REVIEW: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Li

24885533We are defined by the places we hold in the web of others’ lives.

This is probably the best short story collection I’ve read. Emotive and beautifully written, Ken Liu delivers a wonderful selection of speculative short stories that both wow and move you. Often, short stories collections can all blur into one, with maybe one stand out piece. But Ken Liu writes each story with such intent and creativity that they each exists in its own wonders.

What I loved most about this collection was that it wasn’t tied down by a common theme. The book historian in me was nerding out over the alien ideas of writing portrayed in The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, and the titular story The Paper Menagerie pulled at my heart strings.

For someone that is not massively up-to-date on Asian history and the complex debates surrounding it, Liu wonderfully portrays Chinese culture and history (perfectly encapsualted in the final story, The Man Who Ended History), and made me intrigued by so much I don’t know about China and its history. Wonderfully balancing this with big science-fiction ideas, such as what it means to be human, the potential for time travel, and the escape from Earth to distant stars and planets, the collection has a wonderful breadth that makes each story new and exciting.

At times, the beatiful prose almost left me breathless. If it wasn’t a library book, I would have probably highlighted and annotated many sentences throughout.
One section particularly sticks with me, for both its beauty and its reality:

“The universe is full of echoes and shadows, the afterimages and last words of dead civilisations that have lost the struggle against entropy. Fading ripples in the cosmic background radiation, it is doubtful if most, or any, of these messages will ever be deciphered. Likewise, most of our thoughts and memories are destined to fade, to disappear, to be consumed by the very act of choosing and living. That is not the cause for sorrow, sweetheart. It is the fate of every species to disappear into the voice that is the heat death of the universe. But long before then, the thoughts of any intelligent species worthy of the name will become as grand as the universe itself.”

I think this paragraph properly sums up the essence of Liu’s writing. It shows the human capacity to live. Whether that be a child’s excitement at his mother’s breath of life into origami animals, the urge of a historian to preserve personal history through time travel, or the little girl’s fascination with the Chinaman who may or may not be a god, Liu portrays humanity in all of its forms. But most importantly, he shows them as living. Liu is skilled at creating characters that you understand and feel for, within the space of a few pages: something many authors don’t accomplish through a whole novel.

I will undoubtedly endeavour to read his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, just for a hint of the beautiful storytelling and prose that was evident throughout this collection.

WHAT I LOVED: the writing. oh god, it was just beautiful

WHAT I DISLIKED: some of the stories honestly ended too soon

Rating: five-stars


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