Mar. 20th, 2016

purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
Conservation of Shadows is a short story collection with a mix of SF, Fantasy and blurred-somewhere-in-the-middle tales. There are consistent themes running through the stories, most notably an idea that art has a physical effect on the world, but a lot are also about war: invasion, occupation and battle. Depending on where on the genre spectrum a story falls art may be a form of engineering (origami spacecraft in the first story Ghostweight) or art may be magic (characters from stories, cut out of paper and brought to life in Effigy Nights).

I was surprised on reading the notes to discover that many of the stories were also toying with ideas from mathematics - this was a lot less obvious to me than it was in, say, Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others. I spotted the use of mathematics as magic in Counting the Shapes which was reminiscent, in a way, of the idea from Bidmead's Doctor Who that calculation can shape reality. While it is quite common for science fiction stories to pull inspiration from the experimental sciences and engineering, it is a lot less usual to read ones that are directly inspired by mathematical concepts. I am half-tempted to try and re-read some of the other mathematically inspired stories but, I suspect, if I didn't spot the connection first time through I might just be irritated by it on a second read.

The prose is quite dense. It often took me a paragraph or two to really start following a story on the page. Mostly, I would say, it falls on the right side of purple, being lush and atmospheric without being distracting, except in the eponymous Conservation of Shadows which I found too allusive. In the notes, Lee explains that he "dialed up" the prose in this story and says "There is always the danger of overwhelming the material with tinsel" which I feel is what happened here. I also found several of the stories stopped rather abruptly. I think you could argue that, in each case, the ending had been reached but sometimes I was left unsure what to make of that ending.

I think my favourite stories in the collection were the longer, more fantasty-based ones, Counting the Shapes and Iseult's Lexicon, but I also enjoyed the more Military SF-style The Battle of Candle Arc, the timey-wimey Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain and the more contemplative Swanwatch. This kind of lyrical military SF/Fantasy is not a sub-genre I've really read much in before and despite some of my frustrations with the stories I enjoyed the collection a lot.

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