Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

March 10, 2016
Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken LiuThe Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Published by Saga Press on March 8th 2016
Pages: 464
Our reviews of this author: The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms

Thanks to Saga Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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As much as I wanted to love The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, I have to be honest in that I only thought it was okay. I mean, I can see how these stories established a reputation for Ken Liu, and there’s no doubt that some of them are indeed award worthy, but I didn’t connect with nearly as many as I would have liked.

Before you start getting disappointed, however, let me say that I blame the format, not necessarily the content. I’ve always been drawn to doorstopper fantasy novels like The Grace of Kings, where we have six or seven hundred pages to immerse ourselves in the world, so it’s not a surprise that many of these stories fell flat or felt a little shallow.

Having said all that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap some praise on those stories that did work for me.

“State Change” hooked me from the start, with a young woman’s strange obsession with freezers, glaciers, and ice cubes. Rina lives in a world where our souls physically manifest as small items that we must keep close at all times, which is easy enough if your soul is a rock or a cigarette package, not so much when it’s something as fragile as an ice cube. It’s the subtle twists at the end, however, where there magic happens.

“Good Hunting” was probably my favorite in the collection, being a story about ghosts, demons, steam-trains, and eternal change. Once a world of magic and monsters, China has seen all of that disappear as the railroad makes its way across the land. Faced with the loss of his family’s legacy, Liang befriends a young shapeshifter and comes to understand the nature of change and the mechanics of being an agent of change.

“The Regular” is a story I didn’t expect much out of, as crime stories and murder mysteries really aren’t my thing, but then we learn that Regulators are . . . and what they’ve done to Ruth’s capacity for emotion. There is a lot going on in this story, with much of it either in the past or beneath the surface of the narrative, and the climax is one of the most powerful scenes in the collection.

“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is comprised of stories within stories, with excerpts from A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (1960) and The Ignoramus’s Guide to American History (1995) interspersed within the tale of interracial romance, with one man’s reminiscing being the final, darkest piece that brings it all together.

An uneven collection (for me, at least), that was far heavier on politics, history, and sociology than I anticipated, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories didn’t amaze me like The Grace of Kings did, but it may be the perfect appetizer for those not yet ready to commit to one doorstopper with another on the way later this year.

Bob Milne
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  • Cherie Reich March 11, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for the review! It sounds like you found a few gems among the stories.

  • thebrightspark March 11, 2016 at 11:38 am

    I felt pretty much the same way about this one — glad it’s not just me!