Did you know that thousands of speculative fiction books are published every year? Did you also know that although most are in the 300-400 page range, books can be as hefty as a doorstopper or as brief as a novelette? The more you know.
Here are ten great science fiction, fantasy, and horror novellas and novelettes—or what I’ve decided to affectionately call anti-doorstoppers—from the last few years that you may have missed.
A Ruin of Shadows by L.D. Lewis (Dancing Star Press, 2018)
General Daynja Édo returns to the capital as a hero of the Boorhian Empire. Although she had the help of her Shadow Army of assassins, it was her leadership (and magically enhanced armor) that delivered victory after victory. But a warrior’s life takes its toll. Home is not a place of peace, not when politics are involved. The betrayal hits hard and fast, and if she hopes to survive she’ll have to do something terrible. This is a bristling story with plenty of action and fantasy to appease just about everyone.
Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlen (Neon Hemlock, 2020)
The Mangy Rats, a werecoyote punk band, head into town for a Battle of the Bands competition, and get sucked into a weird and unexpected conspiracy. They team up with R, the leader of a werewolf goth band and their biggest Battle competition to figure out who’s behind the mystery du jour. Or they would if Mixi and R could stop making out for, like, five minutes. A wild, rollicking story that has as much heart as it does anti-establishment sentimentality. How can you not want to read a book about a found family of punk rocking queer werecoyotes?
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho (Barnes & Noble Originals, 2018)
Byam the imugi wants nothing more than to gain entry to the gates of heaven and be blessed with dragon-hood. For millennia, the imugi has studied and sacrificed, only to fail time and time again. Three thousand years later, Byam takes human form and meets a scientist, Leslie. This is probably one of my most recommended novelettes of all time. It’s sweet and a little sad, a story about not forgetting to appreciate what’s right in front of you while you’re reaching for stars.
While Dragons Claim the Sky by Jen Brown (FIYAH Magazine Spring 2019)
Mani, the daughter of a coif mage, longs for a life bigger than tending to locals and making extra cash harvesting crops. She also has coif magic, but hers comes with an extra twist of making wishes come true. Hoping to impress a university patron into paying for her education, Mani joins Myra, a disabled young woman on her way to compete in an imperial tournament. But when the cruel Empress brings a captured dragon to the melée grounds, Mani and Myra’s moral codes are pushed to the limits. I love how this story feels modern yet classic, like a new spin on what the inimitable Charles R. Saunders called “sword and soul.”
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy (Tordotcom Publishing, 2017)
I have three words for you: queer demon hunters. Oh yes, my friends. Danielle Cain arrives in Freedom, Iowa, a queer anarchist community in the middle of nowhere. She has come to find out why her best friend Clay took his life; by the time the town is through with her, she’ll have more answers—and questions—than she can handle. A strange three-antlered deer with a blood red coat stalks the woods around the community, and it charges an impossibly high price in exchange for protection. The story is part rural fantasy, part dark fantasy, and part horror. Think Supernatural but darker and queerer.
Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern (Stelliform Press, 2020)
This novella blends science fiction and fantasy with stellar results. In the not too distant future, a massive hurricane rips through Houston, Texas, destroying much of the city in floodwaters. Noah, a young trans man, seeks refuge in a stadium-turned-shelter, but it’s far from queer friendly. All the while he’s being haunted by the ghost of his great-grandfather, Abe, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child. Noah must decide what kind of person he is, one who runs from crises to save his own skin or one who stays and fights for those he cares for even if he might lose. Climate crisis takes center stage in this emotional story.
Local Star by Aimee Ogden (Interstellar Flight Press, 2021)
It took Triz years to pull herself up from guttergirl to spaceship repairwoman. Now she’s happily in a thruple with Fleet captain Casne and Fleet analyst Nantha, but old traumas make her hesitate to fully commit. After a vicious battle with the Ceebees, cybernetically enhanced humans at war with the Confederated Fleet, Casne is accused of treason. Enter Kalo, Triz’s wildcard ex who also happens to be a Fleet pilot. It’ll take all the teamwork Triz can muster to clear Casne’s name and expose the truth about the Fleet. A fun romp through the guts of a space station that is perfect for people who love The Expanse but wish it was queerer.
Lost in Darkness and Distance by Clara Madrigano (Clarkesworld Issue #170, 2020)
Mia never got over the sudden death of her cousin and best friend Charlie. His death sent ripples through their families, sending her generation of kids off across the globe and building a wall between her mother and her uncle. Years later, Mia’s family gets a mysterious invite to visit Uncle Jamey and Aunt Sarita on a hidden Caribbean island. There they meet a new, younger version of Charlie, a clone who shares his face but none of his memories. This is a story less about the science behind the fiction and more of a meditation on grief, on the ways we compartmentalize instead of confronting. It’s a beautifully written and bittersweet story.
The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2021)
This novella is an unsettling yet brilliant reimagining of the sea voyage in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The closeted captain of The Demeter is hired to transport fifty boxes of Transylvanian soil from Bulgaria to England in the late 1890s. But as anyone familiar with the Dracula mythos knows, there is nothing ordinary about this journey. One by one, crew members start disappearing. The captain, who had once fantasized privately about sleeping with the men in his crew, is beset by terrible dreams that twist his desires into nightmares. Although this was originally published in Mexico in 1998 as La Ruta del Hielo y la Sal, it was recently translated into English by author David Bowles and released in the US in 2021.
Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones (Tordotcom Publishing, 2020)
Stephen Graham Jones is one of the best horror writers of the 21st century, no exaggeration. He has a lot of works to choose from, long and short, but I’m including this one on this list precisely because it’s such a great encapsulation of everything he does best. The main character, a young man named Sawyer, believes a mannequin he and his buddies found in the trash has come to life and is killing people. But it soon becomes clear that Sawyer’s grip on reality has been loosening for a long time. Jones keeps the tension high and the narration tight on Sawyer’s POV, leading the reader down a twisty, twisted path to a shocking ending.
Originally published in August 2021.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).