The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang. ★★★★
When I read The Red Threads of Fortune, I was blown away by the intricacy of this fantasy novella. The Black Tides of Heaven was released at the same time, and both novellas stand alone. That said, The Black Tides of Heaven takes place before The Red Threads of Fortune.
The story starts out with the birth of twin children (Mokoya and Akeha) to the Protector, who promptly gives them to the Grand Monastery to pay off a debt. The story follows Akeha as they grow up and discover a path separate from their prophetic sibling.
One of the most notable elements of The Black Tides of Heaven is Yang’s treatment of gender and sexuality. In the culture Yang’s created, children are not assigned a gender at birth. They are referred to with non-gendered pronouns and wear specific non-gendered clothing until they chose their gender (either male or female), usually in their teen years although some chose as young as three. I think there’s a tendency to paint these sorts of fantasy worlds as queer utopias, but it’s still a culture where adult gender is considered binary, which is brought up more in The Red Threads of Fortune with the introduction of an adult nonbinary character. It also interests me what the expectations are for the different genders and how they still seem to have designated gender roles, although the society is also non-patriarchal.
The Black Tides of Heaven spans over thirty years of Akeha’s life. As you might expect, it’s a coming of age story. The core of the novella is Akeha defining himself as an individual distinct from his sister and expectations for a child of the Protector. But his individual journey takes place within a larger socio-political conflict. I think The Black Tides of Heaven gave me a better perspective on the Tensor/Machinists conflict than The Red Threads of Fortune, possibly due to the larger time span. I’m also glad that I actually saw the character of the Protector, since I’d heard a lot about her in the other novella.
Of course, there’s a lot happening here for just a novella, and as a result the story feels thin in some places. While I thought The Black Tides of Heaven gave more of a picture of the world, I still think I need to see more of it. Luckily, there’s going to be two more novellas in the series! Unfortunately, that doesn’t help with some of the issues in The Black Tides of Heaven. Specifically the development of character relationships. I thought the relationship between the siblings was the strongest, but there’s a lot of relationship building that gets lost in the time skips, especially when it comes to the romantic relationships.
Yang is a fantastic writer, and I highly recommend their work. Do yourself a favor and read the Tensorate novellas.