The Black Tides of Heaven
Series: #1 of the Tensorate Series
Author: J.Y. Yang
Genre: Silkpunk, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
TW: (spoiler, highlight to view)[ death of children ], emotional abuse, torture
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? (via Goodreads)
Ever since I saw the collection of stunning book covers that award-winning Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu made for the J.Y. Yang’s Tensorate series, I knew I have to read it. There’s this magnetic quality to these covers that makes you unable to look away. I’ve been looking for the physical copies of these books for forever but when TOR eBook Club (honestly, do join!) posted a free copy of the first novella as part of its In Our Own Worlds anthology in celebration of Pride Month, I knew I had to take the opportunity!
The Black Tides of Heaven is the first of a pair of simultaneously released stand-alone novellas that kick off the Tensorate series. It follows twins Akeha and Mokoya, the youngest children of the ruler of the Protectorate. They were given as blood price to the Grand Monastery because of a previous arrangement but were taken back when Mokoya turned out to be a prophet. The novella was presented through a series of vignettes from when they were born and follows them as they grow up – seeing them at around 35 by the time the novella wraps up. In the words of J.Y. Yang themself, this is “a family drama that spans three decades“.
While most fantasy novels spend a meticulous amount of time in world-building, like using the usual trope of having someone from the outside learn all of the what-nots along with the reader, J.Y. Yang wasted no time from the very first paragraph to immerse us in their world. From the get-go, we get a sense of how this world runs – from the gender politics (The Protector is WOMAN!), its interesting magic system ( what they call Slackcraft, which I think stems from the idea of manipulating natural energies around us), and the dynamics between the priestly and ruling classes reminiscent of Asian history. This could be a bit disorienting at the beginning, and it honestly felt like I’ve been accidentally pushed in deep waters. It took effort but it was too compelling to not love the process.
It’s also interesting how the world has different religious systems (e.g., those who believes in the fortunes, and those who lead the life of the Obedient). A character in the later part of the novella described that “To be Obedient is to live with constant ridicule. People call you superstitious, uneducated, backward. Behind your back and to your face. I don’t care what you believe, but don’t say those things just to make fun of them.” – which I think is a pretty good representation of how some religions are treated in the real society.
There were a couple of familiar modern concepts and technology – like the nuclear bomb, guns – that were presented in a different light. The Tensorate series is generally classified as “silkpunk” literature – a subgenre of steampunk that mixes science fiction and fantasy, but draws its aesthetic from East Asian origins instead of the chrome-brass-glass technological themes of the Victorian era. While I relatively haven’t read much silkpunk lit before, I think’s it’s safe to say that I loved every encounters I’ve had with this genre so far (Hello The Poppy War! Hello Jade City!).
It was like cutting themselves open and finding another creature living inside, nested in their blood and bones and guts.
The way gender identity was discussed in this book is truly a breath of fresh air. The “confirmation” is one of the unique and intriguing things in this world. This is a world where a person can actually choose what their gender is, some even chose not to subscribe to it. Honestly, this is the first book that I ever read that features non-binary characters and the use of they/them/their as singular pronouns. While I admit that it still takes a lot of getting used to, I hope I am getting there. (Side note: This moment clearly demonstrated the power books in my life. Reading about these stories educates people – in the truest sense of the word. Thank God for books!)
It was only along Part 2 that I developed such strong feelings for this story and that was mainly because of how the confirmation of the twins was tastefully done. While Mokoya’s was sort of the thing that has always been there, the way Akeha figured out his identity felt profound while I was reading it. The build up to that [Thennjay ] moment right when he was about to go away? It was brilliant.
“The saying goes, ‘The black tides of heaven direct the courses of human lives.’ To which a wise teacher said, ‘But as with all waters, one can swim against the tide.’”
The idea of destiny and fate were repeatedly referenced throughout this story. By Akeha being the spare and forever living in the shadow of his twin, he was expected to just fade away. But instead, he “chose to swim”, a decision that lead to that final encounter by the near-end of the book that was almost a bit reminiscent of Aang’s solution to end The Hundred Year War in Avatar (I say “almost” because it just personally reminded me of that scene). I loved how they challenged the notion of a pre-determined future: “I don’t care about the fortunes. I care about doing whatever you can, with whatever’s in front of you. Because it’s the only thing you can do.“; and they way the idea that the fortunes (or whatever divine force you believe in) won’t give you more than you can handle: “It was a mantra, almost. Something bad happens? Well, you can handle it, because otherwise why would it have happened? I think it was the only way people could cope with the things that went on, sometimes.” The concept that “a higher, divine force directs our lives” versus the idea that “you can make your own choices and, thus, craft your own destiny” is also a recurring theme and was deeply explored throughout the narrative.
Except for the obvious tension between [Mokoya] and [Thennjay] – I find the other romance to be a bit hurried so it was a bit difficult to connect with. Most of those moments were left off the pages that it appeared almost as insta-love. Maybe it was a conscious choice, since, obviously, romance is not the center plot of this story – I would’ve appreciated a bit more context though.
What it lacked with romance it made up with the exploration of sibling bond. Mokoya and Akeha are twins – and that in itself established a more special relationship than just your average siblings. The contrast between Akeha and Mokoya – from when they were children up to the point where their paths actually diverged, was presented seamlessly. I loved that bit in Part 3 where it was shown that Akeha’s actions are still guided by what he imagined Mokoya’s choices will be despite years of separation.
I did have some issues as to the pacing of this book, though. There are times when I wish the pacing would slow down. The brevity mainly boils down to the fact that this story was originally planned to be just two novellas – but are expanded to 2 more books. It was honestly a feat to introduce such a complex world in so little pages – which J.Y. Yang achieved successfully, despite some downsides.
It took a while for me to warm up to this story but I am glad I soldiered on. J.Y Yang created such an interesting and beautiful world for us to immerse in. Unique, innovative and insightful, this book presented me with such new concepts that are honestly pretty overdue learning on my end. Definitely recommended! If that did not convince you to take a chance in this series, do know that The Black Tides of Heaven is a Hugo and Nebula finalist for Best Novella – which is, as well know, a pretty big deal and easily cements how awesome this story is. As for me? I am so ready to dive into The Red Threads of Fortune after this.
If you follow me on Twitter, here’s my The Black Tides of Heaven Reaction/Quotes Thread: CLICK HERE.
“Despite everything, the fortunes find ways to surprise you. “
Because he had always known, even as a child, that he was the lightning, while she was the fire in the core of planets. And the world needed both. Revolutions needed both. Someone had to wield the knives, but someone also had to write the treaties.
“Let the black tides of heaven direct our lives,” he murmured. He turned to look at his partner. “I choose to swim.”
With all the horrors in the world, it was easy to forget there were wonders too.
Have you read any of the books in the Tensorate series? Or any other books under the silkpunk genre? What do you think? COMMENT UP AND LET’S TALK! 🙂