The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9541-2, $3.99, 240pp, tp). September 2017. Cover by Yuko Shimizu.
The Red Threads of Fortune, JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9539-9 $3.99, 216pp, tp). September 2017. Cover by Yuko Shimizu.
JY Yang’s first two Tensorate novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, provide an interesting contrast to In Evil Times. Although the world the Tensorate novellas are set in is one that’s ruled by an autocrat, and there is plenty of evidence for violence and oppression, Yang is writing an inclusive world – one in which people form communities and adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves.
I mention these novellas together, since they’re set in the same continuity and have some overlap in their characters, but they can be read either alone or together, in either order.
The Black Tides of Heaven opens with an abbot and a birth – a twin birth, in fact. Protector Sanao, who rules from the Great High Palace with an iron fist, promised Abbot Sung of the Grand Monastery that she would send one of her children to the monastery in return for his support at a critical time. Rather than send the child the abbot expected, she gives birth to the twins Akeha and Mokoya – and hands them over to the monastery to settle her debt.
The Black Tides of Heaven follows Akeha and Mokoya as they grow together – and apart – over the course of 30-odd years. The heart of this story is the sibling relationship, the deep closeness between the twins that develops into uncomfortable tension as their lives diverge. This comes to the fore at adulthood, when Mokoya’s prophetic talent is co-opted by their mother’s regime, and when Mokoya decides to leave the gender-neutral “they” of childhood behind and chooses womanhood (Akeha, less sure of their gender and in no hurry to have to choose, decides that he is a man), when Mokoya falls in love with Abbot Sung’s successor and begins a relationship with him, when Mokoya begins to have a life apart from Akeha, a life that doesn’t necessarily include him. They are also divided in their approaches to the Protector’s rule. Neither of them is exactly happy about it, but Mokoya wants to stay and help Abbot Thennjay provide some kind of counterweight.
Akeha doesn’t. Akeha leaves. It’s not until years later, after he meets Yongcheow – and rescues him – that Akeha finds a place where he might belong again. Yongcheow is a Machinist, and part of a movement opposed to the Protector’s iron rule. And Yongcheow and Akeha become closely involved very quickly.
The Machinists are involved in mechanical technological development. This mechanical development threatens the monopoly that the Tensors, essentially magicians, have on certain ways of doing things – the Machinists and the Tensors can have competing technologies, but the Machinists’ technologies might democratise some of them. As the Tensors generally support the Protector’s rule, this social tension also produces political tension.
The climax and dénouement of The Black Tides of Heaven involves love, sibling connections, magic superweapons, Akeha confronting his mother and trying to kill her, and the prospect of revolution.
It’s a really good book. Yang’s prose carries the reader along, opening up a world full of giant flying beasts (naga), riding lizards, cool elemental magic, interesting politics, and compelling characters. Yang’s characterisation is excellent, especially in young Akeha’s bemusement at Mokoya’s choices, and their/his slowly growing puzzlement and resentment that Mokoya is making choices that are different to the choices that Akeha would make (for both of them), but also in the older Akeha’s relationship with Yongcheow, and his distant, but still deeply tied, relationship to his sister – and the choices he makes in consequence of both relationships.
Unlike The Black Tides of Heaven, The Red Threads of Fortune takes place over only a few days. It is a completely different sort of book, and yet it deals with many of the same themes: relationships based on love but strained by circumstance and personality, family, and conflict. But where The Black Tides of Heaven is, in more than one sense, a coming-of-age story – a story about growing up, growing out, and coming back to face your family on your own terms – The Red Threads of Fortune is a coming-to-terms story: a story about grappling with, and coming to terms with, grief and loss, a story about learning to live again.
It’s also a story about falling in love again, learning to trust (or not) your new lover, and saving a city full of revolutionary Machinists from destruction at the hands of a giant flying monster that may or may not be a weapon of the Protector.
Mokoya is a Tensor, one of the masters of the elements. She used to be a prophet, though she could never change the future that she saw – and nor could anyone else. But she never foresaw the tragedy that killed her young daughter and left her emotionally wounded, unable to cope with the grief. Now she sees no more prophecies. Estranged from her husband, Abbot Thennjay, she hunts deadly naga in the harsh lands at the edges of the Protector’s kingdom, far from the capital in which she used to dwell.
Mokoya and the team of naga-hunters with whom she works have heard rumours of a giant naga, one that might be a weapon the Protector has sent to destroy the city of Batanaar and its community of Machinists – including Akeha. The Machinists enjoyed the protection of the city’s former leader, but since her death, the city has been ruled by her husband, who opposes the Machinists and who may well have asked the Protector for help suppressing them.
While hunting naga, Mokoya comes across the enigmatic Rider, who rides a flying naga of their own. Rider tells Mokoya that she has it wrong: the flying beast they’re hunting isn’t part of a conspiracy to destroy Batanaar, but is the result of an experiment by Tensors seeking to imitate something that Mokoya herself did. The city should be safe.
It turns out it isn’t. As Mokoya develops an attraction to – and feelings for – Rider, she finds her ability to trust the other person complicated by Rider’s secrets, and the fact that Rider is wrong about Batanaar’s safety. Mokoya needs to find out the truth among politics and figure out a way to fix things while her twin prepares the city to do battle with a deadly flying beast. When she learns that grief and a young woman’s unwillingness to let go of her late mother is partly responsible – when she has a prophetic vision that shows her that the death of someone she’s just come to care for will come as part of the price for fixing the problem – she has to figure out how to unmake her prophecy, and choose what, and who, she’s willing to sacrifice.
Much as I enjoyed The Black Tides of Heaven, I loved The Red Threads of Fortune. Emotionally, it feels tighter, even if there are a few moments where, pacing-wise, it could have used more space to breathe. Perhaps it is just that the emotional arc is more compelling to me because the story of learning to live again after grief – and then finding the perilous post-grief accommodation threatened by fresh loss – is one I’ve seen less often, and so it is more striking to me when I do.
This is a fantastic novella. They both are, really: I can’t wait to see what else Yang will do in their Tensorate universe.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the October 2017 issue of Locus.