Book review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

Description: (from Head of Zeus)

Ken Liu is one of the most original, thought-provoking and award-winning short-story writers of his generation. This is the first collection of his work – sixteen stories that invoke the magical within the mundane, by turns profound, beguiling and heartbreaking.

Included here are: The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Finalist for Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards), Mono No Aware (Hugo Award winner), The Waves (Nebula Award finalist), The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), All the Flavors (Nebula Award finalist), The Litigation Master and the Monkey King (Nebula Award finalist) ,and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, The Paper Menagerie (the only story ever to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

This was my first time reading from Ken Liu, and a deliberate choice. I was first very interested by his fantasy novel The Grace of Kings, but then I decided that I should maybe read his short fiction before getting immersed in an epic fantasy series. Of course now I’m even more eager than before to read it because The Paper Menagerie was glorious.

I loved the Preface. If I had found this collection in a bookshop, opened it, and only read the Preface it would have made me buy it right away.
Sometimes the SFF elements were very discreet and not the most important aspect of the story and I really liked that. I often had no idea where the stories would go, what would happen next, and that is a sensation I really like when reading. I was moved to tears by more than one stories in this collection and I’d say this truly isn’t a light read and one should be prepared to the heavy subjects addressed in there.

For instance, The Literomancer was the second harder to read for me, after the last one. Mainly because of the awful things happening and because it focused on children, bullying and torture. I really wasn’t prepared to the way it would end, even if you can see it coming, now that I think back about it.

The collection has a very different range of stories, going from a murder mystery to stories which felt like tales, stories set in deep space, in the past or the future. Some where talking about horrifying things that happened, some imagined what could have been, while others made me smile and gave me hope.

“But I did not think of her harshly. Judging was the luxury of those who did not need to survive.”

Each of them had a strong emotional core, and I teared up for The paper menagerie. It was so sad but also beautiful that I didn’t know how to react and tears began to roll more and more as I was approaching the end.

The Waves was also a wonderful story that really surprised me. I remember I had to do something when I started it but I quickly forgot about it because I just HAD to keep reading, I was totally immersed.

I loved a lot of the stories, liked others, and always always experienced such a range of emotions that I just had to give this book 5 stars on goodreads.

This was the perfect anthology to remind me of why I love SFF and speculative fiction (as if I needed the reminder, but, you know.)
I started reading more short fiction last year and I have to say this anthology might be my favourite so far.

With his stories, Ken Liu made me realise that I was ignorant on some important part of this world history. I learned a lot and I liked that a bibliography was included for us to read more on the subjects if we wanted to.
I’m also not surprised at all that so many of those stories were finalists, nominees, and winners in all those awards selection!

Trigger warnings: torture, rape, life in the camps, death of children

Full table of contents:

  • Preface
  • The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species
  • State Change
  • The Perfect Match
  • Good Hunting
  • The Literomancer
  • Simulacrum
  • The Regular
  • The Paper Menagerie
  • An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition (previously unpublished)
  • The Waves
  • Mono no aware
  • All the Flavors
  • A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel
  • The Litigation Master and the Monkey King
  • The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary

Plus this book is super beautiful