Review: The Black Tides of Heaven (The Tensorate Series) by JY Yang

It’s not often that I get to read a book when it just came out but I waited for JY Yang’s Tensorate series with great anticipation. It sounded like just my thing. This review will have spoilers.

Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as infants. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While Mokoya received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What’s more, they saw the sickness at the heart of their 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 as a pawn in their 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 Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond they share with their twin?

[For background: I’m nonbinary and (part) Chinese.]

You can clearly see the Wuxia influence on J Y Yang’s writing. The entire background of the book is steeped in it, from the setting to the character tropes. One review describes it as “Miyazaki” but different, which is extremely laughable (by which I mean: racist), since the only thing that Miyazaki and Yang’s writing have in common is the continent of Asia.

First divergence from Wuxia: the use of gender. I loved the gender system. Choosing one’s gender when one comes of age? Having to decide on a gender? With intent? All great stuff.

On the other hand, the book is too short to do all of the ambitious things it could have done. I was a little sad to see that the twins chose binary genders in the scheme of things, though I did understand that the brevity of the story disallowed an especially nuanced look at the many different gender types there could be in the book (or even that exist in the real world). I didn’t quite like that the only person whose body was nonbinary was essentially forced into it (and had been apparently shamed for it before?) but maybe that was just the way I was reading it. Ultimately it took nothing away from the story, and the story had as nuanced a portrayal of gender as any I’ve seen.

Also slightly disappointing was the way Akeha and Mokoya ended up portraying their respective genders: Mokoya with the crying and Akeha with the emotional constipation that manifested in violence. I didn’t particularly appreciate that. I think with a longer story Akeha could have gotten more emotional development (CRY DAMN YOU) and Mokoya will be developed in the other book, so perhaps Yang and the editors made the executive decision that her development wasn’t as important and besides, you can’t expect one book to do everything simultaneously and be a successful book.

I have mixed feelings about the fact that the villain was a woman, and a woman who had chosen to be a woman at that, and that the protagonist was ultimately a man (who had also chosen to be so). Chinese culture puts so much weight on gender that they’re having a crisis. So gender has significance in Yang’s writing in that way as well, although I suppose it’s unfair to say that since it might also not be true. The story is very much a Western story in structure (spoiler and divergence two from Wuxia: the hero doesn’t die.) In fact I think the fact that this story is so ambitious in the first place puts it in the awkward boat of having too much expectations placed on it; I’m expecting many reviews of “it’s too short!” But really what they mean is that the world felt flush and full enough that it could have been a novel–but wasn’t.

If you were expecting Inda-style court intrigue as from the back of the book, and the genre, it doesn’t really have room for that either. It is, simply, a novella that’s the starting point of a greater series: a story about a person and his struggles with his mother.

There was a loose end in the story with the hidden cache of weapons and the kirin, but maybe that will get answered in the next book as they are meant to be read together.

And what an amazing start it is. The story takes the best parts of Wuxia and runs with it. It’s easier to get caught up in critiquing a story but ultimately despite my kvetching, I loved the book. Yang uses some of my favorite tropes. I wish we could have spent more time exploring the world, but that’s why there are two books, isn’t it? And based on this I’m greatly anticipating reading┬áThe Red Threads of Fortune and much more from JY Yang.

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