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Tag Archives: novella

“Elevation” by Stephen King

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The second of the two books Stephen King released in 2018, Elevation is very short, probably novella-length. Like his previous novella, Gwendy’s Button Box, and several of his bestselling novels, it’s set in the Maine town of Castle Rock. One of the residents, Scott Carey, has become the subject of a mysterious phenomenon. As he grapples with its effects on his life, he also becomes aware of the more mundane—but no less damaging—struggles afflicting the lesbian couple next door.

The story of Elevation takes place on a much smaller scale than most of King’s other works. Even when there was a claustrophobic setting (The Shining) or a focus on a single character (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), King’s books have usually given the sense that the protagonist is caught up in a much larger conflict. But while some larger force may be behind what’s happening to Scott, we never see it directly, and human-scale projects like winning a footrace or running a small business are treated with equal seriousness.

The tone of this book is also much lighter than the rest of King’s oeuvre. While the good guys do win sometimes, there’s an overall impression that evil can never be truly vanquished, just kept at bay for a time. (Which is not to say that efforts to do so are meaningless, of course.) That may be true of Evil as a metaphysical force, but Elevation’s centering of human-scale problems allows for the possibility of a more permanent happy ending. It may not be what Constant Readers expect, but it’s a worthy addition to the lineup.

“The Emperor and the Maula” by Robert Silverberg

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Robert Silverberg has been a major figure in science fiction since the 1950s, having won the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards multiple times. Recently, he published The Emperor and the Maula, a science-fictional take on the story of Scheherazade. Technically, this is a reprint, since an abridged version was printed in the 1990s. The new version of the story is nearly 15,000 words longer. The novella follows Laylah, a human woman seeking to free Earth from an interstellar empire that has made it a vassal state. As a “maula”—a word meaning, roughly, “provincial barbarian”—Laylah is forbidden to set foot on the homeworld of the conquering Ansaar on pain of death. But she goes regardless, hoping to petition the emperor for Earth’s freedom. Like Scheherazade, she forestalls her execution by telling stories.

Silverberg paints a vivid picture of a sprawling empire filled with wonders that Laylah can barely comprehend. But while the Ansaar are very different in culture and appearance from humans, some things are universal truths…like the tendency of bureaucrats to shunt problems off on someone else. Silverberg nicely balances “sensawunda” and relatability.

Another strength of the story is the complexity of the relationship it portrays between Laylah and the Ansaar. She wishes for humanity to be free, but develops a genuine friendship with an Ansaar official. Silverberg also makes some interesting sociopolitical insights. At one point, we’re told that “Aristocrats might shrug at the social codes, so long as their own positions remained secure, but the common folk, fearing a wholesale collapse of the social order that might bring chaos into their own lives, generally preferred that everyone observe the rules of behavior—even where that might be disadvantageous to themselves.” A great deal has been written in political science circles about instances in which citizens vote for policies that run counter to their own self-interest. Silverberg suggests one possible reason for this phenomenon: people may see even a crappy status quo as superior to the uncertainty that would accompany upending that situation.

This is generally an interesting and entertaining story, but I did perceive a couple of flaws. First, Laylah says that humanity had long since given up space exploration at the time the Ansaar came. She speaks of humanity turning inward with approval, and this seemed an odd viewpoint for a heroic protagonist in a science fiction story to espouse. At its core, sci-fi is about exploration, about the ever-expanding final frontier. The idea that humanity would forsake curiosity and exploration, not because of an apocalyptic war or natural disaster, but simply because they didn’t see any value in it, struck me as something to be lamented, not celebrated. I was also confused by the fact that all electrical devices on Earth immediately stopped working when the Ansaar invasion fleet deactivated the orbital solar-power satellites. Do none of these supposedly futuristic devices have batteries? Even my several-years-old laptop can chug along without external power for a couple of hours!

“The Tattered Prince and the Demon Veiled” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Unlike the other stories Bradley P. Beaulieu has written in his Song of the Shattered Sands universe, The Tattered Prince and the Demon Veiled is a direct sequel to one of his previous novellas. Tattered Prince centers on a side character from Of Sand and Malice Made. In that story, Brama fell afoul of a malevolent creature called an ehrekh. Now, he holds the gem in which that ehrekh’s spirit has been trapped. It tempts him with power, trying to convince him to set it free. So far, he has resisted its siren song…but when he becomes enmeshed in a game of international intrigue, his resolve is sorely tested.

For whatever reason, this novella felt slighter to me than some of the others Beaulieu has written. I didn’t become as emotionally invested in the plight of the siblings Brama pledges to help as I have been with Ҫeda and Emre from the main storyline or Leorah from The Doors at Dusk and Dawn. That said, I liked Brama and hope he reappears in the main sequence of novels.

“Down Among the Sticks and Bones” by Seanan McGuire

Among the many fascinating characters in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, readers were introduced to the twins Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill (Jillian). In her new novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, McGuire tells us about the parallel world in which Jack and Jill spent several years of their childhoods.

In Every Heart a Doorway, we first meet the characters after they’ve already journeyed to other worlds. Sticks and Bones shows us what a couple of those children were like before that experience and raises questions about why the doors appear for the children they do. It also gives us a more in-depth look at one of those worlds. We learned a bit about the cosmology of the setting and the general categories into which worlds can fall in Every Heart; here we see what some of that means in an “on the ground” perspective. I also found it interesting to see what the inhabitants of the parallel worlds think of the doors and the children who occasionally come through them.

While it does a lot to expand the universe of Every Heart, the new novella stands on its own as well. The world is well-constructed, and I loved its use of horror movie tropes. The characters we meet there are compelling, as is the changing relationship between the two sisters. The climax of the story was exciting, but at the same time, I didn’t want to reach it because I didn’t want the story to be over.

The next story in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, will be dealing with a very different secondary world. I’m hoping that it will be rendered with the same vividness as the setting in this novella was.

“The Prisoner of Limnos” by Lois McMaster Bujold

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The sixth installment of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series sees Penric setting out on a mission to rescue the mother of the woman he loves, who is currently being held as a political prisoner. This story significantly expands the cast of characters, most of whom are connected to Nikys rather than Penric. These characters are all interesting, and I’m hoping that some of them will appear in future stories.

The earlier novella Penric and the Shaman featured visions of the Father and Son, while Penric’s Demon gave us a direct glimpse of the Bastard. In this story, one character has an experience of the Daughter, which leaves the Mother as the only one of the five deities who hasn’t directly made her presence felt. We know that Penric spent some time with the Mother’s order and that this experience was not, to say the least, wholly positive. I’m wondering if some of his lingering distress over that episode will eventually be resolved by the Mother herself.

In addition to the tension of Penric trying to infiltrate a stronghold and rescue a prisoner, this installment gives us a different kind of drama with Nikys’s relationship to Penric. He’s clearly attracted to her, and she was starting to develop feelings for him as well, but the events of Mira’s Last Dance made her realize that a relationship with Penric is also inescapably a relationship with Desdemona. Aside from the fact of Desdemona being a demon, she’s also female, and Nikys appears to be straight. Naturally, she feels conflicted about all this, and one of the major themes of this story is her working through those feelings.

Although it’s not particularly long, this is a very full story, with some action sequences, great character interactions, and a well-developed romance arc. I’m looking forward to seeing where Penric and Desdemona go next.

“The Doors at Dusk and Dawn” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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I mentioned in my review of In the Village Where Brightwine Flows that Bradley P. Beaulieu has gradually been introducing his readers to the cultures that surround the city of Sharakhai. His novella The Doors at Dusk and Dawn continues this pattern, introducing the reader to the culture of the nomadic desert tribes who inhabit the Great Shangazi. The story centers on a traditional race held by three of the tribes, known as Annam’s Traverse. Each tribe offers up a prize to the winner, but in this case, one of the prizes offered is far greater than the tribe’s shaikh knows. The main character, Leorah, is desperate to win this prize, but she’ll have to best an emissary of one of Sharakhai’s kings to obtain it.

This novella is essentially a prequel to the main Song of the Shattered Sands novels. Beaulieu maintains a delicate balance between tying the novella into the larger plot and making it an interesting story in its own right. The tension between Leorah and her twin sister Devorah was well-written, and even the secondary characters had enough depth to make me care about them. The story’s conclusion was both poignant and thought-provoking, and I wonder whether it will have implications for the main storyline of the novels.

“The Ghost Line” by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

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Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison’s The Ghost Line is built around an intriguing premise: a derelict interplanetary cruise ship needs to be moved so that another company can use its route. Meanwhile, an urban explorer wishes to record a video of the deserted ship’s interior. But when the explorer, Saga, her husband Michel, and corporate representative Wei arrive on the ship, odd things start to occur. A living twig grows from a wooden door panel, holographic playbacks start up, and so on.

I really enjoyed the world portrayed in this novella. It’s not a sprawling interstellar civilization where travel between star systems is as easy as driving from one town to another, but neither is humanity confined to Earth. The asteroid belt is mined for resources, and Mars is a tourist destination. I also liked Saga’s profession as an urban explorer who creates interactive holograms of the places she visits. It felt like a logical extrapolation of earning money by creating Youtube videos, and I always love seeing sci-fi take elements of the real world and show how they might persist or evolve in the future.

The Ghost Line is a fusion of a sci-fi tale and a ghost story, and the beginning gave me hope that it would feature the slow build I love to see in supernatural tales. How can a twig grow from a door? Why is Wei acting so oddly? Why does one of the ship’s holograms seem to be talking directly to Saga? But the story moves on very quickly, and the pace of the middle and end sections was faster than I would have liked.

I had one other major nitpick with the story, but that concerns the climax, so spoilers ahead:

One of the most poignant moments in the story is Michel’s decision to eat some of the ship’s food so that he can remain with Saga. But Saga prevents him from fully transforming, and I wasn’t clear on the reasoning behind her decision. She seems to make it much more quickly and easily than is plausible, without any real soul-searching, and this deflates the emotional resonance of Michel’s choice somewhat.