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Monday, May 11, 2020

Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Despite not liking his novels and his latest collection of short stories, I'd already had The Paper Menagerie on hold (in ebook form) at the library, and ended up reading it without high expectations. I have no regrets. Not only are most of the stories in this collection of higher quality, the entire collection as a whole explained to me why I found his other work uncompelling.

Ken Liu's best form is that of a short story. In a short story, he's capable of creating a coherent plot, sketching out characters that come to life, and even evoking emotions that elude him in long form. "The Literomancer", "Good Hunting", "The Paper Menagerie", "The Regular", "The Paper Menagerie", "All The Waves" are all award-worthy reads that are put together so well that I was astounded: not only are the subject topics germain (Liu kindly puts together a set of references in this collection for each story, so you can follow along his research), the characters are excellent and the cultural references uniquely his. Liu not only puts references to Chinese myths and history in his stories, but is also happy to explicate and work on Japanese history as well. "The Literomancer" in particular is happy to explain the intricacies of Chinese characters in a way that (to me at least) is not only familiar, but insightful.

The volume's longer form novellas demonstrate why his more recent work hasn't been appealing: his last story, admittedly inspired by one of Ted Chiang's stories, is bloated,  and overstays its welcome, with next to no character development, and despite the extensive bibliography, doesn't offer any new insight.

Nevertheless, even if you've read many of the stories in this volume, to read it in context and to explore his extensive makes revisiting them in this book well worth your time. Highly recommended.

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