Sunday, July 6, 2014

Conservation of Shadows - Yoon Ha Lee

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 I've seen a lot of positive comments about this collection floating around the blogsphere so when I realized I hadn't reviewed a collection for a while Conservation of Shadows by the Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee seemed like an obvious choice. When I picked it up I thought I hadn't read any of Lee's work before. That didn't turn out to be correct. I had in fact read Swanwatch before as part of the John Joseph Adams anthology Federations. The stories in this collection are a selection from what he's published between 2001 and 2013. The collection contains 16 pieces of short fiction and an introduction by Aliette de Bodard. Lee is not hugely productive and hasn't published any novels to date but his short fiction has definitely been noticed. It has appeared in some in magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed magazine.

Lee's writing is something you won't come across often. His prose is very poetic and thematically a lot of Asian influences are included. Lee has a bachelor in Mathematics and he has used this as an influence on his stories as well. It makes for an interesting mixture of mathematical concepts and magical plot elements. The stories range form fantasy to science fiction, but in each of them you get the feeling that there is a real scientific concept at the base of the plot. Lee can make a magical system seem rational like no one else I've read.

The collection opens with one of the strongest stories. Ghostweight is a space opera in which the main character carries with her the souls of the dead. It is a very dark tale of revenge with an absolutely devastating climax. Not a very upbeat way to open the collection but it is one of the stories that had the greatest impact on me. Lee mentions in the story notes that it is set in the same universe as The Shadow Postulates, only in a far future. I don't think I would have seen that without her mentioning it.

The Shadow Postulates is the next story in the collection and one in which you can clearly see the mix of influences I mentioned above. It mixes magic and mathematics in very interesting ways. The story follows a student on the verge of graduating and struggling with a mathematical problem that generations of students have tried to crack. It builds towards a conceptual breakthrough in a way that shows Lee understands how to handle the pace of a story. I wasn't surprised to learn that it's partly inspired by Fermat's Last Theorem that nobody has been able to find for centuries. In fact, many now believe Fermat came up with a wrong proof. If I had to pick a favourite, this one may well be it.

It is hard to pick a favourite though, I greatly enjoyed the story Iseul's Lexicon as well. It's quite a complex tale that shows how language and culture are interwoven and how banning languages, over time, can be very effective in suppressing a culture. Lee used the Korean Hangeul, an alphabet that replaced the more complicated Chinese characters from the 15th century on, as an inspiration. The story also shows echoes of the complex and often violent history between Korea and Japan. There are a lot of layers to this story, on the surface there is a military campaign, spying and an interesting magical system, deeper down there are the references to our own world and the parallels with Korean history. Even if it is one of the longer pieces in the collection, I still couldn't shake the feeling that a novel is hiding in there somewhere.

In the story notes Lee mentions several pieces are related to unpublished novels. Iseul's Lexicon isn't mentioned as being one of those but The Battle of Candle Arc is. It is one of several that have a space opera setting and deals with interstellar warfare. War and the price to be paid for it, is one of the themes that pop up in a lot of stories. This one is a story inspired by another bit of Korean history, the 1597 battle of Myeongnyang, part of the Imjin war (1592-1598), in which the Korean fleet achieved a decisive victory of the the vastly numerically superior Japanese invasion fleet. The general in this story reminded me a bit of some of Frank Herbert's characters. The depth of his insight appears to be almost superhuman.

The Unstrung Zither is the last story in this collection I want to mention. It includes a mix of traditional music (it strikes me as Chinese inspired but I don't know enough about this subject to say for sure), elemental magic and a far future setting. The main character is a composer. She doesn't seem to feel she is brilliant at it, merely competent. Nevertheless she is entrusted with a very important mission. Music in this story, is more than a cultural expression. It appears to create structure in society. War and politics are discussed in terms we don't often associate with them. In finding the right structure for her composition, she finds the solution to the problem posed to her. I liked this piece very much although I wouldn't have minded knowing a bit more about the war at the heart of these events.

As usual, I've had a lot of trouble writing this review. It took me well over a week, where I usually do a draft in one day and clean it up the second. Short story collections are a pain to review but Conservation of Shadows was even more difficult than usual. Lee writes very complex stories. He packs a lot into a few pages and often steps outside the western cultural framework. He makes me work pretty hard and I'm sure I missed quite a bit. In fact, without the story notes I might very well have been lost completely.

I'm somewhat frustrated by my own inability to properly express why I enjoyed this collection so much. I guess it is a combination of things. I liked Lee's prose a lot for instance. I'm not one for audio books but from reading these stories I get the impression that it would sound beautiful if narrated skilfully. Then there are the themes Lee addresses that, despite the nagging feeling that I'm missing some of the context, still strike a chord with me. I guess you are just going to have to take my word for it, if you enjoy reading short fiction, Lee is an author you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: Conservation of Shadows
Author: Yooh Ha Lee
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-60701-387-7
First published: 2013


  1. I've read this as well and like you I thought it was excellent. Yoon Ha Lee really has a knack for creating some fantastic stories.

    1. She does indeed. She mentions a novel under revision in the story notes. If she does publish it I certainly want to read that.