The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Ken Liu has managed to pack a tremendous amount into this amazing collection of stories, both in terms of depth of storytelling, range and writing styles. From the playfulness of ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’ describing the ways in which different galactic species pass on their wisdom, to the urban fantasy of ‘Good Hunting’, the hard-boiled detective story ‘The Regular’, Chinese American history in ‘All the Flavors’ and the mini epic fantasies. Naturally ‘The Paper Menagerie’ as the title of the collection features large and is written with the typical Liu trademark sensitivity and grace that will make you weep at a mother’s unconditional love for her son. It is this understanding of what makes people tick and drawing out what is good and gracious about humanity despite all the horrific trials the characters undergo, which takes you right into the heart of the story and holds you there. This underlying sense of gentleness makes the inhumanity of man all the more shocking, and their victims’ ability to transcend it creates a real sense of awe, as well an emotionally draining read.
The delight of the stories in the collection is in the not knowing where they are going to end up. Reality often stealthily slips into the surreal. East interfaces with West and many occasions with such fluidity that makes it difficult to define the boundaries. In the case of the mini epics, you do feel as if you’re reading a translation of the original work. Indeed some of the writing has been derived from original translations and some from historical research. These made me aware of significant events which, because of my cultural heritage, I had not encountered before, giving me pause for thought. Without exception these stories bring up a great many things to reflection on with regards to how we behave towards other people and the other species who inhabit our world, as well as our potential impact beyond its boundaries.
The epic fantasy stories within this volume certainly echo The Grace of Kings. For anyone wanting to get under the hood of epic fantasy then these compact versions make it possible to examine its form and structure to see how it is done.
But it is also the quality of Liu’s writing. Because short stories and novellas are by their very nature compact, it is possible to see the careful placement of words for maximum effect; something that, given the lack of space, needs to work well and quickly if the story is to have impact. As the author is a skilled translator (for those who might not be aware he translated the phenomenal Three-Body Problem), he will be more than aware of the value of words. That he can also draw on his Chinese heritage, known for its expansive storytelling and history, to further enrich his writing is a further bonus.
Combine a fertile imagination with someone who has the mind of a scholar and the energy of an insatiable storyteller and you have The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, as well as many years of incredible tales ahead.
Paper Menagerie and Other Stories courtesy of Saga Press via NetGalley