This is a mixed bag of stories, with some science fiction and some fantasy stories thrown in, with a variety of moods between them. My favourite two, which are currently vying for top place on my ballot are "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again" by Zen Cho and The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander. The latter I loved when I read it, thinking it was a novella until Hugo time rolled around, and the former I hadn't come across until this shortlist came out. In fact, I hadn't read any other stories here before they appeared on this shortlist, so I came to them relatively unbiased.
After the two stories mentioned above, I enjoyed "The Thing About Ghost Stories" a lot, which maybe shouldn't surprise me since I loved "Cat Pictures Please" by the same author. I enjoyed "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections" by Tina Connolly and “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller equally, although the latter had more depth to its world building and the former had a good ending which was both obvious and unexpected. The story going on the bottom of my ballot will be "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" by Daryl Gregory, which I did not enjoy much, for the reasons I list below.
I think my vote will be loosely in the order I mentioned the stories, with a bit of jiggling around to be decided when I actually submit it. What about you? Which novelettes did you like most or dislike? Let me know in the comments!
"If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again", by Zen Cho — A wonderful story about an imugi trying to ascend to a heavenly dragon form. It takes a long time and learns many things along the way. Both about the Way and, eventually, about humans. A very enjoyable story with an emotional and bittersweet ending.
"The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections", by Tina Connolly — A fantasy story about magical pastries that forcibly evoke certain memories. Well, the actual story is about the wife of the baker that makes them and the tyrannical King who has taken the throne. It was an interesting that I enjoyed even as I wondered how it would end satisfactorily.
"Nine Last Days on Planet Earth", by Daryl Gregory — The story was OK but I found it a bit old fashioned. I’m also not sure that the title made sense in the end with the direction the story took, but I don’t want to spoil it by explaining. I was weirded out by how often the (gay!) protagonist described how beautiful his mother was. That was super weird, and only got more so with repetition. Overall, the science parts with the apocalypse were interesting, the rest was fine.
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander — This was published as a separate book, much like the Tor.com novellas, and hence it got a standalone review from me. You can read it here.
"The Thing About Ghost Stories", by Naomi Kritzer - The story opens like a nonfiction essay but then settles into the lived experience of the narrator, who is a ghost-story collecting anthropologist. As well as discussing different types of ghost stories, the story gives us a glimpse into the narrators life with her ageing mother. I quite enjoy this story, for its discussion of ghost stories as well as the main story. I guess I had enough of a scientist to enjoy such categorisations.
“When We Were Starless”, by Simone Heller — Exquisitely detailed world building as we follow a tribe and their spiritual leader across a world unable to sustain life. Their world is very different from ours and, although the tribe is not human, they are recognisably people who have forgotten their distant past and are distrustful when confronted with a remnant of it. The story felt fantastical when I started reading but became more clearly science fiction as I read further. A very well-thought-out story.