the Little Red Reviewer

Conservation of Shadows, by Yoon Ha Lee

Posted on: February 27, 2020

This was the book I didn’t want to review.


I didn’t even want to read it.


I don’t know why, but I felt the need to save this book for some time when I really needed it.  Like it was the last bottle of whisky from a famous yet shuttered distillery. And once I opened it, it would evaporate and soon barely the scent would remain.


When I did crack the book open,  of course the first story I read was The Battle of Candle Arc.  And then I read that story again. And then I read Iseul’s Lexicon, which I then, read again.

I consumed this collection in such a strange way,  I consumed it the same way I use a cookbook. Once I identified a story I enjoyed,  I’d reread it three, or four times, getting into into my rotation. When I felt ready, I’d try another story/meal.


Strange, I know.  But you already know that I’m strange.


The time came for me to start thinking about the review.


I didn’t want to write it.  I didn’t want to put Conservation of Shadows back on the shelf along with all the other books that “I’m done thinking about”.   I’m not ready for these characters to not be in my life anymore. Can I reread these stories any time I want? For sure. But there’s something different about a book that is floating around the house because you are still thinking about it, and a book that you’ve put back on the shelf and categorized in your mind as “I’m done thinking about that book”.


This is what Yoon Ha Lee does:  writes fiction you don’t want to stop thinking about. You might be done reading the book, but the book isn’t done with you.


To write this review, I’ve made a bargain with myself:  I purchased Hexarchate Stores, so I can dive right into that,  and Conservation of Shadows is going to live on the coffee table for a while longer.  This review is not an agreement that I’m done with this book. In fact, it’ll be really fun to reread these stories in 6 months or a year, and see if they have changed, or if I’ve changed.


Thank you for letting me get all of that out of my system and put words to my feelings. You’ve been very patient.  I guess it’s time I talk about this collection, yeah?


Most of the stories touch on language (which of course, I have zero interest in), colonialism and occupation, assimilation, destruction of cultures through destruction of their language, how sometimes things just don’t translate, and how war makes us strangers to ourselves.


One last thing before I actually talk about the stories!  Fun new words!


sumptuary           morphophonemics      escritoire

logographs              entelechy


Isn’t “escritoire” just the most beautiful word you’ve ever seen?


Ok, I am getting to the stories now, I SWEAR.   In no particular order:

The Book of Locked Doors (2012) – the city is under occupation, and Vayag is using her sister’s book.  The book will talk to you sometimes, and if you utilize certain pages of it, you get the skills and knowledge of certain people who have passed away.   Is the book magic? Most definitely. Does the book sort of want you to die, so it can put your soul and your knowledge inside of itself for the next person to use? Very likely.   I liked this story because Vayag is torn between using resources that are at her disposal but knowing the costs of those resources. She hates the invaders, but she doesn’t mind that they keep the trains running on time and the stations clean.  This story is near the end of the volume, but it’s a good one to start with.


Effigy Nights (2013) – this was a nominated for a World Fantasy Award. If you love stories with atmosphere, this is the story for you.  The city has been unmolested for decades, because it is known as the galaxy’s center of art and and the art of living and enjoying life.  Tea houses, museums, music halls, things no one wants to lose. But the new enemy, the invaders who don’t care about music or art history come, and the city has no defenses, because it never needed them before.  How do you defend your home when your local heroes are characters from myth and story? How do you defend your city when all you have is literature and art? Our lives can reflect how we create art, and what we are willing to do to save it. A disgraced surgeon has the ability to save the city, but do his compatriots understand the price?  He tries to explain, but they won’t listen. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, right?


A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel (2011) – I probably love this story because it reminds me of Ken Liu’s 2012 short story The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, so your mileage may vary.  This short story is little vignettes of different alien species, and how and why they travel the universe, how they define “travel”, how they view their technological advances, and what their cultural goals are.   When little vignette things like this work, they work beautifully. It’s like a tasting menu, you know that each small section could successfully spin off something larger and that you’d love every bite of it.


The Battle of Candle Arc (2012) – I lost track of how many times I read this story.  Yes, this is a prequel to Ninefox Gambit, and yes, this story also shows up in Hexarchate Stories.  Really, I just love Jedao. I know he is manipulating me every time he opens his mouth, and as the reader, I feel separated, I feel safe from his machinations, but that dude can talk to me all he wants.  In this story, we learn that his goals aren’t machinations, per se. Candle Arc is where he becomes who he is, this is the moment he becomes so dangerous that the government must muzzle him when they aren’t using him. This is where he realizes there are far worse things than death.  If you’re not familiar with the Hexarchate, this story will be nothing more than a satisfying military science fiction romp. And if you are familiar with the Hexarchate? This story is a must read!

Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (2010) –  Very few people know the history of the ancestral gun.  It’s weilder remembers when she first came into contact with it, and was told “This weapon does not function”.  Oh, but it does function! And decades later she can’t escape what she’s done. Or maybe she can? Among it’s other names, the gun is sometimes referred to as the Flower, and the gunsmith made three siblings to the Flower –  the Mercy, the Needle, and most secret of all, the Chain. The creation of the Flower was the gunsmith’s final revenge against her captors.   If you could change everything, if you could go back and do it all over again, would do? Would it make a difference? I really loved this story!!!


Iseul’s Lexicon (New to this collection) – fans of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series will love this story and the world in which it takes place.   Most magic in this world has faded, with the deaths of the Genial Ones. Iseul is a poet with a knack for linguistics, she’s also a pretty good spy and cat burglar.  In the middle of a war, the secret to making magic work again is uncovered, and if she can translate the works fast enough, move the words from one book into the next book fast enough,  they might have a chance of winning the war. Spoiler: although she is fluent in the language of the Genial Ones, she comes across a word of theirs that she doesn’t know. It’s a word the Genial Ones had to invent, because their language had never before needed a word for defeat.  Upon reread,  I found myself rushing through all the set up at the beginning to get to (what was for me) the good stuff at the end.


Every story in Conservation of Shadows could easily spawn it’s own novel or series (and oh hey, The Battle of Candle Arc did!).  Yoon Ha Lee writes stories that feel like they are unfolding themselves as you turn the pages. If you are looking for some excellently written short fiction,  and you’ve done well with my recommendations in the past, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Conservation of Shadows. Still not sure? Many of these stores are available to read for free online.


17 Responses to "Conservation of Shadows, by Yoon Ha Lee"

I’m not sure this is my thing but I do like your enthusiasm for it, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


thanks for reading! Everything I’ve read by this author, I’ve loved it all, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.


I stopped reading at the flip because I found it at the library and intend to read it when it arrives – they have just one copy! – so I’ll look at your take on the stories after. If I like it as much as you, I’ll buy a copy.

BTW, are you reading Michael Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empyre series? Book 5 is out, Age of Death and the final book is due in May. I love these books!


yeah, there are hardly any copies of Conservation of Shadows floating around! This version came out maybe 5 years ago, and i guess they didn’t print very many. the new short story collection, Hexarchate Stories is getting more buzz, so it will probably be easier to find a copy of that collection, if you are interested.

I’m not familiar with Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empyre, very happy to hear you are enjoying them! you must be excited for May to get here!


Yes, it started out as a trilogy that grew. Usually I don’t read series until complete, but I got caught on this one. I still haven’t read his Riyia books.

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Also, about the books on the shelf: I do continue to think about them, because I frequently LOOK at the shelves, reminding myself what’s there and what I should read/reread.

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I look at my bookshelves a lot too. it’s fun to go through my shelves, find books that i haven’t thought about in a long time. i guess you could say the ones that are on the shelves are in the back of my mind, not the front.
we have a lot of paperbacks that are doublestacked, so sometimes it can be a fun excavation adventure!

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Especially since more than half of the books are unread (so far).

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Oooo, those words!
I love it when you really love something so much you don’t want to put it away in your mind. I carry books around with me sometimes well after I’ve finished reading them just to keep them at the ‘front’ as it were.

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“I carry books around with me sometimes well after I’ve finished reading them just to keep them at the ‘front’ as it were.”

omg, yes, same!!

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A brilliant author so thanks for these recommendations. Agree with one of the readers that she is an acquired taste.


This post has been lying a while around but I stumbled over it while searching on WordPress for Yoon. I’m just reading the arc for Phoenix Extravagant but didn’t read that many stories from her. Ooh, I’m a sucker for short stories in general (wanna check my blog?). So, I just wanted to thank you for bringing this to my attention! Up on my tbr with this one!


I am so excited for Phoenix Extravagant! I love Yoon’s writing!

Very happy you found my post during your search! I didn’t really get into short fiction until maybe 5 or 8 years ago? I had some iffy experiences with iffy anthologies in my youth, and now there is so much more wonderful stuff available! I don’t know if you are into the short fiction magazines (gonna head over to your blog in a few minutes to find out!), but more and more scifi short fiction magazines are offering print books of their “best of the year” short stories – you can get printed volumes of Clarkesworld and Apex. I buy those when I can, i do much better with print than with ebooks.

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found your blog. . . you are amazing!!!!


I fear, I don’t follow the magazines. I’ve read Dozois’s annual Best of until last year, and a couple others like Clark’s, or Strahan’s. I also love collections – Chiang, Liu, but also older ones like Gene Wolfe, Ellison, Le Guin, or Zelazny. Yes, I think there is a good diverse mixture.

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I prefer the print collections. Trying to get better about reading more online fiction (as in, the magazines), but my eyesballs struggle with it.

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Yes, that’s working only for me in case of short stories. I would never read a novella in a browser.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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