Rebellion & Change In Lovely Lovely Prose: The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang

I love a novella. So often they are a perfect blend of depth, meaning, and concise, beautiful language. Neon Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven was a joy to read for these reasons and more.

Tordotcom, 2017

The Black Tides of Heaven is book one in the Tensorate series, a quartet of linked novellas that take place in a fantastical realm of the same name. In the Tensorate, magic is accessed through the Slack, in which flows energies that are linked to the elements, and guided, as many believe, by the fortunes. The Grand Monastery trains and teaches their monks to harness these magical energies, and they, in turn, are closely controlled by the Protector, who rules the Tensorate with a vicious hand.

This is the story of the twins Akeha and Mokoya, children of the Protector who were promised from birth to the Head Abbot of the Grand Monastery. While Mokoya grows up to have prophetic visions, Akeha has no such prized ability. Akeha is the accidental twin, the one conceived by accident, the one always in Mokoya’s shadow.

Neon Yang does a remarkable job of crafting the twins as two distinct personalities who are bound together and deeply connected, but who crave different things in life. The narrative does a lot with very little, providing a handful of scenes when the twins are born, then when they are six, then nine, then seventeen. And so on. This method of storytelling was interesting—it focused attention on key moments, trusting the reader to fill in the gaps, and it absolutely worked. I think with a less skilled writer this might be a risk, but Neon Yang did it flawlessly, providing nuanced characterization, just the right amount of worldbuilding, and gradually increasing tension that interlocked with everything else.

The lonely moon rolled across the sky as Akeha flew. He leapt from peaked roof to peaked roof, a hundred yields per jump, soaring as a bird might, landing as a feather would. He had learned this in the Grand Monastery: pulling away earth-nature so that weight fell from him, pushing through water-nature so that each jump had the speed of a released arrow. The night air sang in his clothes, his hair, his ears.”

— Chapter 11

The Black Tides of Heaven tells a story of both political and person rebellion. While the Protectorate tries to control slackcraft (the ability to harness magic), the Machinists are pushing back and finding ways for the population to gain some of that control and have more agency over their lives. This fight for power forms the backdrop for the story of Akeha’s personal rebellion, in which they must leave the shadow of their family and discover their own place in the world.

A wonderful aspect of the story is that children are not gendered, and once they reach adulthood they choose to be confirmed as their gender of choice. There is an aspect of magic to this, as “confirmation doctors” have the ability to transform bodies. As Akeha grows, they are more and more uncomfortable with Mokoya’s easy transition into womanhood, and eventually Akeha chooses to be confirmed as a man.

While reading the book, questions about some of the belief systems it seemed to be portraying arose in my mind, and gratifyingly, the were all addressed. For one thing, it seemed as though upon reaching adulthood, one had the choice to be confirmed as either a man or a woman. Was their no option other than the binary, I wondered? Then, when Akeha decides to be confirmed as a man, they do it because it feels more right than being a woman, but it still doesn’t ring quite true. Later on, he meets another person who lives as a man but who chose not to alter his body because it didn’t feel right. While this is not delved into in depth, it does suggest that while the gender binary also exists in this world, it also does not work for everyone.

Another question raised by the story is that of free will and fate. As young people, Akeha and Mokoya try to prevent the things that Mokoya sees in her vision from coming true. They never succeed. This seemed to be saying that the future was fixed and could not be changed, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. But behold, before too long this was also addressed by the characters themselves.

At the next stop, he finally confessed, ‘It’s hard for me to believe in free will.’
They had set up in a shallow limestone cave, a slanted scar in the side of the mountain forming the eastern forest border. Yongcheow looked sideways at him. ‘Let me guess. Because of your sister?’
‘No matter what we did, her visions happened anyway. Future events can be set in stone. Where is your free will in that?'”

— Chapter 15

And while there are no pat answers given, the response to Akeha’s questions (and my own) was one of my favourite lines in the book:

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.'”

— Chapter 15

This short and spare novella was packed with so much — believable characters and heartwarming/wrenching relationships, a compelling fantasy world, lovely prose, and meditations on power, change, and responsibility. I am very much looking forward to reading the next three books in the Tensorate series: The Red Threads of Fortune, The Descent of Monsters, and The Ascent to Godhood.

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