Fiction Reviews

The Paper Menagerie

(2016) Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, ix +450pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97567-8


Boston based Ken Liu’s been getting increasing name recognition as an up and coming talent for some time now. He has been appearing with growing regularity in the pages of the better SF magazines – Lightspeed, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and others. He’s been racking up awards too – his short story 'The Paper Menagerie', which also lends its name to this collection, was the first (and only) work of fiction to win the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and World Fantasy Awards. (Editor: And also Spain's Ignotus Award and Japan's Seiun.) He has recently released his first novel, the Grace of Kings, and as a taster this collection of short stories, mainly taken from previously published works, acts as both introduction and taster.

There are fifteen short stories in this collection, and they range effortlessly from fantasy and science fiction to something much less definable. There are also stories you would struggle to identify as speculative fiction at all, but they fit, somehow. One of the problems many short story collections have is a lack of focus. Stories taken from different sources and different times can lead to jerky, inconsistent reading. Not here, though. There is a commonality of theme and approach in these tales that brings them together to form a very satisfying whole.

These stories are all beautifully and sensitively written tales of loss, ambition, love, hope, understandings and misunderstandings. With ancient magic and spaceships thrown in from time to time. Most of the stories share themes of acceptance and identity, for instance in the impressive 'Good Hunting' a man who makes money from minor magical acts finds the old magic stops working when the railroad comes to town. So he becomes adept at the new magic – steam, clockwork, the railways. In doing so he helps his friend adjust to new realities: she was a shape shifter, sometimes human, sometimes fox, and as the world changes she can no longer shift into fox form. But by rebuilding her from clockwork she can look optimistically ‘towards a future as full of magic as the past.’

That is the point of these stories. There’s a long novella in this collection called 'All the Flavours' about Chinese immigrants in Idaho City in the 19th Century. It is difficult for the newcomers who have to endure all sorts of privations just to get to America, and plenty of prejudice and hardship once they arrive. But they do so successfully, happily and with grace, and they win over the locals with their hard work, enthusiasm and fine cooking. The story gets a To Kill a Mockingbird twist as the hero Logan (or Lau Chan) is falsely accused of murder and has to stand trial, but this is not an angry story. Like the rest, even when bad things happen to good people, the message is the same: embrace change, learn its lessons, smile, move on.

In 'The Literomancer', young Lily is the child of a man posted to Taiwan in the early 1960s who, it is implied, is working for US intelligence and preparing the Taiwanese defence against the mainland. Lily, who the other kids tease for eating ‘smelly Chinese slops’ befriends a Chinese boy and his mentor Kan Chen-Hua and leans the power of words and ideas as expressed through Chinese characters. Chen-Hua is kind and wise, though Lily’s parents are less understanding. When Lily’s father learns that Mr Kan has talked about a brutal massacre in 1947 he assumes (wrongly) that Kan is a Communist and has him tortured and killed, along with the boy, Teddy, whose only ambition was to play World Series baseball. The story isn’t about good Chinese and bad American – Lily is the main protagonist, and this is her story of understanding and acceptance. It’s sensitive and thoughtful, like the others in the collection.

The fantasy stories work best in this collection, but there’s some good science fiction here as well. My favourite of those is 'The Regular', which tells of a murdered prostitute with an eye implant that records everything she sees. It’s meant as an insurance policy, but one of her regulars spots another, baser use. I’m fond of 'The Perfect Match', too, which speculates on the ethics and implications of computers knowing everything about people, with the Siri-like Tilly knowing all about Sai’s movements, preferences and desires. She – it – even helps with his dating life, choosing and arranging suitable matches and even offering conversation suggestions to fill any awkward silences. But Sai is persuaded to think for himself, though he finds he can’t switch Tilly off. Can he beat the machine? Should he?

The best of the lot is 'The Paper Menagerie' itself. A young half Chinese boy gets frustrated with his mother, a mail-order bride with little command of English and an aptitude with old magic. As a young boy he is delighted by the paper animals she animates with her breath, but as a teenager he yearns the acceptance of his peers and demands Western ways and Western toys. So he rejects his mother, and all she represents. Until… The denouement comes slowly, deftly and convincingly and carries a huge emotional impact.

I loved this book. I don’t like all of the stories – the first and last in the collection disappointed me, and I am genuinely puzzled as to why the publishers decided to lead with what is demonstrably the weakest story in the collection. But overall there is plenty of evidence here to justify Liu’s status as a new writer with great potential. This is the best book I have read so far this year.

Highly recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Allen's take on The Paper Menagerie.

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