The Black Tides of Heaven – by Neon Yang

The Tensorate has so many themes that are dear to me – gender identity, power dynamics, and a fantasy setting that is not based on medieval Europe – so, why haven’t I read it earlier? No idea. Anyway, as they say, better late than never.

Title: The Black Tides of Heaven

Author: Neon Yang

Publication Date: 26 September 2017

Genre: Fantasy – Silkpunk

Pages: 236

Standalone or Series: Tensorate #1

Representation: Asian-coded setting and cast – Queernorm society – Queer main characters – Achillean relationship

Content Warning: Toxic family relationships – Violence – Death – Death of child – Animal death – Racism – Classism

Synopsis

The Black Tides of Heaven is one of a pair of standalone introductions to Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series. For more of the story you can read its twin novella The Red Threads of Fortune.

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?

Analysis

Form & Style: The Black Tides of Heaven is written in third person and from the perspective of its characters; while the first chapters, who serve as an introduction to the setting, follows the point of view of Head Abbot Sung, the rest of the story focuses on Akeha’s experiences – which are at first strictly tied to those of their sibling Mokoya, but that grow more and more distinctive as the plot moves on.

The prose is infused with a sense of quiet lyricism that enhanced the enchanted quality of the setting, without however disguising or diluting its more cruel and brutish facets.

Setting: The novella doubles as an introduction to the setting of the Tensorate – that is to say, a land ruled by a monarch known as the Protector, in a often uneasy alliance with the Grand Monastery. In this world, a ductile form of elemental magic known as the Slack is tightly controlled by the powers that be, who determine who may or may not benefit from its wondrous effects. Progress, however, is not stagnant, and independent forms of technology have been developed, as well as more egalitarian political movements.

The setting is heavily inspired by East Asian traditions and aesthetics, however it is not meant to strictly mirror any specific culture, and it does not come without its whacky, rule-of-cool bits (why are raptors even there? Because raptors are awesome, why do you even ask?).

It’s also worth noting how in the world of the Tensorate, children are born and raised without any assigned gender, and are free to reclaim their own identity as they grow up; bodies are adjusted to one’s chosen gender though the use of slackcraft, in a way that’s regarded as perfectly normal and expected.

Characters: The main characters of the story are Akeha and Mokoya, the twin children of the Protector; identical and inseparable as kids, later they grow more and more different in personality, talent, and even gender identity. While Akeha is the main point of view character, Mokoya doesn’t really fade in the background once their paths diverge: their relationship, in fact, may be the truest protagonist of the story, so even when she exists off scene, Mokoya doesn’t stop being a permanent point of reference in Akeha’s horizon.

Now, Yang’s approach to characterisation is somehow unconventional, to the extent that crucial phases of their lives and of their personal development are only painted in quick strokes, or glossed over in significant time skips and only retroactively filled in. This technique proves to be unexpectedly effective as for what the twins themselves are concerned, who are given enough focus to be decently fleshed out no matter what, but doesn’t work equally well for secondary characters and relationships. Love interests, in particular, fall uncomfortably close to the dreaded trope of instalove – not because any of the couples necessarily lack chemistry, but because of how quickly, abruptly, and hard they all fall for each other.

Plot: At a first glance, the plot of this novella may seem somehow disjointed, rapidly moving from childhood episodes, to the entanglement with rebellious movements, to fateful accidents leading to climatic showdowns, in a string of events that are subsequent to each other, but that does not always feel consequential. At a closer analysis, however, it becomes apparent of such a style of storytelling is perfectly consistent with a recurring meditation of the novella: that is to say, that we may not be able to choose the circumstances of our fate, but what really matters is how we react to them. This would normally be a pet peeve of mine, however I find myself in a more forgiving mood for some reason – perhaps because romance is not really the focus of the novel, perhaps because the bizarre but brilliant storytelling make it feel less offending, or perhaps just because of how much I enjoyed everything else.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: The Black Tides of Heaven deals with a level of complexity that’s really surprising given its limited length.

The theme of gender is perhaps the most immediate appeal of the setting, and not just because people aren’t stuck from birth in any assigned identity, but because having a queernorm society isn’t the end of all discussions on the matter. Sure, in this world everyone is brought up as gender neutral and is later supposed to pick the role that suits them best; the process, however, isn’t equally straightforward for everyone: indeed, some characters are well aware of being either male of female from a very early age, while others will linger in an undefined state as long as possible; in the case of the main characters, aligning with different genders despite being identical twins comes with its own implications and soul searching; and while slackcraft is commonly used to adapt one’s body to their chosen identity, we meet at least one character who decided not to go all the way, because having matching pronouns and anatomy needn’t be everyone’s utmost desire.

Also, I’d like to underline once again the complex (un)balance between ruling forces, and the ambiguous relation between political, magical, and technical power; not only the ruling class is trying to control any access to technology in order to maintain the status quo, even as less regimented forms of knowledge are being developed out of their reach, but different groups of people have different views of the Slack itself: which is primarily a revered form of spirituality for some, and merely instrumental to their goals for others. Now, of course such a complex dynamic may not be exhaustively explored in a single novella, but I have high hopes for what comes next.

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