Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Published April 2013
Short Story Collection
There is no such thing as conservation of shadows. When light destroys shadows, darkness does not gain in density elsewhere. When shadows steal over earth and across the sky, darkness is not diluted. Featuring an Introduction by Aliette De Bodard, Conservation of Shadows features a selection of short stories from Yoon Ha Lee.
This is a fabulous short story collection. The stories I loved, I really really loved. Out of sixteen stories over half got 4 stars or above.
The writing is absolutely beautiful. It is sort of jarring, but has this magical quality to it at the same time. The closest comparison I can think of is Tessa Gratton’s writing in Strange Grace.
The themes were quite serious, ranging from colonialism, war, revenge, culture, language. Lee does not pull any punches.
The inspiration behind many of the stories derived from mathematics, physics and philosophy, which was at times fascinating, and at others completely beyond my range of comprehension. Still, I really enjoyed the collection overall.
Since I don’t want to give too much away, I’ll only be giving very brief notes about each story.
Ghostweight (2011) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I had trouble with this one to start with because I was completely unfamiliar with Lee’s style, but it really packed an emotional punch by the end. It is about origami, and ghosts, and spaceships, and colonialism, and revenge. I didn’t see the plot twist coming at all. And the world was a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, which I think was seamlessly blended.
The Shadow Postulates (2007) ⭐️⭐️
The plot in this short story was pretty straight forward, but I just didn’t really like it. To be completely honest, I don’t even really remember much about it beyond two university roommates doing sword dancing.
The Bones of Giants (2009) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion, this featured necromancy, a duo riding resurrected giants, and an evil sorcerer. The world was interesting, and although short, the plot was pretty cool.
Between Two Dragons (2010) ⭐️⭐️
This was inspired by The Imjin War and Admiral Yi Sun Shin, a Korean hero. I didn’t feel that it was a particularly strong piece, because the plot was confusing and it was narrated in second person, which I don’t enjoy.
Swanwatch (2009) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Swanwatch is about exile, music, black holes, and valorising suicide. I liked the characters and their relationships with each other. The whole concept was beautifully executed and really poignant.
Effigy Nights (2013) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Effigy Nights gave me chills. Blending both science fiction and fantasy, we are thrown into a world that epitomises and values the arts that has been colonised by a technologically superior enemy. Our main character is a surgeon, but not quite as we know it. It involves paper people and rebellion against colonialism and destruction of culture. While I don’t believe the author has specifically stated it, I imagine that it is inspired by the Japanese colonisation of Korea, as other stories in the collection are.
Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (2010) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Lee explores the idea that free will and inevitability are not mutually exclusive in this short, but very powerful story. All I can really say about this one is that it involves a series of guns that have very specific abilities. [*Possible Spoiler* *Highlight to see* For example, one gun not only kills you, but your ancestors as well] It was probably my favourite of all the stories in the collection. I can’t even describe why I loved it so much, but it really hit me emotionally, and the whole idea was so profound.
Iseul’s Lexicon (2013) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
By far the longest story in the collection, Iseul’s Lexicon is inspired by Imjin War and the Japanese Occupation of Korea. It takes place during war, and melds together language and magic. We follow a magic user, and their attempts to use that magic to influence the war.
Counting the Shapes (2001) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This is the oldest story in the collection, and is a little more fantasy than science-fiction. The main character is a mathemagician who is trying to decipher a prophecy using the idea of symmetry to help win a war against demons.
Blue Ink (2008) ⭐️⭐️
Blue Ink was a bit too abstract for my liking. It’s basically about a battle at the end of time, and seventy versions of one girl. I honestly struggled to understand the point of it.
The Battle of Candle Arc (2012) DNF
This is another rather long story and it is connected to the novel, Ninefox Gambit. I found it difficult to get into, so all I can tell you is that the author stated it was inspired by the Battle of Myeongnyang and Admiral Yi Sun Shin.
A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel (2011) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
In the notes, Lee talks about being inspired by Italo Calvino and basis vectors in linear algebra. It sounds terrifying and complicated, but basically was a series of anecdotes about worlds and societies that use FTL star drives (Faster Than Light), and the way it interacts with and influences their beliefs and culture. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Still, I found this piece very satisfying despite not really being a cohesive ‘story’ per se.
The Unstrung Zither (2009) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
So the basic premise behind this story was the idea that music creates order in society. It’s about colonisation at its core, and revolves around a musician and five adolescent assassins. The world was awesome, and music is used to tune warships and such.
The Black Abacus (2002) ⭐️
I really had a hard time with this one. I still only have a vague sense of what it was about, but basically it was war playing out like quantum chess. It was bizarre and I had no idea what was happening with the two main characters.
The Book of Locked Doors (2012) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Influenced by the anime Code Geass as well as Dungeons and Dragons, The Book of Locked Doors is another story inspired by the Japanese Occupation of Korea. The magic system in this was kind of dark and super interesting, involving dead people being inscribed in books.
Conservation of Shadows (2011) ⭐️⭐️
Inspired by the Sumerian poem, The Descent of Innana, it had a very different feel compared to the rest of the stories in this collection. It was also written in second person which I didn’t really like. I had to look at the notes to work out what had actually happened.