So last up on my Hugo reading for 2020 is two of the novella nominees.
P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a supernatural mystery of sorts. The main characters are from a bureau that investigates hauntings and such-like, in an alternate Egypt where magic was reintroduced into the world there. The world-building is excellent; it’s only a novella, but in the space available to it, it builds up a world with a different history, with different magic-tech, with different politics and international relations, one that feels plausible and detailed. And then it adds to this great characters, with not only the two protagonists (an older, more jaded, investigator and his fresh-eyed young partner) but a whole cast that they interact with. And then it uses these characters and setting to build and develop an actually interesting mystery storyline. This is everything that you want a story to do, but which so many novellas can’t quite manage. This Is How You Lose the Time War was a worthy winner in this category, but I wouldn’t have been mad if this had won.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep is based on an a song from clipping. (which is why it has so many authors listed), and tells the story of a society of water-breathing sea people and their historian. The book description/cover copy gives more detail than that, but doling out information about their history is largely what this story is about, so I’m going to call that too spoilery for me to say here. This novella is good, but didn’t quite work for me. The story structure is a bit lumpy, as it’s trying to mix together a present-tense story of this historian with the history of the people as seen both in broad overview and in specific anecdotes—while the history and the character’s story have thematic resonances, the interweaving of them still felt awkward. Then too, the protagonist is doing that YA thing where they think of themselves as a bad person for reasons that are obviously not true, and discovering this is going to be one of the emotional beats of the story. This is a common trope that must work for a lot of people, but I always bounce off it. I think this is a worthy nominee, and I’d probably place it about the middle of my list if I’d been voting for the Hugo.