Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?

Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.

The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?

And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!

And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.

About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.

Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.

Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.

My rating: ★★★★½

CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury

Book review · contemporary · Fantasy

Reviews: Two Books I Loved

Today I’ll review two books I loved this summer, the flash fiction collection The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales by Yoon Ha Lee and the poetry novel The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. I’ve already mentioned them on this blog multiple times, but I never got around to reviewing them, and that needed to change.

Since we’re nearing the end of the year and many of us are behind on various reading challenges, I also want to mention that both of these are really short and quick reads.

25733384._sy475_The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales is a collection of flash fairytales, many of which gay, many of which featuring shapeshifting foxes and fox spirits, all of them delightful.

This was the book equivalent of a chocolate box. Every story is just a few pages, and maybe not all of them are as memorable, but all of them are pretty and a pleasure to read. And the ones that are memorable are the kind of stories I will never forget, for their wonderful atmosphere or their clever endings or just for how much they made me happy. I feel like we tend to talk a lot about the books that manage to make us cry, and while I can appreciate occasional heartbreak, books like this one will always be more valuable to me.

In The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales you’ll meet dormouse paladins, non-binary oracles, stories about animal wives with a gay twist, and so many surprisingly cuddly foxes. Here you’ll find stories to remind you that a dragon is a state of mind, stories that will give you some insight into the lives of carousel horses, stories that will show you how shadows are just another reminder of the importance of heartlight.

Apart from the really appreciated casual queerness these stories are full of, what I loved the most about this collection were the descriptions. They’re as unique as they’re beautiful, and maybe talking about crystals unfed by unsunlight and the ice-fruit of stars shouldn’t make sense but it does, it always does.

Also, if you’ve read Ninefox Gambit, a fun part is noticing how in some of these stories there are small references to the trilogy, so much that I almost think of this book as “what the people in the world of the Machineries of Empiretrilogy tell as fairytales”. I think the three prose poems – How the Andan Court explicitly, but very likely also Candles and Thunder – were written specifically with some of those characters/parts of that world in mind. The prose poems are really pretty even if you don’t know the context, but with context… I have too many feelings that I can’t put them into words.

Apart from the prose poems, my favorite stories were The Virtues of Magpies, featuring a non-binary youth and their mischievous magical magpie friends, and The Red Braid, whose ending was everything to me. Also, The Firziak Mountains made me laugh, and stories like The Youngest FoxThe Fox’s Forest and The Crane Wife were adorable.

My rating: ★★★★★

41020406._sx318_A beautiful coming-of-age story about a gay biracial black boy as he find his voice through poetry and drag.

For me, it’s always a breath of fresh air to read about marginalized characters who are not from the US. Yes, Michael is British, and it’s not difficult to find stories set in England, but stories about marginalized characters in contemporary are overwhelmingly American. In this story, you’ll see Michael come to terms with what it means for him to be British and Jamaican and Cypriot; to be all of these things and also a gay man, one who wants to be a drag artist.

It’s a really emotional journey, one I would really recommend to everyone who liked The Poet X. The poems in here were so beautiful, especially the ones about biracial and multicultural identity not being made of halves, about best friends being the ones who can hurt you the most with their internalized homophobia and racism (House of Mirrors. That hurt so much), about toxic masculinity, and the final one about coming out.
I also thought that the way this book focused on family relationships – Michael’s somewhat complicated relationship with his mother, who accepts him but still messes up; Michael’s nonexistent relationship with his father; his connection with his uncle and grandmother on his father’s side – and friendships was something that isn’t as common as it should be in YA. Daisy’s (his best friend) storyline was probably my favorite part of the book.

I also really liked the flamingo symbolism, and all the illustrations.

My rating: ★★★★½

Have you read any good short fiction/poetry lately?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

42201485Hexarchate Stories is a collection of stories – from flash fiction and prose poems, both old and new, to a sequel novella – set in the universe of the Machineries of Empire series.
While many of these stories develop the worldbuilding, give a PoV to characters that were only minor in the trilogy, and give you some insight into how this series came together, they’re not necessary to understand it. Nor – I think – would mean a lot to someone who isn’t familiar with the main trilogy. I would recommend this mostly to those who loved this universe and want more.
As I’m part of said those, I’m glad these stories exist, and I’m glad that I can find most of them in only one place now.

This collection starts with The Chameleon’s Gloves, following Rhehan, an alt (non-binary person) who is trying to pull off art theft and gets roped into something much more dangerous instead, something that will make them question their loyalties. This was interesting mostly because of its worldbuilding, as it’s set before everything we saw in the series came into being.
Of mostly historical significance is also Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam, snapshots about a faction then gone heretical, which made me realize just how much the Hexarchate misunderstands its own history.

And I can’t not mention the gorgeous prose poem How the Andan Court. I’ve always been intrigued by the Andan faction, mostly because a) pretty and b) we see a lot of the inner workings of the Shuos, but not of the Andan, but from the little we see of actual Andan in the series they’re equally terrifying.
And now I want them to court me instead

There are also stories following Jedao’s childhood and family. They’re bittersweet, especially if you know what happens later, and really interesting, because Garach Ledana is a very fascinating person and because foreshadowing. The one in Rodao’s PoV was especially heartbreaking, as I can’t help but wonder about all the what ifs.
(Also, of course kid!Jedao cut class to play jeng-zai)

Then there’s Extracurricular Activities, the novelette that introduced me to this series. It has all the humor of the series, but it’s much lighter in tone; I’ve read it probably more than ten times by now, and every time I catch some new detail that makes me laugh. (The part about eating utensils and Jedao’s thoughts about knives never fail.)
It’s just – Jedao. He’s a charming, murderous bisexual disaster?
Also, here you’ll get more details about his mother, about the Gwa Reality, and you’ll get to read probably the closest thing to a (m/m) romance there is in this series, apart from the Brezan/Tseya storyline, maybe.

Far less romantic is Gloves, in which Jedao visits a brothel, feat. forbidden Kel uniform kink. Basically PWP, but as I suspected, there was some seriously ugly context, because my experience told me that when this author takes the time to describe a sex scene instead of just mentioning it – at least in this universe – there’s always some seriously ugly context.
And I mean, that was one messed up ending.

Another story I read before the actual trilogy is The Battle of Candle Arc, about of one of Jedao’s most well-known battles, in which he was outnumbered eight to one. I’ve read it a lot of times by now, and every time, my favorite parts are the ones about cross-faction bickering and the Jedao/Menowen dialogues.

Then there’s Calendrical Rot, which started out as the prologue of Ninefox Gambit but was then removed. It’s just a fragment about one of the many places in which the story began, and now I have questions, and is it weird that unanswered questions just make this world feel more real?

The following stories (BirthdaysThe Robot’s Math LessonsSword-ShoppingPersimmons) are about Cheris, her Mwennin upbringing, and her relationship with servitors. I love how Cheris is simultaneously a math lesbian and a sword lesbian, this is the kind of representation we need
The servitors have never been my favorite part of this series, but reading about how they see humans and how they interact with them, especially with Cheris, is always interesting.

Then there are two stories following some of my favorite characters: Irriz the Assassin Cat, of course, which is probably my favorite of the flash pieces, because it’s about Zehun and cats and Shuos parenting, and Vacation, about Brezan and Tseya, featuring questionable Nirai experiments.

The last short story is Gamer’s End. I’m not sure where it’s placed timeline-wise, but it’s a really interesting piece in second person about Shuos Academy’s new ethics curriculum. This is probably the most unethical way to have a test about ethics anyone has ever come up with, but what can you expect from the Shuos?
Also: a medical unit decored with knitted lace? Mikodez, why. (No, seriously, half of the reason I like this series are this kind of details.)

And then there’s the sequel novella, Glass Cannon, in which Jedao Two escapes the Citadel of Eyes to get his memories back from Cheris, and the two kind of reconcile in the process. I have some mixed feelings about this, because it has an exposition problem. I think there was an attempt to make this novella accessible to those who haven’t read the main series or don’t remember it that well, but it… really didn’t flow smoothly the way the rest of the series does. (How many times did you need to directly tell me that Kujen liked luxury?)

Also, I’m not sure if there are going to be more stories in this universe, but reading a very open-ended sequel novella after the trilogy had a pretty satisfying conclusion is… somewhat disappointing? However, there were some things left open in the third book, and this novella started to deal with them (servitor rights! moth rights! Seriously I love the Harmony), and Jedao Two was in a terrible place mentally when we left him – at least what happened here seems to have made that better. Also, Cheris now knows more details about what happened with Dhanneth, which is something I had hoped would happen in Revenant Gun, and I’m glad that was addressed, if somewhat obliquely.

I realize that so far what I’ve said about this novella sounds mostly negative, but I actually really liked reading it – it’s hilarious. As Cheris/Jedao and Jedao Two are both Jedao to a level but not fully, and as no one alive hates Jedao quite as much as Jedao himself does… well, it goes exactly as messily as one could think. It reminded me of Extracurricular Activities, as it has all of the humor and some of the darkness of the main series but none of the heaviness. And since I’m always there for mirroring, something about this ending made a lot of sense to me, too.
(My favorite parts were the ones in which Jedao was described as “the regenerating menace from outer space” and “what did the void vomit forth”.)
Also: Niath cameo (I’m so glad he seems to be doing ok, even though I hadn’t really met him before), Hemiola cameo, and poor Mikodez.

My rating: ★★★★½ [5 for the short stories, 4 for the novella]

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

First, some backstory: if you’ve been here since 2017, you probably remember me reviewing Ninefox Gambit before and are probably tired of hearing me talk about it, too. And I have – it’s just that, at the time, I wasn’t that fluent in English, and that review is a mess – so I decided to review this book again (and turn the settings of the old one to private). I want to be able to link something coherent when it comes to a book I often talk about.

So! Here’s Acqua’s review of Ninefox Gambit on sixth reread.

NinefoxGambitNinefox Gambit is my favorite book.
It’s the kind of novel I could reread over and over and still get something new from – this was the sixth reread in two years for me, and I’m still discovering things about this world.

But let’s get to what Ninefox Gambit is. This is a story about sieges: Cheris’ siege of a space fortress, and Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ values, beliefs and mind. And it is, in fact, a very twisty book, without needing that many shocking plot twists – just layers upon layers of mind games present and past, slowly unraveling towards a partial truth.
I say “partial”, because this book will almost never straightforwardly reveal that a certain character was lying in a particular moment, which, in a book in which most non-PoV characters are often at the very least lying by omission, makes for an interesting exercise in ambiguity. You know some of them are liars. Being able to tell when they’re lying – well, that’s not always as easy, and a few things are left for you to interpret.

I often see people say that this book is hard to get into, because “it doesn’t explain enough” – which is said both about the way it relies on hints and subtext and about the worldbuilding, which is, admittedly, one of the most unique (read: outright bizarre) I’ve ever read. I strongly disagree. I really appreciate when a book trusts its reader to keep up, to figure things on their own. Maybe it will take more of my attention, and it won’t be an easy read, but I’m glad to not have to wade through infodumps every time I reread. It’s a graceful writing choice, in my opinion.
(Also: if a 17-year-old ESL speaker made it, you probably can too.)

Ninefox Gambit is deceptively short. It’s barely longer than 300 pages, and yet it’s one of the few books that managed to convince me that there’s an entire universe of things happening outside the Scattered Needles siege, an universe with a complicated and often ugly history, and I love how wide it feels, how high the stakes are at the end.
It mostly follows two characters, whom I love with my whole heard, even though they’re terrible.
🦊 Kel Cheris, math lesbian and professional trouble magnet, narrates most of this book. She makes friends with AIs (“servitors”), joined the military faction because she wanted to fit in, and got caught up into a scheme that led her to be anchored to Jedao’s ghost and leading the swarm (space fleet) in the Scattered Needles siege. Deserves a nap. Unlike many of the characters, she still has a somewhat functioning moral compass.
🦊 Shuos Jedao, bisexual disaster, was a general who lived centuries before the siege, and he is well known for never losing a battle and for having slaughtered his own army during his last one for apparently no reason. He’s not the kind of person you think of when you think about mass murder – he’s charming, far from unfeeling, likes talking to people, and is mostly a pleasant person to be around. Until he’s not. With every reread, I realize more and more how much of a manipulative bastard he is – this is one of the few books in which the manipulative character not only was actually good at manipulating, but the book made me believe he was.

And the Cheris-Jedao dynamic? So fascinating. It reminds me of how much can be done with relationships that aren’t romantic in the slightest when you develop them enough.

There are other relevant characters I love, like Hexarch Shuos Mikodez (the morally messed up and aroace highlight of book two), and Hexarch Nirai Kujen, the evil scientist who reads like the sci-fi version of a fae (cruel, beautiful, impossibly ancient). A few chapters are told from the PoVs of minor characters to show what’s going on while Cheris and Jedao’s ghost are in the command center. And even those characters left an impact on me, and that’s not easy to accomplish.

I also, of course, love the worldbuilding to pieces. It’s Korean-inspired space opera with a math-based magic system that is affected by people’s beliefs and by the system of timekeeping they implement. It’s fascinating and not easy to understand at first, but I loved it for its beauty and weirdness – for a bloodthirsty space dystopia where war and ritual torture are the norm, the Hexarchate is beautiful in an unsettling way. And it’s also very queer; this book has an all-queer cast, and it’s the demonstration that you can write about queer people living in objectively horrible places without writing queer trauma porn (there are no homophobia or sexism in this book, and it’s still very much a space dystopia.)

And one last thing, before I turn this review into a book in itself: I love how this novel plays with ableist assumptions. The amount of people who don’t try to dig deeper in the circumstances around Jedao’s mass murder and take “madness” as a reason for what he did is… oddly realistic. As this book says, as straightforward as it ever gets, that’s not how things work.

My rating: ★★★★★

Trigger Warnings, if you need them – I think it’s better to go into this prepared (they’re not actually spoilers, but if you want to go into this without knowing anything more, don’t read this):

  • This is a story about war, which means that trigger warnings for extreme violence, gore, and mass death are necessary, plus graphic dismemberment and animal death because it’s that kind of book
  • This deals with suicide. There’s on-page suicidal ideation and the beginning of an attempt (character changes their mind). There are deaths by suicide, but they’re only mentioned and/or in flashbacks and don’t directly involve the main characters. There is, however, a scene involving dissociation from a PoV character.
  • Near the ending, there’s a scene in which a woman sexually assaults a man. It’s in the first pages of chapter 21 if you need to know where to skip/skim.
  • Also, mentions of torture, as ritual torture is how this universe works, but no explicit torture scenes.
Book review · middle grade · Sci-fi

Review: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

34966859This is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Dragon Pearl is a Korean-inspired space opera following a teenage fox spirit, set in a queer-inclusive universe. I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it just because it was middle grade; if I hadn’t loved Ninefox Gambit so much, I would have never picked it up, and that would have been such a mistake on my part. It is middle grade, that’s the target audience, but Dragon Pearl is the kind of book that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

I had almost forgotten that books could be so much fun. I read mostly upper YA and adult books, and many – though not all – are always trying to be dark and tense and serious while forgetting that without the light moments, nothing in them feels meaningful. That’s not to say that this book is all sunshine and happiness, because it’s not, but it understands balance and doesn’t throw unnecessary violence at you. It’s the kind of book about an adventure that you just can’t put down – it follows a young shapeshifting fox who is constantly trying to trick people, and I loved every moment of it. I would have loved this when I was twelve and I think I would love this again if I reread it in a few years. There are books I loved because I read them at the right time in my life, but this is the kind of book I would have loved no matter what.

Let’s talk about our trickster fox, Min. She’s the kind of character I would have wanted to be at twelve, and now I both admire her a lot and want to hug her. She’s just trying to find her lost, maybe-traitorous older brother back, and to do so, she’ll get in increasingly dangerous situations, with the help of her charm and her ability to shapeshift.

This is also the kind of book I needed but didn’t have when I was twelve. A middle grade book that not only has queer characters in it, its world is full of them: in Dragon Pearlbeing non-binary is normal and people casually mention their polyamorous family. Also, foxes can choose what gender to present as in their human form, and Min says that she chose to be a girl… because of tradition. I love reading about societies whose views towards gender are different from the western human default.
(Min’s sexual orientation isn’t stated – there’s no romance and I loved that – but I will never assume that the default in a book written by Yoon Ha Lee is straight and neither should you!)

As I expected, I loved the writing. If you’re familiar with Ninefox Gambit and you’re worried it will get as complicated as that (I love complicated! But not everyone does), this is much more accessible and the worldbuilding is still wonderful and complex. It’s a story set in space which has exactly what I love about Lee’s worlds: technology, magic and the characters’ beliefs are linked, the lines between them always blurred. You get something that feels a bit like science, a bit like religion, a bit like magic, and yet different from all of them.
I never struggled to understand how things looked like. And from dangerous gambling parlors to spaceships and halfway-terraformed, dusty planets, everything about this book was beautiful.

I also really liked reading about the side characters – Jang, the ghost of the cadet Min is impersonating at some point, her friends, the female dragon Haneul and the non-binary dokkaebi Suijin, and even Min’s own brother Jun, when I got to meet him. This is officially the first time I liked the “main character goes on an adventure to rescue sibling” trope, because I actually ended up caring about said sibling. He was an amazing fox too.

Also, that ending? I almost cried. Of happiness.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The Vela – A Serial Box Original

43472049The Vela is a serial box space opera in ten episodes, co-written by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon and S.L. Huang. So far, only one season has been announced, and I will be reviewing all of it, but I don’t exclude that there will be others.

The Vela is a story about a mercenary teaming up with a young hacker to find a lost starship in a planetary system in which the stars are dying and there’s an ongoing refugee crisis.

Something that stood out to me right from the start was the way The Vela portrayed discrimination. This is the first time I’ve ever read a story that was dealing with issues similar to what is going on in my country. Refugee crises and the combination of xenophobia + racism isn’t something I often see in American fiction, but it’s closer to the kind of stories I’d love to see published.

The Vela is an action-packed story in which the stakes keep getting higher as new elements are revealed – and I have to say that the reveals usually caught me by surprise – and the main characters often have to question their morals and loyalty. This is a story that has a lot of interesting things to say about ethics and judgement: how can you condemn a whole population, but at the same time, how can you not when their leaders are currently attempting genocide? It’s a complex situation and this story does not shy away from that.

I also really appreciated the diversity. One of the main characters is a brown-skinned trans sapphic mercenary who uses hearing implants, the other is a non-binary hacker (they/them pronouns!) and there are several queer and disabled main characters as well. Also, there’s no romance, which makes sense, as their planetary system is basically falling apart.

I can’t talk about the sci-fi technology in depth without spoilers, but I want to say that I really liked reading about it, it was kind of terrifying at times. I also really liked the descriptions of the spaceships, when they were there.

One more thing: while the writing styles were often easily recognizable and I could usually tell who was writing what even if I didn’t remember which episode I was reading, the story didn’t feel disjointed to me.

What didn’t work for me: 

A story about xenophobia in which the cultures aren’t developed isn’t going to work as much as it could if they were. I just know that these people look different from each other, but when you’re talking about both xenophobia and racism… there should be also other factors at play? It doesn’t really make sense to read about a war between people of different cultures when I know nothing about the cultures. This ended up being the weakest aspect of the worldbuilding.

While I was invested in the overarching plot, I realized that I couldn’t get myself to care about the main characters. I didn’t have any problems with Asala, it’s just that she couldn’t carry this whole story by herself, and Niko… I didn’t like the portrayal of Niko, because they’re several years older than me but read as younger than I am. Yes, they grew up sheltered, but they shouldn’t have read like a gifted fifteen-year-old if they were supposed to be in their twenties.
But what really didn’t work for me was Asala and Niko together as protagonists. Their dialogues weren’t interesting to read – there was nothing interesting about their relationship, or what they thought of each other. They just happened to share the same space for most of the novel and not always trust each other, but I wanted so much more.

As I said before, the story didn’t end up feeling disjointed, but I also felt like what made these authors’ books stand out in their genre, what made each of their books and style memorable in their own way… just wasn’t there.

My rating: ★★¾

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Review: Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

17913917Conservation 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