Review: Conservation of Shadows

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

Conservation of Shadows is a collection of short stories by Yoon Ha Lee. Like shadows, many of the stories are furtive in nature, requiring the reader to chase them from page to page. No two stories are alike. The point of view and tense often change, but there is a consistent theme of patterns and forms expressed through various arts—poetry, music, calligraphy, art and dance. Lee’s imagination is not bound by these forms. The stories range from otherworldly, to an alternate history feel, to science fiction. All read a little like fantasy, though, with the repetition of the artful themes.

The entries that caught my attention were The Shadow Postulates, The Bones of Giants, Swanwatch and Effigy Nights.

Simply, The Shadow Postulates is a story of mathematics and love. A student searches for facts to support her thesis. Along the way, she takes lesson from life, and, in particular, her roomsister. She examines relationships and finds correlations between these and her research.

My favourite story would be The Bones of Giants. Tamim, the son of a necromancer, is on a quest to stop a sorcerer from destroying his world. He accepts the aid of another necromancer who teaches him how to animate and control the bones of giants. They ride the massive skeletons into battle, controlling their movements with gestures that can be captured and preserved by a form of calligraphy.

I found the setting of The Bones of Giants fascinating. It was a dark world, a shadowy place that felt like an ‘in between’. Somewhere beyond the veil of death. It could also have been a ravaged word. Lee gives only enough detail to breathe life into the grim landscape. Though the short story worked (for me), I would love to see the world expanded upon.

Swanwatch is set in a distant or alternate future. Various people are stationed in space and watch over the swanships, which appear on schedule only to disappear into a black hole. It’s a journey to the final battle, though no one knows what awaits the armed and ready passengers. I got the feeling the swanships were full of people who were on their way to a chosen death. An end of life.

Swan is new to the station. She has been exiled there and is only allowed to leave if she composes a symphony for the swanships. She tries, despite the other residents’ attempts to convince her of the futility of the task. At the end of the story, she makes a sacrifice of her own.

The consistent themes of art, poetry and Asian lore colour Effigy Nights. A city is under siege and a man with a distinct talent is called upon to raise an unusual defense. Seran is a surgeon and a warden wants him to excise figures of legend from books. Cut them from the paper. The first is moving on the page, so he swabs the paper with a sedative before pulling out his scalpel. I found this process, and the imagination behind it, fascinating.

He frees the Saint of Guns from the page. I delighted in Lee’s description of her: “She had paper-pale skin and inkstain hair…” The Saint begins to haunt him, as do the other effigies he raises. Though each of the figures last for only a short time, they manage to stall the occupation for a while. Then they run out of pages to cut. The end to this story is chilling and terrifying.

Conservation of Shadows is an absorbing collection. I was not able to read it in one sitting. Many of the stories require a little digestion, others patience and a quiet place to read as the patterns unfold and order themselves—which is hardly surprising as Yoon Ha Lee is a math major.

Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.

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