The Paper Menagerie – Book review

You should have read one of Ken Liu’s stories by now. You really should.

Ken-LiuKen Liu is one of the brightest new stars of the science fiction and fantasy fields. He’s won all the awards and had stories in all the main magazines, often reprinted in “Best of” anthologies.

So yeah, you should really have read one of his stories. Not because of the accolades necessarily, but because they’re really good.

Ken recently published a collection of short fiction, The Paper Menagerie, which is named after his most successful story, a story that won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards, the first story to ever win all three.

The story is about a the son of a Chinese woman and an American man. They live in the U.S. and the son is growing distant from his mother. Add a bit of magical realism and you have an amazing heartbreaking story.

Here are the first few paragraphs of The Paper Menagerie:

One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing. I refused to be soothed no matter what Mom and Dad tried.

Dad gave up and left the bedroom, but Mom took me into the kitchen and sat me down at the breakfast table.

Kan, kan,” she said, as she pulled a sheet of wrapping paper from on top of the fridge. For years, Mom carefully sliced open the wrappings around Christmas gifts and saved them on top of the fridge in a thick stack.

She set the paper down, plain side facing up, and began to fold it. I stopped crying and watched her, curious.

She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.

Kan,” she said. “Laohu.” She put her hands down on the table and let go.

A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. “Rawrr-sa,” it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.

I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring.

Zhe jiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.

I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

Copyright (c) 2011 Ken Liu, first published in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, Mar/Apr. 2011.

You can read the rest at io9 now if you want. I’ll wait.

If you don’t read it at io9, you can buy the collection; I can safely say that this one story is worth the price of the book, no matter the cost. Consider the rest of the stories a bonus, though they are no mere fluff.

Indeed, another story in the collection, Mono no aware, is also worth the price of this collection by itself.

Mono no aware is straight science fiction and tells the story of a man aboard the only spaceship in the world, heading to a new home for humans. Interspersed are fragments of his upbringing and family in China (most of the stories in The Paper Menagerie have connections to China) that really pack an emotional punch for the ending.

Even just the cover justifies buying the book and displaying when you have guests over that you want to impress. “That? Oh yeah, that’s Ken Liu’s new collection. You probably haven’t read it.”

The Paper Menagerie


All the stories in the collection are “genre stories”, veering from slight fantasy to hard sci-fi, often with a connection to China. None of them are filler.

This is the strongest single-author collection I’ve read in a good while and I can recommend it to all fans of science fiction at the very least.

Here’s a trick you can pull off to impress that bookish friend you have: buy this collection and put small post-its at the start of The Paper Menagerie and Mono no aware. Gift-wrap the book and give it to said bookish friend and say “I marked two stories I think you’ll really like.”

Then bask in the glow when they call you up and say, clearly wiping away tears, “Those were the most heart-breaking stories I’ve ever read. Thank you.”

His editor, Joe Monti, had the following to say:

“I think it ranks up there with the greatest collections of the field, alongside Le Guin, Butler, and Sturgeon. If you enjoy George Saunders, read Ken Liu.”

The Paper Menagerie is now available on amazon and all bookstores worth anything.

1 thought on “The Paper Menagerie – Book review”

  1. I absolutely adore the title story. I blogged about it at>Short Stories I Love. Nice!


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