Sunday, January 26, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Yoon Ha Lee

I can't believe I haven't done a summary post on Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction. I found his shorter work intriguing from the very first story, "The Hundredth Question" in F&SF in 1999. He has a wider reputation now, after the tremendous success of his Machineries of Empiretrilogy. But as I hope this shows, he was writing striking work at shorter lengths throughout, and getting better and better. I've reprinted several of his stories in my Best of the Year volumes. Particular favorites include "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain", and the remarkable "Iseul's Lexicon", from his first story collection, Conservation of Shadows. Not included here is my review of his latest collection, Hexarchate Stories, all set in the Machineries of Empire universe, because that review appears in the current (January 2020) Locus.

Locus, June 2002

And Yoon Ha Lee's "The Black Abacus" (F&SF, June) is a fascinating attempt at describing a war conducted in quantum space through the eyes of a spaceship captain and her (traitorous?) associate and lover. I don't think the story quite works, but the attempt is intriguing indeed.

Locus, January 2009

And Yoon Ha Lee’s “Architectural Constants” (BCS, 10/23) is an evocative and original story of a constantly changing city, its changes controlled by a mysterious “spider”, and of the librarian and the sentinel whose destinies collide with the latest alterations.

Locus, March 2009

Yoon Ha Lee, in “The Unstrung Zither” (F&SF, March), seems to be trying something quite interesting. The story is apparently SF. An established planet trying to reestablish (by war) sovereignty over five colony planets. Five child assassins, one from each colony, have been captured. Xiao Ling Yun, a musician, is charged with using her musical ability to learn how to defeat them. The atmosphere is distinctively fantastical – largely I think because everything in the story is metaphor. Or perhaps not – perhaps what seems metaphor is real in this future, or alternate world? At any rate, all this is odd and interesting. And Ling Yun’s character is very well shown. That said, I felt the story didn’t quite work – but was a highly worthwhile failure – in that the plot’s dependence on quite implausible actions by the Phoenix General naggingly undermined my suspension of disbelief.

Review of Federations, Locus, May 2009

Yoon Ha Lee’s most notable feature, it seems to me (though Lee has displayed plenty of range) is the ability to imbue quite overtly space operatic stories with a nearly fantastical sort of color, and with a considerable feeling of intimacy. “Swanwatch” is another such (compare, for example, to “The Unstrung Zither”, from the March F&SF). A young woman is exiled to a distant space station for a trivial crime, and her new duty is to observe the “art form” of suicides who spiral into the nearby black hole. The story’s resolution isn’t quite what first seems offered, refreshingly.

Locus, September 2009

Yoon Ha Lee is never less than interesting – in “The Bones of Giants” (F&SF, August-September) a man searching for revenge against the evil necromancer who killed his mother allies himself with a chance-encountered young woman. On the surface a fairly conventional fantasy, but well executed, and with an effective closing revelation.

Locus, May 2010

At April’s Clarkesworld both stories are striking. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Between Two Dragons” is a war story, about a hero admiral who falls afoul of political machinations during a war, and is imprisoned, only to be released when the exigencies of war require his services. Which description of course doesn’t describe what’s really going on – this is a future war, between multiple star systems, and the admiral’s imprisonment involves also some mind alteration … but at heart it remains simple, a question of loyalty, and where loyalty belongs. Lee continues in his SF to use the language of fantasy to get at his themes: always quite interestingly.

Locus, September 2010

Yoon Ha Lee is reliably original and exotic again with “The Territoralist” (BCS, July 15). Guard Captain Jaris leads a crew to a territory that has “gone rogue” to set things right. The journey is fraught with strange omens, strange attacks, strange weapons – and in the end treachery, nicely foreshadowed. So I liked the story, though on final analysis I didn’t quite get a firm enough sense of groundedness to love it.

Locus, October 2010

Fantasy’s companion, Lightspeed, features a striking short Yoon Ha Lee story in September, “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain”, in which an assassin with a mysterious gun is approached by a potential client – but her mission and her gun are not what they once were. In its brief space the story spans great time, many universes, and we learn the assassin’s history, and the gun’s nature, both fascinating and unexpected.

Locus, December 2010

Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Winged City” (Giganotosaurus, December) is another striking and ambitious – but perhaps not quite successful – fantasy. Lee seems to try as hard as any writer to make worlds truly strange, and so with this story, about an apparently flying city, facing drought, that wages war on its neighbors for water and luxuries. This strategy seems about to fail, as one of the generals pushes for her clay man to accompany her to the next war. The sense of oddness, of dislocation, is palpable and effective, but the story qua story, in the end, slipped from my grasp. So – a worthy effort, but, for me, not a hit.

Locus, March 2011

It seems to me, thinking about Yoon Ha Lee’s increasingly impressive array of stories, that Lee's central theme is war, and that Lee treats this theme in strikingly original and varied ways. “Ghostweight” (Clarkesworld, January) is his latest war story, as striking and wrenching as any of them. Lisse is a deserter from the an interstellar Imperium’s army, and with the help of a ghost attached to her, she takes over an abandoned war kite, determined to take revenge on the people who destroyed much of her planet and killed her parents. Her cause seems just – is just – but can she truly be effective? And will her violence breed more violence, turn her into something she never wanted to be? And what of the ghost’s motivations? These are familiar questions, no doubt, but ever important ones, and well asked here, and twistily resolved, in another of Lee’s very different SFnal worlds – described with the feel of fantasy, with ghosts and origami and kites, but at core true interplanetary SF.

Locus, October 2013

Also at the August Lightspeed, Yoon Ha Lee is aggressively strange as ever in “The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars”. It concerns “the exile Niristez … in a ship of ice and iron and armageddon engines” (for me, Lee's imagery usually hovers just to the good side of overwrought). Niristez has come to “a black spire upon a world whose only sun is a million starships wrecked into a mass grave” to play a game with the Warden of the tower – perhaps hoping to keep her promise to end an endless interstellar war, perhaps hoping to prolong the war. Games are central here, and cards, and strategy and tactics, and, as so often with Lee, ways of describing future war (and thus perhaps conflict in general) in new and effective ways.

Locus, February 2014

The best piece in the January Clarkesworld, however, is Yoon Ha Lee's “Wine”, one of Lee's grimmer stories, set on the planet Nasteng as it comes under attack by representatives of the wider universe, apparently interested in the secret of their “wine”. The ruling Council of Five hire mercenaries to resist the attack, and they ask a terrible price. The nature of that price, and the Council, and the wine, is the subject of the story, as learned by Loi Ruharn, a General and the lowborn lover of the one of the Councilors. Dark stuff indeed.

(Cover by Sherin Nicole)
Lee is justifiably one of the most celebrated newer writers in our field, though, even while celebrated, Lee is not as well known as deserved for a simple, common, reason: no novels. (Though I think a couple may be in the pipeline.) Indeed, Conservation of Shadows is Lee's first full-length book. (Another very creditable collection could be assembled from stories not in this one, mind you.) It's an exceptional collection, with such tremendous stories as “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” and “Ghostweight”. There's also an original novella, the longest story I think I've seen from Lee, “Iseul's Lexicon”, which I think is one of the stories of the year. Iseul is a spy for Chindalla, a nation half of which has been conquered by Yegedin, in a world where humans some centuries before freed themselves from the cruel domination of magicians called the Genial Ones. What little magic is still done is based on that of the Genial Ones, with charms written in their language. Iseul, a poet and linguist, is a natural magician of sorts, and her mission, to investigate the house of a Yegedin magician, seems a natural. When she encounters a Genial One in the house, the implication that the Yegedin have allied with a survivor of humans' old oppressors leads to an desperate race to stop the Yegedin from using this new power to conquer the rest of her country. The plot, put that way, is conventional enough, though well-handled. The power is in the telling, at times as (grimly) funny as anything I've seen from Lee, delightfully imaginative in the handling of the magic system, original, moving, realistic in its look at a middle-aged ex-poet caught up in war. Simply exceptional work.

Locus, May 2014

Yoon Ha Lee is one of the masters at merging SF and Fantasy – though to me it seems Lee often uses imagery from Fantasy to come to grips with the strangeness of the universe, and of deep time, and of intergalactic distances. “The Bonedrake's Penance” (BCS, March 2014) concerns a human girl raised by a Bonedrake, a weapon who has renounced war to curate a museum of sorts, devoted in part to the memories of past wars. As the girl grows up, she eventually comes to participate in the Bonedrake's interaction with visitors, and she must learn the reasons behind her “mother”'s devotion to absolute neutrality, even at the cost of peace.

Locus, May 2016

from the March 3 issue of BCS, Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” is a strong story in which the fantasy element is the main character: a fox who wants to become human – by killing 100 people, and inheriting their knowledge and characteristics. The SF part is her prospective 100th victim: the pilot of a cataphract, a huge robot being used in a battle. And the story itself finds a way to be different and moving and to invoke real sacrifice. Strong work.

Locus, August 2016

The aftermath of war – or, again, the way being a soldier changes one – also drives “Shadows Weave”, by Yoon Ha Lee. Tamalat is a warrior and Brio was an engineer who served with her. Brio has lost his shadow, perhaps as a way to escape the darkness of his fighting history, but it hasn’t turned out well, and Tamalat is acting as a shadow of sorts for him, and is trying to find a way to restore his true shadow. So they have come to a remote monastery, to learn how to sew a shadow back on … A bit of a convoluted setup, and perhaps not entirely convincing, but I liked the characters and the unexpectedly sweet ending. (“Sweet” not being a word one uses often in connection to a Yoon Ha Lee story.)

Locus, April 2017

Yoon Ha Lee’s “Extracurricular Activities”, from in February, is perhaps more traditionally plotted, and with a more conventional tone, than much of Lee’s work. By which I mean to imply that it is perhaps less challenging – but I should say as well that it is a lot of fun. It’s set, I believe, in the same universe as his first novel, Ninefox Gambit (and as “The Chameleon’s Gloves”, mentioned below). Shuos Jedao is an undercover operative for the Heptarchate, assigned to infiltrate a space station controlled by another polity (the Gwa Reality), and to rescue the crew of a merchanter ship that had really been heptarchate spies, including Zhei Meng, a classmate of his at Shuos Academy. Jedao, posing himself as a crewman on another merchanter, executes the mission – with plenty of panache and a certain unconventional approach. It’s funny and clever, and Jedao is an engaging character, especially in his relationships – with his mother, his various commanders, flashbacks to his time at the academy and his friendship with Meng, and with a potential lover among his new crew. One of Lee’s intense and complex social and cosmological universes, presumably established in other stories, makes an effective background for a fine caper piece, with enough of a dark edge to ground it.

There’s plenty more really cool stuff in Cosmic Powers … another Kel story from Yoon Ha Lee, “The Chameleon’s Gloves”, in which an “haptic chameleon”, banished in disgrace from the Kel, is offered a chance at reinstatement if they help recover a super weapon from an apostate General;

Locus, April 2018

My favorite from the the February 1 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies was “The Starship and the Temple Cat”, by Yoon Ha Lee, which really does mix out and out fantasy with SF. (Unlike Lee’s novels, which I read as being pure SF in a milieu describable to us only in a way that seems like Fantasy.) The cat is a ghost, in its spectral sense the only survivor of a space station destroyed by a Galactic warlord’s forces. The starship is one of the fleet that destroyed the space station, and it has returned out of something like guilt after the death of its Captain. And somehow the two meet, and through poetry and music, find a way to resist the warlord’s forces.

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