Conservation of Shadows is my favorite short story collection.
On the surface, this is about beautiful sci-fantasy universes with complex magic systems – from spaceships tuned with music to quantum chess battles, from shadow magic to mythological characters coming to life from paper – and beautiful, terrifying technology, which includes shadow ink, killer stardrives, flying war-kites, guns that can erase a person’s ancestry, books that grow teeth.
But Conservation of Shadows is so much more than that.
There are so many themes addressed in these stories – colonization, the cost of war, suicide, the role of art, choice and fate, the importance of language – and the endings never let me down. All of it in the settings I mentioned before, and the beauty, the way the writing was enchanting sometimes, made everything even more painful when things went wrong.
It’s also a collection about the blurred line between science and fantasy, with science that looks like magic (magical scientists included) and magic that looks like science, and that’s probably my favorite aspect of Lee’s fiction.
Ghostweight (2011) – 5 stars
The best new story I’ve read this year so far and also the best new-to-me story in this collection.
It follows Lisse, a woman from a colonized city that was destroyed by mercenaries. She has lost her fathers, but she’s not alone: her people tie the ghosts of the dead to the living. The story starts when she and the ghost find an abandoned war-kite (if there was a competition for the best book spaceship, this would definitely win).
This is a story about memory and the way time changes it, but it’s also about war, cultural appropriation and… folding. I won’t explain why, but I can say that the art of folding paper is one of the main symbols in this story, and that the war-kite’s weapons unfold themselves from origami. It’s a beautiful, deeply sad story and I loved all of it.
The Shadow Postulates (2007) – 5 stars
Sword lesbian!! Sword lesbian!! Sword lesbian!!
This science-fantasy story isn’t set in space, but in Black College, and follows Kaela Navus, a shadow mathematician in a world in which shadows are magical and have been used both to write books and kill people.
This story is about casting your own shadow, and about learning to question things, learning to not take even postulates for granted. My favorite part was the ending, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love the rest of it too. It’s short and atmospheric, full of pretty descriptions (sword dancing!) and I loved reading about shadow math and creepy shadow science even if I didn’t understand any of it. Also, it’s about an East Asian-coded lesbian mathematician. I need a sequel in which she finds a cute sword-dancing girlfriend.
The Bones of Giants (2009) – 5 stars
A fantasy story following Tamim, a suicidal soldier who was raised by ghouls, going on a quest with a mysterious necromancer. Tamim meets Sakera while she’s raising the bones of long-dead giants. This story is as much about death as it is about living, and I always like to see characters struggling with suicidal ideation who do not die by suicide.
Also, there’s pretty necromancy and destruction! I love when the most terrible things get pretty descriptions without becoming any less terrible. Anyway, I loved Sakera, this setting, and I really didn’t see the ending coming.
Between Two Dragons (2010) – 4 stars
Imjin War retelling set in space. It was really interesting to see the parallels between this story, which is a close retelling, and The Battle of Candle Arc/Jedao’s backstory, which are also loosely based on the same historical events.
The main reason this got a lower rating is that the narration was weaker than it should have been. I don’t understand why it was told in second person, it made everything feel distant, especially since I know almost nothing about the narrator.
The main strength of this story is the symbolism, and the ending is really powerful because of it.
Swanwatch (2009) – 4.75 stars
This is a story about art and not glorifying suicide. In a space society in which suicide itself is a work of art – people throw themselves into black holes with “swanships” – a musician is sent into exile on a space station until she will compose “a masterpiece honoring the swanships”. I loved the ending, and the side characters were really interesting, but this story was too short to reach its full potential. There were a lot of great ideas that were just hinted at.
Anyway, as I said before, stories that deal with suicide in which the characters involved do not die by suicide mean a lot to me and this wasn’t an exception. Also, I really liked reading about a character composing.
Effigy Nights (2013) – 5 stars
This is a sci-fantasy story about war and occupation, and what they do to art, even to a whole civilization’s traditions, focusing mostly on mythology and stories. It’s the darkest story in the collection yet. There are book characters who come to life, magical science and scary libraries. The descriptions of the art and the city before the war are breathtaking – and this makes the whole thing even more sad.
The beautiful-but-fallen city aesthetic reminds me of Winterstrike and now I want to start it again.
Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (2010) – 5 stars
As wild as it was short. This is about the coexistence of free will and inevitability, seen through… the opposite of the theory of parallel universes? Features magical guns that can erase your whole ancestry, creepy human-looking AIs and almost-freezing water. Also many kinds of death and pretty writing that flows perfectly.
The beginning felt like home, which is to say it reminded me of a physics problem.
This is also the first story I struggled to “get”, because it’s… really philosophical – also, that was a weird ending, it took me two rereads to understand it and I’m still not sure I completely did. I loved it anyway.
Iseul’s Lexicon (2013) – 5 stars
The longest story in the collection, and also the only one that isn’t a reprint.
Iseul’s Lexicon is a fantasy story about a war on languages and “tactical linguistics”. The magic system is… creepy, with charms that devour languages – destroying civilizations in the process –, magic that can rise storm-horses and books that grow teeth. It may be set in a made-up country, but it’s loosely inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea, and some of the parts about linguistic are inspired by the history of Hangeul.
What stood out the most to me about this story was the way it experimented with format, as parts of it are written like a dictionary.
Part of the ending was predictable, but I didn’t mind that.
Counting the Shapes (2001) – 3.5 stars
The oldest story in the collection, and also the one I feel less strongly about. It’s set in a kingdom that seems loosely inspired by France, and that kingdom is being invaded by demons. The main character is a mathemagician (magical women in science!) who is trying to interpret a prophecy.
It’s not that there was anything wrong with this – it’s actually a solid story – it’s just not that interesting, and it doesn’t stand out here, not for the magic system or the plot or the prose. The worldbuilding had some aspects that intrigued me, mostly the many kinds of magic that exist, but that wasn’t enough.
Blue Ink (2008) – 4.5 stars
Another story that wasn’t easy to get. It starts in a contemporary setting and follows Jenny Chang, who is recruited by another version of herself to fight a war at the end of time in a parallel universe.
This isn’t a story that explicitly deals with suicide, but it does so in small doses (blue is the color of uncut veins, it says, and the opposite of redshift, which becomes a sign of suicide in Swanwatch). The ending also says something really interesting about self-sacrifice in fiction, and goes in a direction I had never seen in post-apocalyptic fiction or in stories dealing with similar kinds of situations.
The Battle of Candle Arc (2012) – 5 stars
The only story in the collection that is tied to Ninefox Gambit, and also the short story that made me realize I wanted to read that book immediately.
This story follows General Jedao’s most famous space battle, in which he defeated the enemy while outnumbered eight to one. I love Jedao’s narration and everything about this story – the descriptions of the battle, yes, but also Jedao’s very mixed feelings on the whole thing, the magic system based on ritual torture timed through the high calendar, or exhausted, unsubtle Menowen. This is my fifth or sixth reread, and every time I notice new details. While this series is full of terrible, sad things, it’s never a heavy read for me, because it’s fun – in a way that does not detract from the fact that everything that is happening is terrible.
The Battle of Candle Arc was inspired by the Battle of Myeongnyang.
A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel (2011) – 5 stars
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities meets linear algebra! Probably the most unusual premise in the collection. I always love to see things inspired by Italian classics even if I don’t like to read them myself – but Calvino was one of the authors we studied this year at school.
I’m not even sure it would be right to call this one a story. It reads almost like an encyclopedia of FTL stardrives, with meditations on war, economy, knowledge, suicide, religion, and fiction influencing reality through stereotypes. Beautiful.
The Unstrung Zither (2009) – 4.25 stars
Ling Yun is a musician in a space empire in which music is used to tune weapons and starships, and also closely tied to the elemental magic system. She has been tasked with composing music about five teenage assassins from the ashworlds, the places the empire has colonized.
It’s a story about numbers and games as much as it is about music and colonization. I liked the worldbuilding here, but almost everything in this story felt… underdeveloped? I mean, lovely writing, interesting characters even if we catch only a glimpse of them, but I wanted more.
The Black Abacus (2002) – 4.75 stars
One of the oldest stories in the collection.
This was… something. What happens when your magic system is basically quantum chess in space? All space battles play out in quantum space, exploring every possible outcome. A fascinating story about a test, ethics, and two lovers who want each other dead because of ethics. I always love this trope and this was no exception – I wanted more, maybe a longer story told in a more linear way, but I know that wasn’t in any way the purpose. The story is itself a part of a game and a test.
I loved it, but I agree with the author’s note – the ending could have been better with a small tweak.
The Book of Locked Doors (2012) – 5 stars
Futuristic sci-fantasy inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea. The parallels with the longest Iseul’s Lexicon are there, but this story, while also mentioning the way colonization affects language, is more about how colonization affects a culture and the cost of war.
This story features a book that holds inside the dead’s abilities, which the main character could unlock if she wanted. The almost apocalyptic scenario that ensues because of her actions was as beautiful as it was terrible, and kept me glued to the pages. I almost felt like I could fall in one of the keyholes myself.
This is also a story about sisters, as the book was compiled by the main character’s sister; this adds even more weight to the ending.
Conservation of Shadows (2011) – 4 stars
A retelling of The Descent of Inanna (Mesopotamian mythology) written like the narration in a videogame, second person included. It was very weird, but the shadow symbolism was lovely. I’ve never really been into videogames, and the ending wasn’t as powerful as in many other stories in this collection, but I liked almost every other thing about this story.
Also, it’s only appropriate that a story about shadows starts with one of the best examples of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen in short fiction.
Average rating: 4,67