I Like Short Books and I Cannot Lie: An Ode to Novellas

I've been praising novellas for a long time. There's something truly delightful about being able to fit big ideas into a short form successfully, and when it's done well, they're truly excellent reads. In the last few years, the publishing industry seems to have begun supporting the format more and more (though publishers like Tor and TorDotCom have been leading the curve for longer). BookRiot covered "The Rise of the Speculative Novella" last year, and even a mainstream periodical like Esquire noted that 2023 was "The Year of the Slim Volume," thanks to a Twitter post by a Trigun fan writer bigolas dickolas wolfwood. (More on him below!)

A pyramid of recent novellas against a painting of a stormy sea.

Outland has started publishing novellas this year, with our October 24, 2023 Outer Shadows release Raze: Mother, Maiden, Crone, the first book in a series by Cullen Bunn. Cullen has additional novella projects in progress!

What Is a Novella?

Most readers go into a bookstore and grab a book off the shelf, not really concerned with its technical category. As a reader, you might be in the mood for a doorstopper, or you might be drawn to some of the shorter books. The categories of novella vs. novel are only really important when it comes to the awards they qualify for (like the Hugo or the Nebula in SFF). Within the industry, the definition of a novella is a work between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  (Outland's Shadomancy, by Jason Franks, for example, is a short novel, because it clocks in at 44,000. Raze is around 23,000, which puts it solidly in the novella category.)

You may see different numbers from different organizations. The Stoker Awards, for example, don't have a novella category; they divide into short fiction, long fiction, and novels, where novels are anything 40,000 words or longer. (Long fiction starts at 7,500 words, and anything less than that is short.)

But the trick in categorizing, as a reader, is whether the author has done a compelling job with the space they're given. Does the reading experience feel complete (even if there's a cliffhanger—just like there could be in a novel)? Is the focus honed in a way that makes the shorter length more satisfactory, rather than sprawling out among many characters the way a novel would be? Those are the kinds of questions I ask when I've finished a novella, and the best that I've read make me feel like I've had a complete experience—while also giving me the sense that I could spend more time in the world, if the author invited me!

Six Novellas You Should Snag

While you're waiting to pick up your copy of Raze, you can find some great novellas right on the bookstore shelves! 

Remember bigolas dickolas from the beginning of this piece? This is the text of his 2023 viral tweet: "Read this. DO NOT look up anything about it. just read it. it's only like 200 pages u can download it on audible it's only like four hours. do it right now i'm very extremely serious."

The book in question? This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The epistolary novella, written between two spies from opposing futuristic societies, each trying to undermine the other's future, came out in 2019, but thanks to bigolas dickolas, it rocketed onto the New York Times bestseller list and inspired a lot of really excellent Trigun cosplay. Amal and Max are both tremendously accomplished writers on their own, and their collaboration is at once a spy novel, a romance, and a philosophical work about reality and humanity. So, take bigolas dickolas's advice, and pick it up!

For something a little more linear, Fonda Lee's excellent Untethered Sky explores the relationship between a girl and her roc. The giant birds, raised to defend humans against monstrous manticores, are terrifying and beautiful, and the meld of falconry and mythology blends together to create a world you can sink into.

Authors sometimes use novella length stories to offer a focused tale in a previously established world. Fran Wilde's The Book of Gems is the concluding volume in her Gem Universe series, far in the future of the previous installments as a scientist tries to uncover the true history of the gems, which others have relegated to mythology. Jimmy and the Crawler by Raymond Feist is a peek into the adventures of one of the popular secondary characters in Feist's Riftwar saga. Because the book follows after the events of Betrayal at Krondor, a videogame set in the world, there's a different pacing to this novella than Feist's longer works, making good use of the format.

Rebecca Roanhorse was first acclaimed for her short fiction, but she's also written doorstopper fantasies inspired by pre-Columbian history, a children's novel, urban fantasy, and even a Star Wars novel. With Tread of Angels, she created something entirely different from her previous works, setting a story of two sisters in a mythologized West, where ruling class Virtues live alongside the Fallen, decedents of demon kind. The meld of mystery, Western, and fantasy gives Roanhorse room to comment on ideas of justice and discrimination without offering easy answers.

C.S.E. Cooney's angels in The Twice-Drowned Saint are even stranger—and more aloof. Fourteen angels rule the city of Gelethel, and most of them are cruel, delighting in human sacrifice. Only Alizar the Eleven-Eyed stands apart. Ish, Alizar's secret saint (who runs Gelethel's cinema) wants to get her sick parents out of the city, an already impossible task further complicated when Betony, who may be Alizar's true saint, arrives. While the plot may be about overthrowing an unholy government of angels, Cooney also explores ideas of family, sacrifice, forgiveness—and the strength in caring for others.

What SFF novellas have you loved? Ping us on social media with your recommendations!

-Alana Joli Abbott, Editor in Chief at Outland Entertainment, is a huge fan of books of all sizes. She has far more novellas to recommend!

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