Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

Conservation of ShadowsPublication Date: 3 April 2013
Publisher: Prime Books
Format: Print
Pages: 288
ISBN: 1607013878
Summary: 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.
“Ghostweight” (2011)
“The Shadow Postulates” (2007)
“The Bones of Giants” (2009)
“Between Two Dragons” (2010)
“Swanwatch” (2009)
“Effigy Nights” (2013)
“Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” (2010)
“Iseul’s Lexicon” (2013)
“Counting the Shapes” (2001)
“Blue Ink” (2008)
“The Battle of Candle Arc” (2012)
“A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” (2011)
“The Unstrung Zither” (2009)
“The Black Abacus” (2002)
“The Book of Locked Doors” (2012)
“Conservation of Shadows” (2012)


 (3/5) – The opening lines of this book were beautiful.

“It is not true that the dead cannot be folded
Square becomes kite becomes swan: history becomes rumor becomes song. Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.”

However, the rest of the story seemed messy and devoid of the beauty it starts with. The concept of kite and folded-paper based militaristic equipment was a unique concept, but the characters and the plot seemed messy and all over the place. I had no attachment to the characters, so the ending fell flat for me. There were many technical terms and phrases that held no meaning because of the short story format. This story could have done much better in novella form to allow for expanded world building and character/backstory development. However, this one element this story does well is giving the reader a cold, horrifying description of the sheer destruction that occurs. This is done both in the descriptions of the death and destruction, as well as the main character’s reactions to it.

The Shadow Postulates (3/5) – I’m… not really sure what I just read, to be fully honest. Like Ghostweight, The Shadow Postulates could have benefited from more world-building, but still works in the short story format. The concept of people leaving sentient, potentially malicious shades in the world when they die is an interesting one, but the execution could have been better. I also felt the leaps in conclusion and epiphanies Kaela made at the end were a very big stretch. Finally, I thought the plot meandered around the story without actually letting the reader know what it is. On the other hand, the characters were well crafted and as one struggling student to another, very sympathetic.

The Bones of Giants (3/5) – Requiring the necromancers to animate frames for individual actions of animated objects was a really creative mechanism. However, while the story wasn’t terrible, it still seemed somewhat generic. Even the twist at the end wasn’t as dramatic and didn’t hit as hard as it probably should have.

Between Two Dragons (5/5) – I loved this story. It had an almost dreamlike narration style as the history of an intergalactic war is recounted. This story definitely did benefit from a reread, the first time to learn the characters and powers at play, the second to fully appreciate the detail that goes into developing this world Lee has created.

Swanwatch (4/5) – The backdrop of this story could best be described as beautifully and musically morbid. Despite having a long musical background, I didn’t connect the fermata with a black hole until the book made it. The idea of purposefully sending ships into a black hole, however noble the reason, horrified me so much I had to put the book down briefly. The heavy feature of music in this world building in this story was well done and gave the story beauty in its otherwise morbid setting. However, I found the conflict at the end very weak and too easily resolved.

Effigy Nights (5/5) – It’s a nice change of pace to see a simpler plot and smaller world for this story. The legend and story themed world led to very darkly whimsical events and details, as characters from stories past are slowly revived to defend the planet. The slowly hinted consequences as the story progress lead to a most horrifying conclusion and satisfying conclusion.

Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (4/5) – The setting of this story felt like a Western that happened to be set in space, but also very clean, unlike the usual dusty Western impression. Given where the plot started, I expected the story to be more plot-driven, but was instead almost character driven if a magical gun can be considered its own character. This story also begins with a beautiful opening:

“If you are of millenarian bent, you might call (omega) Armageddon. If you are of grammatical bent, you might call it punctuation on a cosmological scale.

If you are a philosopher in such a universe, you might call (omega) inevitable.”

And by the end of the story, the opening lines wrap around conclusively.

iseul’s lexicon (5/5) At 57 pages, this work is significantly longer than any other short story in here. I had only a passing interest in the first third of the book, not realizing how long it was, and thought it would do better as an accompanying short to a longer story. After finishing though, I can definitely say this works as a standalone. The climax, in particular, was incredibly gripping, as though my eyes were glued to the pages. I could easily see the scene playing on a screen in my head.

I loved the use of linguistics and geometry as a source of magic in this book and has certainly been one of the more unique systems. I didn’t entirely buy the conclusion Iseul came to when she snuck into the Magician’s house, but I could roll with it.

The story begins small, like many short stories, but manages to successfully unfurl into a much larger world with incredibly high stakes without feeling like it needs more content.

Counting the Shapes (3/5) – This story was alright. The plot wasn’t really anything new or creative; demon king invading lands and must be stopped, and I didn’t really connect with the character at all. On the other hand, I loved the idea of math-based magic with proofs and theorems co-existing with astrologists and seers and cartomancers and a dozen different types of magic, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The use of mathematical symmetry to reflect stories was interesting but seemed heavy-handed at times, and I thought the large conclusion the main character came to was really obvious.

blue ink (5/5) – This story is weird as hell and I love it! I’m still not entirely sure what happened, even after a re-read. It has a very different setting and cast than Lee’s usually stories, starting with a contemporary setting with a high schooler, but the math and sudden portal world fall more into her style. I also liked the descriptions of the portal world Jenny falls into. They’re hard to picture just because of how absurd they are, which is awesome.

The Battle of Candle Arc (5/5) – I believe this story is set in the same world as Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee’s other work. I’m not actually sure if I’m supposed to be reading this before reading Ninefox, but it works well as an introduction to Shuos Jedao, one of the main characters in Ninefox. In a short 24-pages, I’m already loving Jedao. He’s arrogant but charismatic, and the ending hints at a hidden agenda I hope gets explored in Ninefox. While the story works well as a standalone, there are definite hints to a much larger world I can’t wait to explore.

A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel (4/5) – This story is written like a set of short encyclopedia articles detailing the beliefs of different space cultures as they pertain to spaceships. The wide variety of beliefs and religions that went into how different cultures treated their spaceships ranged from strange to horrifying, and once again, Lee show’s the range of her world building. I’m not sure if there was an actual plot to this short story, and if there was, I certainly missed it.

The Unstrung Zither (3/5) – Definitely wasn’t a huge fan of this story. I’m not entirely sure what happened with the plot, but I don’t think the main character could have reached a conclusion like that so quickly and, to me, with very little persuasion. The positive, as always, was the interesting mechanics in the story, this time using music to “tune” wooden war gliders.

The Black Abacus (4/5) – Was this a romance? A really really really twisted romance? I’m not sure, but it was good. The author commentary didn’t really help either. My immediate reactions to this was a 3/5 at best, but after musing over it, I’ve warmed up to the story a bit more. It’s definitely very confusing, and the broken up storytelling doesn’t help. However, I think this is the first story in this collection where I’ve been more interested in the characters than the world building.

Conservation of Shadows (5/5) – The namesake of the book and probably my favorite short story of this anthology. The story plays on a variation of the Mesopotamian myth ‘The Descent of Inanna’, which I’d not heard of before this. The narration style is vastly different than the other stories, written in a second-person perspective. The prose is also significantly more purple than any other story, but it gives the narration a very mysterious quality that really works. I loved the narrator’s (Inanna’s sister?) voice, which managed to fuse cheerfulness and subtle goading hostility in one. While there are implications of a sci-fi setting, it’s very downplayed.

Average/Final Rating: 4.1/5

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