs for more even when others laugh at the stories and call them only that – stories.

Gramps demands that they are true, and that he bought tea from the princess herself. Drank it under the Eucalyptus tree and knew of the jinn that protected the princess and her sisters, and didn’t always react too well if other children nearby didn’t respect him enough.

I’ve read and enjoyed Malik’s work before, so I went into this piece with high expectations and they were met with flying colours. Especially with the idea of the eucalyptus, which I’m very familiar with being from Australia. The characters felt utterly their own and lifted off the page in a way where I don’t want to leave them. I’m really loving what Malik does!

What Has Passes Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu)

Xie Baosheng was born on the day the world was supposed to end. He’s four when the Olympics come to China, a story he one day tells his son, who finds it almost impossible to believe China could have been so prosperous.

The story follows Baosheng through his childhood with a close friend, Qiqi, until she moves away, and then the other friends and classmates he meets throughout his school life. We get comments about what he notices about the world as things deteriorate around him, the wars, the loss of technology, the adults around him becoming poor or divorced and angry and frightened.

It’s an interesting and captivating view of culture and boundaries as we see the terrible things that happen to characters we really grow quite fond of, despite some of the decisions that are made. We hear about the awful things that happened at Tiananmen Square and how the world inflicts certain results within China, and it all over shows how rough life is, and how little we’re taught in school sometimes… A huge eye-opener, and very, very well translated.

The Last Witness by K. J. Parker

This novella is about a particular man blessed and/or cursed with both a photographic memory and the ability to take thoughts out of the minds of others. He can’t read your mind – that’s not possible, he says. He takes the memory, as in, the original owner loses all trace of it.

This means the man has seen literally everything – the darkest and cruellest thing man has ever thought of or committed. It also means he’s quite handy in eliminating someone, as then all traces of the crime can be wiped out. Other than himself, of course, but he assures his clients that it’s not a problem.

He’s an engaging main character to follow. He has power and he knows it, unflinchingly happy to haggle hard without remorse. After all, they’re pretty nasty people he’s dealing with half the time. He also has a good voice that’s wry and both road-weary but still amused at the hell of life. I’ve been meaning to read Parker’s work before, and I really need to follow up on that now!

Inhuman Garbage by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This one certainly had the title that made me the most intrigued, and it certainly delivered. We have a detective and a mention of Armstrong, the largest city on Earth’s moon. Awesome.

Detective DeRicci is investigating a body that’s turned up in some waste disposal, and interviews the owner himself who’s strangely compliant and helpful. It turns out its not the first body to appear in the disposal, though they haven’t had one for more than a year… both human and alien, he says. The company has been in his family for a while, and bodies appeared when his grandmother was in charge – that’s why they brought in certain technology to scan for such irregularities.

This was an engaging piece, because both DeRicci and Ansel (the boss) are highly capable and interesting characters, and I especially liked how DeRicci was quick to admit certain things – like how squeamish she is with organic stuff. I haven’t heard of the author before, I have to admit, but I’ve put The Disappeared (Retrieval Artist #1) onto my to read list now! (Miles Flint has been called one of “the top ten greatest science fiction detectives of all time” by io9 and one of “14 great sci-fi and fantasy detectives who out-Sherlock’d Holmes!)

The Bone Swans of Amandale by C. S. E. Cooney

Dora Rose, Elinore and Maurice are shape shifters that go through ‘fleshing’ and ‘downing’, where it’s possible to catch them in between and kill them with an arrow. Dora and Elinore are swans, and Maurice, our narrator, is a rat. They have a history among them, and no love lost there, though they still come together in part when the hunters arrive.

We have a mayor full of trickery, who won the position through deceitful ways, and a world where animals have one last song before they die. Overall this felt like the most magical piece, as it certainly takes you somewhere else entirely.

Johnny Rev by Rachel Pollack

Jack goes by many names. Jack Shade, Rebel Jack, Jack Crazy… and he’s a Traveler. He studied with Anatolie, who once scared him so badly that it set him straight and he learned a valuable lesson of knowing who to be reckless with, and who to respect.

In the ‘now’, he’s now called Jack Shade and we’re dropped into an adventure almost immediately, complete with the always epic line, ‘Oh fuck,’ ‘You’re dead! I killed you, goddamnit. I killed you!’ Now, who can resist a line like this?

This is another epic and excellent novella, with a sparkling lead and subtle little hints of the magic and power of their world and the abilities they have. I would certainly love to read a novel set in this world also.

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