Tactical Linguistics and Quantum Chess Warfare

I read Conservation of Shadows towards the beginning of this year, when I had a 30-day Scribd trial going and was trying to read as much as possible each day. This was definitely the book that I enjoyed the most out of the eleven I read that month. Since then, I’ve been recommending this book to friends, professors, strangers online, and even interviewers.

I’ve talked before about how I’m skeptical towards short stories since I don’t like the idea of investing in characters with such a short period of return value. Too much activation energy each time, you know? Then I read Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and found all his stories so thought-provoking and emotionally intimate. Then I read Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and found all his stories witty and full of the unexpected. Then I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows and my entire conception of beauty shifted.

As I type this out, I’ve realized that my three favorite short story volumes share too many similarities to be coincidental; they’re all Asian-American science fiction. Perhaps I’m on to something here?

conservation of shadows 2

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ | Goodreads | Amazon

Opening Lines of Ghostweight:

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.


“The Shadow Postulates”
“The Bones of Giants”
“Between Two Dragons”
“Effigy Nights”
“Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain”
“Iseul’s Lexicon”
“Counting the Shapes”
“Blue Ink”
“The Battle of Candle Arc”
“A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel”
“The Unstrung Zither”
“The Black Abacus”
“The Book of Locked Doors”
“Conservation of Shadows”

It’s difficult to even start describing how much I enjoyed this collection. I fell into a dream-like state so smoothly and naturally that I didn’t realize it until I had floated all the way through to the author’s notes (which, by the way, describe the author’s inspiration for, thoughts on, and sometimes critique of each story in a really conversational, fascinating way).

There’s war and ungodly weapons, music and magic, ghosts and giants, history and hellpyre smoke. There’s tactical linguistics and quantum chess warfare. There’s such a variety of dark occurrences in the vastly differing worlds that Lee created, but they’re all described in the same gorgeous, gentle manner. Fighter planes are described as light origami kites; political prisoners are sent away for artistic study. Conservation of Shadows is full of ink-stained fantasies that should feel brooding or sinister based on their subject matter, but instead feel nebulous and ephemeral with a distinct East Asian flavor.

I’ll let the words speak for themselves:

  • There were Chindallans who had grown up thinking of the Yegedin as their natural rulers, and whose only memories of freedom were a child’s memories of stubbed toes and overripe persimmons and picking cosmos flowers in the fall.
  • She couldn’t help but wonder how many Genial Ones had lingered into this age, taking no part in the conspiracy for vengeance, leading quiet lives as healers of small hurts to atone for their kindred who summoned storm-horses and faces of fire.
  • Her sister Kereyag had written it in gunfire and witchfire and hellpyre smoke, on the stray cold morning of her death.
  • wine less sweet than birdsong and more bitter than tear
  • You were never easy to please, no matter how many lovers you dragged from bars, drugged by the honey of your voice and the heat of your mouth.
  • The stalactites and stalagmites grip the light in their jaws, returning only washed-out, variegated colors: poor exchange for that faint gold.
  • You can verify that with a mirror when we meet, except that mirrors are liars when there is no light, claiming that everything is equal to everything.

Back Cover:

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.


4 thoughts on “Tactical Linguistics and Quantum Chess Warfare

  1. I think this might be better than her novels. Ninefox Gambit’s strenght was its poetry, and it looks like these are even more full of that. Thanks for the review, I wasn’t aware this collection existed.


    1. That’s an interesting point! However, I was also particularly pleased by the beautiful world-building in these short stories and look forward to seeing how that plays out in a longer novel setting.

      Let me know your thoughts on CoS if you decide to pick up a copy! By then perhaps I’ll have read Ninefox Gambit as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Off the Margin

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