The Black Tides of Heaven & The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang
J.Y. Yang’s short works of fiction have been published online and anthologized, and one particular element has always stood out to me: their ability to convincingly craft fictional circumstances and characters within a graceful economy of prose. Within the TENSORATE series of novellas, beginning with The Black Tides of Heaven (2017) and its twin The Red Threads of Fortune (2017), Yang brings all of their talents together to the total delight of this reader.
Truthfully, either The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune could be read first, but I’m glad I read Black Tides first and moved on to Red Threads immediately afterward, because events in that book inform the other in a way that made the most sense to me. But as with most things in life, what might be right for me won’t necessarily work for others, so I won’t make a recommendation for reading order. Reading The Red Threads of Fortune first will still make The Black Tides of Heaven interesting and full of surprises.
The vast empire of Protectorate is suffused with a magical force, called the Slack, which takes five forms and can be manipulated by Tensors to do things like heal wounds and end lives, among many other possible uses. Giant naga fly through the skies, and raptors are rideable mounts. In this beautiful, perilous, fantastical land, a pair of twins is born: Mokoya and Akeha. Their mother, the Protector of a vast empire, is an ambitious and dangerous woman who owes the Head Abbot of the Grand Monastery a debt after his help with civil unrest during the previous summer. Their agreement had been that she would give him one child, who would, the Abbot hoped, be trained up as his successor. But the universe is fickle and strange, and there are two children rather than one.
At the age of six, Mokoya and Akeha are taken to the monastery, where they receive monastic training and discover certain gifts, which begin the first fracturing of their once-identical lives. Mokoya’s visions of the future and Akeha’s uncanny way of seeing a person’s true motivations take them down different paths in life, as do their individual decisions of gender assignation once they each reach the appropriate age.
As children, they are affected by politics and problems without having much agency to change their circumstances, hearing rumors of and seeing the Protectorate’s brutal reaction to rebellions formed by people who want to use machinery or simply self-govern. As adults, Mokoya and Akeha find themselves drawn within factions of those rebellions, working to preserve peace or shatter the Protector’s hold on the empire. Once again, the twins are forced apart, each believing that they are doing what is best for their individual cause, and bearing the life-altering weight of their actions.
The Black Tides of Heaven becomes primarily Akeha’s story, following their path and examining the consequences of their decisions, though Mokoya can’t escape being affected by her twin. The Red Threads of Heaven is Mokoya’s story, following her adventures as she flees from political games and the horrible memories of a disastrous event; her travels take her far beyond the monastery walls, introducing her to new people, cultures, and megafauna. Every decision, conversation, and interaction has consequences, and this knowledge is part of why Mokoya travels among the Machinists, who have no need for her prophecies.
In most fantasy series, political or economic struggles typically then correlate to struggles to assert gender identity or sexual preference, but this is not so in Yang’s novellas. In fact, using Slackcraft to physically realize a person’s preferred gender is an expected rite of passage, though gender-neutral or –fluid persons are given equal respect to gender-fixed persons. Sexual preference is important, and can determine character interactions, but at no point did I see a single slur or even a side-eyed glance. The level of respect and patience between characters, even in the midst of a brutal and hard-fought insurrection, is so monumental and important, and yet is a natural part of everyday life in Mokoya and Akeha’s world. I only wish I could say the same about this one.
I’ve trudged through thousand-page tomes that don’t feel half as lived-in or fully-realized as the TENSORATE novellas, and getting to the end of those slogs never feels rewarding but is generally more of a relief, whereas The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune made me so, so excited to read more. Yang is writing breathtakingly original fantasy for the modern world, and I couldn’t be happier. Highly recommended.