The Precious Art of Yoon Ha Lee’s The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales

The work of Yoon Ha Lee has always felt incredibly singular. Between his stunning prose, methodical exploration of intricate worlds he’s handing to us bit by bit, concepts that can range from the mind-blowing to the heart-rending, and beautifully sketched, complex characters—any new work I read by Lee always makes me feel incredibly lucky. From novels to short stories, Yoon Ha Lee’s work is a gift. In this latest collection, Lee shapes a beautiful pocket-sized collection of flash fiction fables and folktales, and in artful strokes of prose, conjures worlds of wonder.

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales is slim, only around 100 pages all told, and some of those pages are dedicated to gorgeous illustrations. Black and white, these pieces of art break up the twenty-five stories within, almost like natural pauses for breath and contemplation, a necessity in a volume one could theoretically finish in an afternoon’s span. Because trust me, you don’t want to rush through this collection. Every story within is to be treasured, and if you rush through it, believe me, it won’t be long until you find yourself going back to savor them once more.

Each of Lee’s stories in The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales are precious; like old family heirlooms or holiday ornaments hanging on a narrative scaffolding, they each catch the light in their own way, shimmering and scrimshaw, uniquely carved or molded or blown, like glass. Just because they’re short or small, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth their weight in gold. Lee is expert at giving you just enough to understand the hint of a shape or the contour of a character’s heart, before exiting once more, giving the barest glimpse of a place, a problem, a person, and lending readers enough context to find the lesson or story therein.

I had a screenwriting and playwriting teacher in college who believed that the strongest scenes in a play or movie were not those that lingered, but rather “those that arrived a moment too late and left a moment too early.” Those snapshots of drama or comedy that make the audience have to pay attention, to glean clues from context or subtext, to wonder at the tension they missed or refusing to get the release of tension before the camera or the curtains move us away from the moment. Lee has a lot of fun playing with that tension in these fables and stories, often setting us up with a clean, “Once upon a time,” like opening, only for things to take a sudden turn, or a shift into shadow, or just refuse to end cleanly, (just like much in life).

But each story, whether about an angel walking the streets of an emptied hell, a young soldier stuck in a tower, visited only by a curious fox, two rival bakers sitting side by side, wondering at each other’s business, or two sisters of sand and sea pondering their birthday gifts to one another, all of them combine the mythic and the gentle to create stories with wondrous moments and at least some catharsis.

The best part of flash fiction is the feeling that these are but snapshots, that when you turn the page, this story of the warrior with a stone for a heart will continue down her road, as will the angel, the fox, the bakers. Lee imbues each small tale with that longevity and makes the reader beg for more, for who wouldn’t want to keep walking with this cast of characters, many of them queer and young, looking for connection or solutions or joy? As in everything he writes, Lee’s worlds are populated with a diverse array of individual, and the wide spectrum of gender and sexuality on casual display where these identities are not cruxes for pain but just simple fact, make his worlds ones to strive for and celebrate.

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales is the perfect little gateway; if you’ve loved Yoon Ha Lee’s work in any of his short fiction or novels, this is a treasure for you to pocket away and read on dark nights. If you’ve never read anything of his and want to start, I can’t think of a better place to start from. With beautiful prose, important and gentle lessons to impart, learned by characters of all kinds with complexity and grace, Yoon Ha Lee has crafted yet another masterful collection, and you should make sure it’s on your self immediately.

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales is available from Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.

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