JY Yang’s Tensorate series takes place in a world where gender identity, biological sex, and reproductive abilities are all separate. The Singaporean author identifies as non-binary and queer, and their description of a world where people are free to choose their own identity and physical form, and where all sexual orientations and relationship structures are equally acceptable, is fascinating.
The Black Tides of Heaven, the first entry in the series, tells the stories of Mokoya and Akeha, the unwanted twin children of a tyrannical matriarch, conceived and brought to the world only to pay a political debt. It takes us through stories of oppression and rebellion, of magic and science, of the struggles of becoming your own person under the thumb of a controlling parent or in the shade of a talented sibling. The novella is written as a series of vignettes, slowly building the strange and curious world through glimpses into formative moments in the twins’ lives over the course of 3 decades. It cleverly shows the process of separation and formation of their individual identities, treating both twins as a unit at first and slowly focusing on Akeha’s experiences as both twins mature and discover their own strengths and needs.
But more than anything, the novella is the story of Yang’s fantasy world. In that world gender is not assigned at birth but is the result of conscious choice, and physical maturation is not a natural process but a result of a medical procedure. Reproduction in Yang’s world is completely separate from sex, as pregnancies are achieved through slackcraft – manipulation of the world’s fundamental energy through elemental magic.
Yang’s prose is minimalist – they use words with meticulous precision, each carefully selected to craft a precise experience without burdening the reader with Tolkienesque details. The narrative is made of nothing but essentials in a way that almost feels rushed sometimes, but the world building and the internal Asian-inspired culture are wonderful. The protagonist of the story is Akeha, but the central piece of it, the focal point, is clearly the world. The Tensorate world feels deep and well developed, and the images in readers’ mind are vivid and complete. The downside is that the story feels a bit unfocused at times, and it seems to have no overarching narrative or a defined conflict to be resolved. Still, the novella is an interesting opening to a series, and an excellent introduction to the Tensorate fantasy world. The silkpunk elements and the Asian-inspired backdrop are new and refreshing to fans who are tired of western-based fantasy, and the book would appeal to any speculative fiction fan.
Title: The Black Tides of Heaven
Author: JY Yang
Publication: Tor.com, September 2017
Read more about:
- LGBT Rights in Singapore
- JY Yang
- The Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy Database
- Interview with the author (Gizmodo)
- An excerpt (Tor.com)
A Few Reviews:
- Hugo Award for Best Novella (nominated)
- Locus Award for Best Novella
Reviewer Biography: Tsav is an avid speculative fiction enthusiast, a librarian, and an engineer.