THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN, isbn 9780765395412, 237 pgs, $15.99 (print)
THE RED THREADS OF FORTUNE, isbn 9780765395399, 213 pgs, $15.99 (print)
JY Yang, Tor.com Book (Tom Doherty and Associates)
PREMISES: (From Goodreads.com)
BLACK TIDES: Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While his sister received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What's more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother's Protectorate. A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother's twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?
RED THREADS: Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love. On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.
MY RATING: Four stars out of five (for each books)
MY THOUGHTS: The two novellas that comprise the introduction to The Tensorate, JY Yang’s new Asian-inflected fantasy world, could just as easily have been published as a single 400+ page novel with shifting POV, but the decision to publish the material as two stand-alone long-ish novellas allows the reader to be fully immersed in the point of view character for each part of the story. Despite the fact that The Red Threads of Fortune clearly follows The Black Tides of Heaven in chronological order, one could read Red Threads before Black Tides and not be at a loss for character background or world-building.
The novellas are immediately immersive; the characters understand how their world works (both the magic and the politics), and there is no “gateway” character innocent of this information to operate as reader-stand-in. Therefore, the world-building is subtle. Vital background information is imparted by inference, forcing the reader to do the heavily lifting of figuring out how the pieces fit together to make the world run. The hard work is rewarding. “The Slack,” the in-world magic system, is given just enough detail for the reader to understand how the Slack works but not so much that the magic feels like science: the Slack has several aspects interlinked (water-nature, fire-nature, forest-nature and the like), and manipulating those natures allows talented individuals to accomplish amazing tasks. Likewise, the politics of the Tensorate (which most of the characters call The Protectorate instead), are explicated just enough for the reader to understand that a) this realm is a largely despotic monarchy, b) at least one religious order lies outside of that monarchy’s control even while being located within the physical boundaries of the realm, c) there’s a tentative, mutual-beneficial alliance between monarchy and religious order, and d) there are other lands outside of the Protectorate that may come to play more heavily in future installments of the series.
Oh, and that separate religious order, The Grand Monastery? Led by Head Abbot Sung and later by Head Abbot Thennjay, they include a group of warrior-monks called Pugilists, who use the Slack to become incredible fighting machines. The Pugilists are mostly background-worldbuilding for now, but every time they were mentioned I could not help but flash back to Sunday afternoons watching poorly-dubbed black-and-white “wire fu” movies as a kid. I sincerely hope Yang will give us an installment of this series really showing us what the Pugilists can do. But I digress.
The first section of Black Tides is largely told through the POV of Head Abbot Sung, and sets the stage for all that is to come. The circumstances of the twins Moyoka and Akeha’s birth are laid out as well as their early formative years. There are massive time-jumps – in less deft hands, this would be a detriment to the story flow but Yang is adept and feeding us what little we need to know about the intervening years and not bogging us down with details that would be nice to know but remain unimportant to the story being told. But then the majority of the action follows Akeha moving out into the world and discovering the political tensions that exist within the Protectorate. There are street fight scenes (wonderfully described), use of Slackcraft, romance, and familial tensions intricately intertwined. Red Threads picks up after Black Tides and references the events of the first novella, but shifts the focus to Mokoya’s point of view. How does an ex-prophet and spouse of a Head Abbot navigate political tensions and grief to find a new place in the world?
The non-binary nature of Mokoya, Akeha and their friends and family is important on both the world-building and character-building levels. This is a world where gender is not assigned at birth, and characters remain gender-neutral (using the singular They as common pronoun) until they declare/confirm a gender. Some do it early (Thennjay, by all indications, and other minor characters), some later (Sonami is a late teen, Mokoya and Akeha are well into adulthood when they choose) and some don’t choose at all (Rider, for example, but also almost Akeha), while some declare gender but don’t go to the Confirmation Doctors to be physically altered (Yongcheow). How Mokoya and Akeha in particular decide on their genders is a function of their struggles to maintain their twin-bond as well as Akeha’s feelings about being the unexpected/unwanted/unplanned-for child. And both twins’ decisions are a part of the fall-out of the manipulations and other horrible things their mother, the Protector, does.
These two novellas introduce us to a host of intriguing characters I’m eager to watch develop. I don’t believe Mokoya and Akeha’s stories are done yet, alone or together. And I believe there are as many stories to tell about this world as there are threads in the weave of fortune. I look forward to exploring it all in future installments.