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?
Overall Rating: 7/10 stars
Matt’s Review: 3/5 Stars
I’m very torn about this book.
I’m not even sure I can summarise it. The story is a fantasy set in an East Asian inspired world, wherein the twin children of a cruel leader end up involved in a rebellion against her. That’s the nearest I can get.
So firstly, what did I like? Well the world building is beautiful. It’s complex, it’s integrated, and it feels very organic and natural. There is magic, but there is also scientific development and technology; there are religions but also the frictions between them. There are gorgeous indicators laced into the story that English is not the language it ought to be told in—and for me, this is huge. So many fantasy stories forget language, and whether the story is being written in the same one as the characters would actually be speaking. So it took my breath away when Akera noticed their twin sibling using the feminine form of I. The level of detail that’s gone into the world is superb.
The same appears for gender. All children seem to be born without a known gender. Birth sex appears utterly irrelevant. Some children declare their gender very young, others do not well into their adult years. Some have their bodies magically altered to match their gender, but there is a hint that followers of another religion disagree with this practice. And this is something you have to pick up as the story goes. It isn’t dumped on the reader in one go, and it is plainly something understood by everyone in that world so teased out very gently. And it’s integrated. The acceptance of that fact in the way they understand gender ripples outwards into everything else, rather than causing mismatched joins that a less skilled author might have left behind.
So why only three stars?
In essence, because this is a novella. And it shouldn’t be, in my opinion. There are huge gaps in the characters’ lives that we never get to see, huge changes in their circumstances and emotional growth that don’t come across well in the limited space afforded. In the final parts, I wasn’t even sure what the rebellion was about. Who was fighting for what? Why was it all happening? Everything moved so fast that the plot didn’t have time to breathe, and the characters didn’t have time to sink into their emotions properly. I felt more like I’d skimmed a synopsis than read a book.
In the end, I loved the writing and the world—but there simply wasn’t enough time devoted to truly telling the story that was tantalisingly just out of reach.
GD’s Review: 4/5 Stars
The Black Tides of Heaven by J Y Yang does a lot of things that I wish more fantasy books would do. In addition to being so original in its history-infused setting that it has been cited as one of the first books in the “silkpunk” subgenre, it also earns the second half of that descriptor by actually examining the relationship between the characters and authority.
Magic is representative of nothing, all too often in fantasy. The few books that do use it as a metaphor tend to fail to explore it very thoroughly, placing it into a dichotomy with technology in an attempt to layer on luddite argument about the loss of tradition and wonder in a scientific world. In the case of the Black Tides of Heaven, science and magic are one and the same, with the terminology and mechanics involved operating perfectly in harmony, the only distinction is that some of the characters, the “Tensors” of the series’ “Tensorate” title have an innate ability to manipulate these fundamental forces by will alone.
Of all the things that magic is used to represent in fantasy fiction, very rarely do I see it being equated with what I would consider to be the obvious metaphor; power. Political, military and economic power are all tied inherently to being a Tensor within the setting and one of the largest points of rebellion within the setting is centred on snatching that power away from those who were born with the pre-requisite natural abilities.
The strength of this book is its unflinching portrayal of familial relationships. The central characters are almost exclusively a family unit. The ways that they interact with one another, ranging from completely toxic to merely unhealthy, reveal a great deal about how the construct of “the family” works within the world of the Tensorate.
Another of the building blocks of the setting is the approach to gender. Rather than being assigned a gender at birth, people within the Tensorate spend their childhood using neutral pronouns before eventually deciding on their gender at around about the age of puberty. The magical-technology available removes any barriers to this set-up and the whole thing is treated as wonderfully mundane. The gender decision and “confirmation” are clearly an event within the character’s lives, but beyond that everything about gender seems to be wonderfully inconsequential.
Most fantasy books have a strong external plot, revolving around the pursuit of clear goals and achievements. The quest and revenge narratives that dominate the genre are almost exclusively external. Other genres, from romance to literary, place a greater focus on the internal plot, and the development of the characters as they grapple with their own decisions and shape the person that they are going to become. This book has a clear external plot revolving around the rebellion against the Tensorate, but ultimately the main thrust of the story is a journey of self-discovery ending in the protagonist achieving a sense of enlightenment when confronted with the opportunity to take an action of complex morality.
It is both the strength of the book and one of its most frustrating features that the moral choices of one character are weighted with so much more importance than the lives of others. There is something wonderfully Buddhist and self-indulgent about it.
I have yet to read the paired novella “The Red Threads of Fortune” which I have been informed is more action oriented and less introspective, but it is my hope that it resolves at least some element of the external plot, allowing the two books together to cover the whole gamut of the story being told, rather than letting this frustration linger.