Written with nightbird quills and ink-of-dedication
November 9, 2014 2:39 AM   Subscribe

I try to do two things with my style. The first is to pay attention to how the words sound together ... The other thing is to juxtapose odd images.
Sometimes ornate, sometimes economical, and always striking, Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction combines motifs from fantasy and science fiction with remarkable fruitfulness: "There are soldiers and scientists, space travel and dragons, leather-bound books, locked doors, and genocidal rampages. Each tale strains at the edges of possibility. No two of Lee's stories are alike, except for a similar pulse powering each word, each juxtaposition, each startling turn of events." Much of Lee's output is available online, including dozens of flash fiction fairy tales and two works of interactive fiction.

Stories published on the web
"You're a what?" Kanseun said intelligently, using Kestran's alt form of the second person pronoun, acceptable either for actual alts, like her roommate, or when you had no clue whatsoever.
"I'm a boy foxwife," the foxwife said helpfully.
"The Contemporary Foxwife" (2014) - A woman attending a university on a space station is surprised by the appearance of a "boy foxwife" at her door.
Another law of etiquette in the world of puppets: you do not speak of the ligatures fraying, of the paper shedding its fibers and the limbs worn thin, of the scalloped edges after encounters with water. (After fire, water is the element that puppets fear most. Glue is not well-regarded, either.) You do not speak of the fact that the queen's favorite tiger smells incongruously of tangerines and cloves and amber after a mishap with a perfume bottle, or the stiffness of the queen's hands, which she makes no attempt to disguise, and which no one is foolish enough to remark on. Everything is smoothed over by shadow.
"Combustion Hour" (2014) - "This story is about the eschatology of shadow puppets."
My mother had a horrified tone that I later identified as meaning Am I doing this parenting thing wrong? but, at the time, I assumed she was upset with me. "Eggling," she said, her voice rattling more than usual, "are you trying to persuade me to eat you?"
"I wanted to look like you," I said, or something to that effect. That was the point of the exercise: drawing armor traceries over myself, and scribbly imitations of her electromagnetic banners, and putting the metal nozzles on my fingertips in imitation of her magnificent claws. (Even with the frosting, they kept falling off, but that was a game in itself.) Since I couldn't play dress-up with a dragon-suit, I had to improvise.
"The Bonedrake's Penance" (2014) - The child of the dracolich at the center of the universe receives a history lesson.
For decades Nasteng had escaped the notice of the galaxy's wider culture. This was as its Council of Five preferred. They had a secret that other human civilizations would covet. So they hid behind masks of coral and dangling tassels and quantum jewels, and admitted only traders from the most discreet mercantile societies. Now, their secret had gotten out in spite of their precautions.
"Wine" (2014) - The depraved governors of a decadent world hire mercenaries but inspire a loyal citizen.
Most people don't first notice the warden when they meet him, or the rooms crowded with agate-eyed figurines, flowers of glass, cryptochips sliced into mosaics. They first notice the warden's gun. It is made of living bone and barbed wire and smoke-silver axioms. It would have a stock of mother-of-pearl, if pearls were born from gangrenous stars. It has a long, lustrous barrel forged in a bomb's hellheart. And along the barrel is an inscription in whatever language your heart answers to: I never miss.
"The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars" (2013) - Nearly a Hugo nominee (3.1% of relevant ballots) - Niristez of the Nine of Chains plays a game against Daechong, the warden of a tower "upon a world whose only sun is a million starships wrecked into a mass grave."
The warden gestured around the room, then unrolled one of the great charts across the table at the center of the room. It was a stardrive schematic, all angles and curves and careful coils.
Then Seran saw the shape flickering across the schematic, darkening some of the precise lines while others flowed or dimmed. The warden said nothing, leaving him to observe as though she felt he was making a difficult diagnosis. After a while he identified the elusive shape as that of a girl, slight of figure or perhaps merely young, if such a creature counted years in human terms. The shape twisted this way and that, but there were no adjacent maps or diagrams for her to jump to. She left a disordered trail of numbers like bullets in her wake.
"Effigy Nights" (2013) - 2014 Nominee: World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story; anthologized in both Jonathan Strahan's and Rich Horton's best of year collections; nearly a Hugo nominee (3.8% of relevant ballots) - A "city of stories" awakens in response to an invasion.
The heptarchate's exotic technologies depended on the high calendar's configurations: the numerical concordances, the feasts and remembrances, the associated system of belief. The mothdrive that permitted fast travel between star systems was an exotic technology. Few people advocated a switch in calendars. Too much would have to be given up, and invariant technologies, which worked under any calendar, never seemed to keep up. Besides, any new calendar would be subject to the same problem of lock-in; any new calendar would be regulated by the Rahal, or by people like the Rahal, as rigorously as the current one.
"The Battle of Candle Arc" (2012) - Anthologized in David Hartwell's best of year collection - A space-faring civilization takes its holidays seriously.
In the mythology of Vayag's people, three goddesses had shared rule of the world: Minhyen the Bird of Dawn, Khugyun the Bird of Night, and Sarasyon the Bird of Death. Vayag and her sister had left their share of offerings at the goddesses' altars: sweet spring water for Minhyen, or votive candles in the shapes of lotus blossoms for Khugyun, or burnt barley flatbread for Sarasyon. They had seen a priest of Sarasyon summon the goddess's living shadow once, when the Meroi warships first sailed up the river to the capital’s harbor. The ships had fallen apart in feather-shaped shards.
The peninsula's resistance had doomed itself then ...
"The Book of Locked Doors" (2012) - The story of an insurgent guided by a supernatural legacy of violence - Author Interview.
In the peregrinations of civilizations grand and subtle, each mode of transport is an alphabet expressing their understandings of the universe's one-way knell. One assumes that the underlying universe is the same in each case.
"A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel" (2011) - Anthologized in David Hartwell's best of year collection - A pastiche of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities based on interstellar rather than urban imagery.
Hello, Inanna. You have seven inventory slots, all full. The seventh contains your heart, which cannot be removed. We will do our best to remedy this.
"Conservation of Shadows" (2011) - Anthologized in Paula Guran's best of year collection - An evocation of the Sumerian myth of Inanna's descent into the netherworld, partially inspired by the author watching their husband play Portal.
The names of the war-kites, recorded in the Imperium's administrative language, are varied: Fire Burns the Spider Black. The Siege of the City with Seventeen Faces. Sovereign Geometry. The Glove with Three Fingers.
The names are not, strictly speaking, Imperial. Rather, they are plundered from the greatest accomplishments of the cultures that the mercenaries have defeated on the Imperium's behalf. Fire Burns the Spider Black was a silk tapestry housed in the dark hall of Meu Danh, ancient of years. The Siege of the City with Seventeen Faces was a saga chanted by the historians of Kwaire. Sovereign Geometry discussed the varying nature of parallel lines. And more: plays, statues, games.
The Imperium's scholars and artists take great pleasure in reinterpreting these works. Such achievements are meant to be disseminated, they say.
"Ghostweight" (2011) - 2012 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalist; anthologized in both Gardner Dozois's and Rich Horton's best of year collections; nearly a Hugo nominee (5.73% of relevant ballots) - A young woman steals a ship and rebels against a space empire.
When General Minkhir returned through the Winged City's gates, her clay servant Chukash saw the emblem of conquest in her hand. This time it was a bronze crescent, drenched in blood as always. Chukash fell in beside her, holding a basin to catch the blood. The trees to either side of them straightened, the gray-brown limbs flushing to a green-tinged hue, but the street was as dry as it had been before the general's departure weeks earlier. It was an inauspicious sign when the city's need for water was still dire.
"The Winged City" (2010) - A golem finds himself at the center of a regional conflict.
Of the ancestral pistol, the empire's archives said two things: Do not use this weapon, for it is nothing but peril and This weapon does not function.
In a reasonable universe, both statements would not be true.
"Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain" (2010) - Anthologized in both Gardner Dozois's and Rich Horton's best of year collections - The story of a world-altering gun and the woman who carries it, partially inspired by Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves - Author Spotlight.
Jeris tensed. "A rogue territorialist?" Circle Circle Six, nominally protected by its more prominent neighbors, had one of the highest turnover rates for territorialists. If it had just been a change of regime, Jeris would have sat back to see how long the newcomer lasted. But the bone-map's reaction had been a clear warning that he would have to intervene.
"The Territorialist" (2010) - Guarding the magical city of Spine presents strange challenges as powerful entities rise and fall in its various neighborhoods.
Yen, you have to come back so I can tell you the beginning of your story. Everything is classified: every soldier unaccounted for, every starsail deployed far from home, every gram of shrapnel...every whisper that might have passed between us. Word of the last battle will come tomorrow, say the official news services, but we have heard the same thing for the last several days.
"Between Two Dragons" (2010) - An allegorical space opera, exploring the legend of Yi Sun-Shin, the hero of the naval campaigns of the Imjin War (1592-1598), who was temporarily imprisoned by his own side.
No one traveled the Unwritten Sea save by poetry. For the little fisher-boats that never ventured far from shore, a scrap of chant handed down from parent to child might suffice. For the dhows and junks that ventured into the sea's storms, cobwebbing the paths of trade between continents, more sophisticated poetry was required: epics in hexameter, verses structured around jagged caesuras; elegantly poised three-line poems with the placement of alliterating syllables strictly dictated. A poem would guide a ship only so far ahead and no farther, and one had to use a fitting poem for the weather, the currents, the tides, the color of light on the foam and the smell of the wind.
"The Pirate Captain's Daughter" (2009) - 2010 Finalist: WSFA Small Press Award - A pirate's daughter aspires to write her own poetry with which to travel the sea.
Swan had paled. "No, thank you," she said. The swanwatch's official purpose was as a retreat for artists. Its inhabitants could only leave upon presenting an acceptable masterwork to the judges who visited every decade. In practice, those exiled here lacked the requisite skill. The captain's message clearly mocked her.
"Swanwatch" (2009) - While stationed within monitoring distance of a black hole, a woman tries to compose a symphony.
The Spider governed the city's processes, designing new foundations to withstand the weight of condensed dreams, or selecting the materials that would best gird the city's gates. If the Spider had roused, it implied that the city was in dire need of restructuring. Eskevan had no desire to involve himself in such troubles.
"Architectural Constants" (2008) - Citizens of a weird fantasy city find themselves concerned with its renewal.
Blue is more than a fortunate accident. Jenny Chang usually writes in black ink or pencil. She's been snowed in at her mom's house since yesterday and is dawdling over physics homework. Now she's out of lead. The only working pen in the house is blue.
"Blue Ink" (2008) - A schoolgirl has to decide what an alternate universe means to her; as mentioned in the Skiffy and Fanty Show interview, below, this story was partially a response to the conclusion of Angel.
Few reliable records have survived of the premiere of Mrod Zogorith's last and greatest work, the Symphony No. 36 in Mode 9. Zogorith herself vanished after the performance, and morbid rumors in its wake caused the wags to dub it the Necromantic Symphony. It is likelier that Zogorith fled the region during the subsequent Siege of Taruon, or was killed.
"Notes on the Necromantic Symphony" (2007) - The story of a mysterious work of art unfolds in an alphabetically-ordered series of notes on what is known about it.
Jenna Freeman was beginning to think that she should have listened to her sister before she bought the new viola. It wasn't that she was superstitious. But the instrument had survived two fires--it still had scarring on its ribs--and the last owner had nicknamed it the Inferno. Jenna's sister had said, "Don't you think that's a bad omen? It'll inspire a new category of viola jokes."
"The Inferno" (2007) - A violist discovers an unexpected quality in her instrument.
When starships wheel through the kaleidoscope between worlds, three things guide them: the maps, the stars, and the screamers.
"Screamers" (2007) - A woman pilots a small spacecraft with an important supporting role in interstellar travel.
Kaela felt the heat in her face and averted her gaze, but did not argue the point. Of this year's magistrate-aspirants at the Black College, she was the least comfortable with the required physical disciplines. She would rather have been working on her thesis if it hadn't been for the difficulty her research topic was giving her. The college did not specifically ask magistrate-aspirants to learn sword-dancing, but since Teris had agreed to teach her, she had chosen it instead of any number of more staid alternatives, like archery or dance.
"The Shadow Postulates" (2007) - A university student looks for insight into advanced mathematics.
There are secret places in the world. Our maze was one of them.
"Unstringing the Bow" (2006) - A woman stumbles upon the people of the maze at the heart of reality.
The queen in her dark halls kept a mirror of ice that had never known the sun's kiss.
"The Sun's Kiss" (2005) - A story that hints at implications of the Orpheus myth.

Flash fiction

The original writing prompts and/or the first lines from each story suggest the flavor of Lee's flash fiction:
  • "The Alchemist's Maples" - Prompt: "silver maple." "In a quiet land, a great distance from the Lands of the Moon where she had grown up, an alchemist lived in a workshop ..."
  • "The Witch and the Traveler" - Prompt: "breakfast." "In the Hills of the Sun, a cat-eyed witch once received a visitor."
  • "The Melancholy Astromancer" - Prompt: "cotillion, stars." "At the yearly cotillion ball, in the palaces of cloud and thunder and seething plasma, astromancers were introduced to the Society of the Sky."
  • "The Stone Egg" - Prompt: "egg." "Once in a land of dragons there lived a great dragon queen who collected eggs."
  • "The Virtues of Magpies" - Prompt: "tricksters, loyalty." "Once in a border keep where the winters were tempest-winged and the sun never appeared without robes of violet clouds, there lived a youth who liked to feed the birds."
  • "Magician's Feast" - Prompt: "recursive pepper." "Once, in a far land, there lived a magician whose great passion was not her studies but her food."
  • "The Youngest Fox" - Prompt: "SCIENCE!" "Once in a wood by a great city there lived a family of foxes."
  • "The Sunlit Horse" - Prompt: "sander, son." "The magician's son crouched over the wooden horse that his father had made for them."
  • "The Sea Witch and the Serpent" - Prompt: "sea battle." "Once upon an oceantide, there lived a sea witch."
  • "Moonwander" - Prompt: "law; dogs (beagle)." "The court of the dogs met in a pack, in a circle in woods at the edge of the world where the night falls off into distances of infinite wild smells ..."
  • "The Devouring King" - Prompt: "the constellation Orion." "The conqueror king was always hungry, that was what they said."
  • "Lia's Backyard" - Prompt: "ghost; improvement." "Lia found the ghost in the shards of the mirror."
  • "Ink and Paper" - Prompt: "'inked spirals.'" "They hadn't left him very good ink."
  • "The Red Braid" - Prompt: "kumiho; kumihimo." "The woman had not chosen to be in the tower."
  • "The Workshop" - "She is not an angel, but angels visit her workshop."
  • "Two Payments" - "The horses that plunge through the waterways between the cities of heaven and the citadels of hell are wild of eye and white of mane."
  • "Two Bakeries" - "In a city where tame peacocks wandered the promenades and trees mingled their branches in graceful arches, there lived two bakers."
  • "Tiger Wives" - "Past the lowlands of hell and their unmentionable rivers, beyond the clangor of hammers on unwhole anvils, lies a city whose name is only written ringed with formulas of fear."
  • "Thunder" - "Sometimes it's about thunder ..."
  • "The Third Flower" - "At the end of the world was a mountain, and in the hidden heart of the mountain was a maze."
  • "Steel Ever Shining" - "Tea of roses scented the room where Jeru knelt, head bowed as she spoke her devotions to the saint of steel-ever-shining.
  • "A Single Pebble" - "The ruined palace of the ancient sea queen was bright and hard with treasures ..."
  • "The School of the Empty Book" - "At the School of the Empty Book, children are not taught to read until they are ten years old."
  • "Raven Tracks" - "The thing to know about ravens is that they don't leave tracks the way other birds do."
  • "The Pale Queen's Sister" - "The mountain court of the pale queen was bright with treasures ..."
  • "The Palace of the Dragons" - "In the dark seas, in the deep and stirring waters, the dragons are building a palace."
  • "Out of the Sky" - "It isn't an angel that falls out of the sky, or a ship with tesseract wings, or a broken-eyed bit of star."
  • "The Mathematician's Blessing" - "The mathematician had had some peculiar guests in her time."
  • "The Lens of the Sky" - Prompt: "fierce clarity." "It is not true that the hawk maidens of the moors have no hearts."
  • "The Last Angel" - "In the streets of a city at the edge of hell, the last angel traces out every dead end in soft, measured footsteps."
  • "Jira Dark-Hands" - "In the city of Softly-Shining-Moon, during the hot summers when the breezes murmur of languorous courtships and loving caresses, a woman named Jira Dark-Hands sits and waits for her suitors."
  • "Ink" - "The ink comes in a small glass jar with a black lid, and it sloshes pleasantly when the jar is tilted back and forth."
  • "How the Andan Court" - "Actually, I cannot offer you roses."
  • "Hibernation" - "Dormice know nothing of Charlemagne or Orlando Furioso, but they, too, have their paladins.
  • "Harvesting Shadows" - "They say the mountains in this land are so numerous that the smallest of them have no names."
  • "The Godsforge" - "The godsforge lies at the center of the earth, and there are as many paths to it as there are ways for steel to break."
  • "The Gate of Bells" - "At the northern border of a land where badgers play board games with comma-shaped stones and poems are inscribed on the very sycamores, a traveler paused at the Gate of Bells."
  • "The Garden of Rust" - "For the most part, starships are pragmatists."
  • "The Fox's Tower" - "The prisoner had lived in the tower at the center of the wood for moons beyond counting."
  • "The Fox's Forest" - "In the darkest reaches of a forest whose trees never whispered its name, there lived a fox."
  • "Forever the Stars" - "In times future, music will not be played upon vibrations in the air."
  • "The Firziak Mountains" - "The Firziak Mountains have many charms, from the spectacular springtime displays of cherry blossoms to the shrines with their gilded statues of the Blind Falconer ..."
  • "The Dragon Festival" - "Once, on a tidy planet whose clouds wrote combinatorial equations across the sky in the morning and sieved the light into rich colors in the evening, there was a city of robots."
  • "Dew-Weighted Roses" - "In a convent high in the mountains, where the stars hang barely out of reach and the wind sings stories of frozen songbirds and silvered firs, a sister-of-the-snow tends her garden."
  • "The Crane Wife" - "Once a peasant woman found a crane with a wounded wing in the woods."
  • "Chalice" - "Let's sit down, you and I, and talk about the chalice."
  • "Balloons" - "In their far-ranging migrations, the nomads collect heat sources to keep their white-and-gold balloons aloft."
  • "Behind the Mirror" - "Her sister did not live behind the mirror."
  • "Moon, Paper, Scissors" - "White shapes fell from Mei’s hands: here a narrow triangle, there a half-ripped crescent."
  • "The Third Song" - "It was midway in the morning of the world, in the great middle desert, and a woman knelt beneath a tree beneath the wide, wondering sky."
  • "Carousel Foals" - "The breeding of carousel horses is like and unlike the breeding of more ordinary steeds."
  • "Candles" - "When I hand you a candle, I don't expect you to burn."
  • "The Bridge" - "In a garden where all the swans are black and the flowers murmur the names of long-ago lovers, there is a bridge."
  • "Bookmarks" - "In a land beyond the last ocean, where the gulls wheel landward only to return with table scraps, there are great libraries in every city and town."
  • "The Birdsong Flute" - "Some speak of the forest's great trees ..."

"Foxfeast" (2013) • "Immigrants" (2011) • "Art Lessons" (2010) • "Thrice" (2010) • "Family Values in Hameln" (2006) • "Stella Rosetta" (2006) • "Unicorn Flesh" (2006) • "Dear Yourself" (2005) • "Equinox" (2005) • "Kingdom of Dust and Steel (2005) • "When Soft the Water Fell" (2003)

Interactive fiction

The Moonlit Tower (previously on Metafilter) • Winterstrike

Essays and reviews

"Hubris and Synthesis in Kate Constable's The Singer of All Songs" (2005) • "The Dangerous Duckling: Images of Beauty and Illusion in The Perilous Gard" (2005) • "Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker" (2007) • "The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner" (2006) • "In The Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips" (2005) • "A Journey of Words: Keith Miller's The Book of Flying" (2004)

Additional interviews

Excerpts from an interview with Locus (2014), in which Lee mentions once writing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fanfic • Audio interview with the Skiffy and Fanty Show (2013)


Yoon Ha Lee's The Conservation of Shadows (2013) gathers many of the stories above along with five others, and it includes the author's notes explaining the thoughts behind each story: inspirations such as childhood interests in black holes and paper dolls.
posted by Monsieur Caution (13 comments total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
I've only read the first story you linked, and I'm already a fan. Thanks for this post!
posted by moonmilk at 5:57 AM on November 9, 2014

Just read The Contemporary Foxwife. Wow. Honed sunlight.

Thanks so much for this post!
posted by one teak forest at 8:09 AM on November 9, 2014

Gorgeous stuff -- thanks for the very comprehensive introduction! I went to IFDB to get a .z5 file for The Moonlit Tower, which I'm really enjoying so far, and while I was there I found not two but four IFs by Yoon Ha Lee!
posted by Westringia F. at 9:03 AM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife wants a foxwife.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:48 AM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I cannot recommend The Conservation of Shadows enough. It is such an incredible story.

Great post, I love Yoon Ha Lee, thank you and I'll get to reading so many more of these stories.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 10:38 AM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

That'll take me some time! Thanks!
posted by Omnomnom at 11:23 AM on November 9, 2014

Excellent, cheers
posted by dng at 12:22 PM on November 9, 2014

I...I have stuff I need to write! Can't spend all day reading...

*opens first story link, starts reading*
posted by happyroach at 12:40 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another doctoral dissertation masquerading as a FPP. Well done, and thanks for all the links.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:12 PM on November 9, 2014

These are wonderful. I've been reading pieces here and there, but this is a good week's worth. The Red Braid is quite charming, she just dives into the action.
posted by ana scoot at 5:07 PM on November 9, 2014

Holy cow, what a post!
posted by Mister_A at 9:58 AM on November 10, 2014

Wow, thank you so much for this. Amazing post.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:59 AM on November 10, 2014

This is some good shit right here.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:51 PM on November 10, 2014

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