Conservation of Shadows - By Yoon Ha Lee

In my other life, I am a computer engineer; and I do a lot of mathematics. Mathematics, like most sciences, presents laws and models that are meant to hold true in reality—but, like most sciences, maths is constantly evolving and adapting itself to new observations that do not fit its models.

One thing I find amazing about Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction is to see it so steeped in that same logic, and to find across her stories the same fascination about models. Models can dictate the behaviour of the universe, and yet at the same time fail to describe its complexity. Lee’s stories present, over and over, this fundamental tension between image and truth; between myth and reality; between actual behaviour and model. This is nowhere more evident than in “The Book of Locked Doors,” where the eponymous book draws magic from memories of dead people, forever frozen in misleading, one-purpose images: the dead are recorded only through their ability to practise magic, and this magic is the only thing that the book provides to its users.

Yoon Ha Lee has been one of those fairly discreet authors: her first story was published in 1999, long before I entered the science fiction and fantasy writing scene. She has since then been reprinted in various “year’s best” anthologies, but to the best of my knowledge, seldom shortlisted for major awards, and Lee herself has remained relatively discreet. To my mind, this is a shame, as her talent for intricate world-building as well as writing multi-layered, subtle fiction has mostly gone unrecognised. Stories like “Ghostweight” or “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain,” with their Asian-inspired Galactic empires, their original take on branching multiple universes, their idiosyncratic approach to ancestor worship and the preservation of the dead, are among the best and most memorable short fiction I have read.

Lee’s flavourful and original settings range from competing starfaring empires in the far future to re-imagined histories, whether medieval or otherwise. Her characters are researchers and magicians, often forced into figuring out the rules of the world; but also generals and war-heroes, soldiers who do not necessarily have a taste for battle but do what they do for love of their people—and do it terribly well, with devastating consequences.

One thing Lee does not shy from is portraying the harrowing cost of war, genocide, and occupation, whether it is for the occupying forces or for those fighting for peace or independence. It is something I particularly appreciate in her fiction: far from glorifying war, Lee provides a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the cost of violence; of how war can be dehumanising but at the same time utterly necessary; of how a national identity builds and maintains itself in times of strife. That Lee is Korean-American, from a country that was devastated and separated several times by war, certainly informs and nourishes those narrations. As a Franco-Vietnamese, with roots in another country that has had its share of divisive and painful conflicts, I find this counterpoint to other more jingoistic narrations (sadly all too present in genre) both appreciable and much-needed. Stories like “Between Two Dragons” or “Blue Ink” are all the more striking because of this thematic undercurrent.

There are sixteen stories in this collection. In them you will find a war-kite pilot carrying the ghost of a compatriot in her head, a civilisation which kills others by taking and twisting their language, ships of soldiers passing through a black hole to reach a battle at the end of time, a dozen dizzying ways to travel through space, and many more such wonders, which I hope you find as breathtaking and as haunting as I did.

—Aliette de Bodard


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.

What the paper-folding diagrams fail to mention is that each fold enacts itself upon the secret marrow of your ethics, the axioms of your thoughts.

Whether this is the most important thing the diagrams fail to mention is a matter of opinion.

“There’s time for one more hand,” Lisse’s ghost said. It was composed of cinders of color, a cipher of blurred features, and it had a voice like entropy and smoke and sudden death. Quite possibly it was the last ghost on all of ruined Rhaion, conquered Rhaion, Rhaion with its devastated, shadowless cities and dead moons and dimming sun. Sometimes Lisse wondered if the ghost had a scar to match her own, a long, livid line down her