Review: The Hidden Girl
Ken Liu’s short story The Paper Menagerie was the first work of fiction to pick up the Nebula, the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award at the same time—deservedly so, as it is a moving and imaginative story that harmonizes with the author’s strengths, weaving together threads of family, myth, and fantasy.
I quite enjoyed Liu’s short story collection of the same name, so I had to pick up his second collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, the moment I read about it. While it held my attention, I must say that I might wait a little longer before picking up Liu’s next volume of stories.
To be fair, there are some real gems among the 19 stories assembled here. For example:
Ghost Days explores how memories of our culture and traditions help us hold on to a shared identity, even in a future where our species has modified its biology to adapt to other planets.
The Reborn takes us back to Earth, where humans are living side-by-side with aliens whose concept of self is entirely different from our own.
The Message is about a father connecting with a teenage daughter he has never met, in the ruins of an alien civilization.
A novella split into three stories comprises the core of the book: The Gods Will Not Be Chained, The Gods Will Not Be Slain, and The Gods Have Not Died in Vain. A young girl, Maddie, discovers that fragments of her deceased father may still be alive as a computer program. This discovery is a harbinger of a dark future in which uploaded uber-minds fight for control of the entire planet. The tale never quite finds its emotional footing, getting as lost as the world it portrays.
Liu returns to the theme of mind uploading in three stories: Seven Birthdays, Staying Behind, and Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer. I found myself waiting for some imaginative twist that justifies the inclusion of these very similar stories. Instead, I found powerful ideas rendered less potent through repetition.
This brings me to the titular story, The Hidden Girl. It’s a fantasy tale set in the Chinese Tang dynasty era, about a young girl who is abducted from home to become an assassin with mystical powers. Unfortunately, the story feels like one we’ve heard many times before, in many variants.
At 411 pages, this is a hefty collection by a prolific writer. But Liu should have taken a page from the monks in his last story, The Cutting, who reinforce their mythology by gradually erasing it. A more careful selection would have helped his gems shine more brightly. As it is, I would give The Hidden Girl 3.5 stars, rounded down for the inclusion of a promotional excerpt from Liu’s next book as its own story.