Liz Bourke reviews The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang

The Descent of Monsters, JY Yang ( Publishing 9 78-1-250-16585-5, $14.99, 168pp, tp). July 2018. Cover by Yuko Shimizo.

JY Yang has garnered several award nominations for The Black Tides of Heaven. Along with The Red Threads of Fortune, to which it is closely linked, The Black Tides of Heaven a Hugo finalist in the Best Novella category, as well as a Nebula nominee – was published last August to roundly positive acclaim. I know I certainly enjoyed both volumes, as my review of them some issues back will attest, and I very much looked forward to reading Yang’s next novella in their Tensorate series.

That novella is The Descent of Monsters. While either of The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune could be read in isolation or in any order, The Descent of Monsters will, I think, benefit from being read at least after The Red Threads of Fortune. The Descent of Monsters relies on the reader having contextual information that isn’t provided within its pages – or if it doesn’t rely on this exactly, it allots very little time or space to familiarising the reader with how the world works, and why certain characters are important.

An investigation into a hidden research facility threatens to expose secrets that the repressive Protectorate is invested in keeping locked away. The Rewar Teng Institute is supposedly a centre for agricultural research, but it’s more than that. One of its experiments got loose, and when the Protectorate’s Tensor investigators arrived, they discovered only blood and corpses – but all of the staff’s personal letters and writings were also gone. In chambers beneath the Institute, the Tensor investigators captured two prisoners: Sanao Akeha, ‘‘terrorist’’ Machinist leader and the child of the Protector herself, and a companion who answers only to Rider.

Readers of The Red Threads of Fortune will recognise Rider, who became the lover of Akeha’s twin sister Mokoya in the course of that book, and who is in the Protectorate to search for her own twin, lost to her in childhood. Rider’s story is tangled and painful.

The Descent of Monsters is told epistolary style, in letters, journal entries, and interrogation transcripts. Tensor Chuwan Sariman, a junior investigator, is its major character; we first encounter them in the form of a letter to their lover: ‘‘You’re reading this because I’m dead,’’ a letter in which they call their lover to arms about the rank injustice they’re encountered and in which they call on their lover to make the perpetrators pay. We know from the beginning, then, that Sariman’s investigation isn’t going to be a tidy thing with a neatly wrapped conclusion. We discover, in fact, in the course of events, that Sariman is being pressured to come to the conclusions that suit their superiors, and that the information they are permitted to see is being censored so that they don’t learn anything that might disturb the carefully kept secrets and carefully managed narrative of the Rewar Teng Institute’s massacre. Obviously, the Machinist terrorists were responsible: how could Sariman not come to that conclusion? But Sariman is a dogged investigator, unwilling to let go of the discrepancies that they’ve uncovered, despite going along with officially closing the case. Their stubborn investigations lead them to the freshly escaped Sanao Akeha and Rider, and lead them to join forces with these outlaws in order to unearth what the Protectorate is keeping secret. Rider offers them access to their own records of their visit to Rewar Teng, where they were in search of their lost twin sibling. Sariman discovers the truth, but it’s the kind of truth that people kill – and die – for, and The Descent of Monsters ends without anything that feels like real resolution. Sariman’s story might be at an end, but emotionally, thematically, the novella’s core argument feels unfinished. I hope – and expect – that a further volume will bring something that feels more like narrative catharsis.

Yang has an experimental bent in their approach towards their Tensorate series. Each of these novellas has been structurally very different from the others, and The Descent of Monsters continues this trend. The combination of letters from Sariman and Rider, with diary entries, official reports, and transcripts, makes this novella an ongoing experiment in voice and pacing. The switching between epistolary voices (pseudo-epistolary, since there are more than letters in the mix) imparts a certain distance from the characters, and the nested secrets combined with this distance made it hard for me to form an emotional connection with the writing, unlike in Yang’s earlier two novellas. As a work of art, though, The Descent of Monsters is a fascinating experiment. I’m looking forward to seeing what Yang does next.

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 June 2018 issue of Locus.

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