Book review: Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

From the start Yoon Ha Lee’s début collection of short stories Conservation of Shadows is strikingly inventive.  Lee mines her knowledge of maths and her Korean-American heritage and hits a rich vein of narrative mingling myth and science, art and the military, creativity and destruction. There is a freshness to her stories, partly because they do not rely heavily on Eurocentric events or westernised cultures as their base and inspiration. Her view of the world, of time, history and the universes she creates is vast and at times unnerving.

Similarly Lee blurs boundaries between thing often assumed to be solid.  In some worlds the most life threatening thing there are words, written or spoken.  The arts are not just creative, but also agencies of destruction, magic, order and chaos – although what is politically considered order or chaos is, as always, open to interpretation.

Lees stories are also brim full of women.  Women who act.  None of them are the “strong woman” that can often be written into genre, where strong is wrongly assumed to mean violent.  Instead they are women who often think deeply and act decisively.

There is a slight unevenness in Conservation.  Several of the stories were so stunning I felt compelled to re-read them immediately.  While some came up against the perennial problem of short stories – the ending.  These stories fell a little flat, and did not quite live up to the promise of the set up.  A promise which leaves expectations high due to Lee’s stunning imaginary worlds.

The book also contains notes on the stories.  In them we gain a glimpse of Lee’s light and playful personality, someone who finds joy in details and the perversity of humanities behaviour and ideas, all tempered by a keen and inquiring intelligence.  Lee is an easy person to like.

Lee has also published a book of flash fiction, and this year has a novel due.  So far she is one of the freshest voices in science fiction – to the extent that her work is both inspirational and terrifying.  I’m looking forward to being awed by her again.

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