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.


Review. Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code

My daughter and I have just finished reading Artemis Fowl:  The Eternity Code, it is the third book in the Artemis Fowl series, the first I’ve read and the second my daughter has.

Artemis is a fourteen year-old boy from Ireland. However, he is not like most boys, he is heir to a large crime empire, he’s a genius, and he also has connections with “the people”. Fairies who live underground and hold vastly superior technology to anything we “mud people” have.

Artemis has used the fairy technology to build a super computer, unfortunately it falls into the wrong hands and it is up to Artemis, and his friends to make sure that knowledge of the fairy world and their brilliant inventions does not escape.

Eternity Code manages to deliver the slickness and pace of a good heist story, the drawl one liners of Raymond Chandler and an imaginative contemporary take on magical people’s with not a wizard or powdered wig in sight.  Eternity Code makes no profound statements, but then it doesn’t have to.  It’s fun, imaginative and full of energy.  I would recommend it as a good book for all children, but particularity for those who you wouldn’t necessarily consider a “bookish” type.

I interviewed my daughter about the book, but I don’t think it was really the right time.

Me:  What made you chose this book to read?

Milla:  Because I’ve read others in the series.  There’s actually nine of them.

Me:  What is it that you like about the series?

Milla:  Well, what is it that you like about any book?

Me: Well, different books can have different things that attract you to them.  Like the setting, or characters.  So what was it that made you like this one?

Milla:  It.  It’s ok.  I’m really tiered and I want to watch the TV.

Me:  Just two more questions?  Who do you think would like this book?

Milla:  Kids.

Me:  What type of kids?

Milla:  Kids.  Are we done now?



The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling..?

I bought this wee book as a stocking filler for my daughter.  She’s pretty Harry Potter obsessed – which I put down to having read all the books while I was on maternity leave, so she somehow osmosed them in the womb.  Or, she could just be a pretty normal child who’s imagination is fired up by a well developed fantasy world.

The book contains five tales, collected from Beedle the Bard, a figure who is part of the padding of the Harry Potter world, who we know little about.  A real world equivalent would be Blind Harry.  Beedle collected the only evidence we have of myth, folklore or legend in the Harry Potter world.   It of course includes the well known Tale of the Three Brothers – an important part of the last two books, explaining the legend of the Deathly Hallows.

In the original HP series JK Rowling’s fantasy world works so well because the contemporary events of the second wizarding war, are firmly embedded in the first wizarding war, a generation before.  The real world equivalent is World War One and Two.  There are more than enough charactor/event similarities between those real world events and the Harry Potter ones for it to be no coincidence.  However apart from the odd scrap of wizarding legislation or anecdote, Beedle is one of the only people in the world to be implanted more than one or two generations before Mr Potter himself.

The stories in Beedle fall into two different categories.  The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, the Fountain of Fair Fortune and The Tale of the Three Borthers, are a sort of morality tale.  A real world equivilent would be the Boy Who Cried Wolf.  Tales designed to impart wisdom, or teach a lesson, that will help the hearer – most likely a child – behave in a certain way, or understand the world within the bounds of a specific morality.  These kind of tales are often neat and to the point, having a very clear message.

The other two stories are, Babbty Rabbity and her Cackling Stump and, The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.  Hairy Heart is my absolute favourite in the whole collection.  Immediately after reading it my eight year-old’s question was “Why would anyone put that in a children’s book?”

Fairy-tales, before they were collected by the middle-classes were not nice moralistic tales where sweet women behaved passively and were rewarded with the hand in marriage of a handsome nameless prince.  Real fairy tales gave voice to the the voiceless.  Not just a voiceless underclass, but often the voiceless within that underclass.  Those who’s mouths were taped over by the privileged and ruling classes, and vocal chords pulled out by anti-children elders, patriarchal attitudes, poverty or plain selfishness within their families and surrounding society. Real fairy-tales are gruesome and bloody ordeals, inhabited by people of moral ambiguity, murderers, incestuous fathers, absent or selfish parents, vain and egotistical relatives, vain and egotistical rulers, abusers, manipulators and the indifferent.  In other words, it’s full of real people, and real situations.  Albeit filtered through the magical, to make the trauma of real life more palatable to those who have suffered it, and those who are being warned.

While the other three stories may be more benign, and Babbity Rabbity just being a bit weird (another feature of original fairy-tales given mistranslation and changes in cultural symbolism) Hairy Heart is the tale that really stands out.

Although the tales are so-so what really brings the magic to the book are the notes by Albus Dumbledore.  In each of the notes Rowling gently unfolds a little bit more knowledge about the HP world and Dumbledore.  Many readers will bask once more in the glow everyone’s favourite teacher.  Rowling gently guided us through the HP world, which developed with every book – much in the way we develop a deeper understanding of our world on the journey between 11 and 17, as her main characters embodied.  The notes just add that little bit more to this unfolding.  It’s a top up for those eager for more, and make the tales more than just a curiosity.

There is only one thing that breaks the magic.  The fact that JK Rowling is credited on the cover as the author.  Yes, she did write it.  However, the title page says the book was translated by Hermione Grange from original runes with notes from Albus Dumbledore – which adds to Rowlings carefully woven world.  To then have Rowlings name proclaimed on the front cover breaks this conceit.   After all, as much as the best fairy-tales reflect the genuinely arbitrary nature of the world, the best magicians continue their performance until they have walked off stage.