The Black Tides of Heaven is the first of two Tensorate novellas by JY Yang.
The Protectorate rules because it commands the magic of Slack1—or rather, the Tensors who can bend Slack to their will. Tensors are ruled in turn by the Protector, who in this generation is a woman of power, intellect, and ruthless determination. Previous generations lost much of their empire; this Protector, Sanao Hekate, has reconquered most of it.
Drought leads to civil disorder, disorder that the Protector’s Tensors cannot put down unassisted. Sanao turns to the great monastery, where pugilists (read martial artists) train. She promises Head Abbot Sung one of her children in exchange for his help. The Abbot expects to get the youngest child, a promising daughter. The Protector, determined not to lose that child, finds a way out of the promise. A new pregnancy. Twins.
Presented with the Protector’s infant twins, the Abbot accepts both Mokoya and Akeha as payment for the debt. The Protector later regrets treating both infants as disposable; Mokoya is gifted with visions of the future, an ability that makes her invaluable to her mother and her Protectorate.
Akeha lacks Mokoya’s gift. That gives him freedom his sister lacks, because he is irrelevant to his mother’s plans. It’s almost by accident — though some might say it was fate — that Akeha stumbles across one of his mother’s political enemies who is fighting, and losing, a bout with Protectorate assassins. Akeha impulsively kills the assassins, protects the victim, and ends up joining the Machinist rebellion.
Machinists believe in developing technology anyone can create and use. Tensors and their Slack tech may still be useful, but they will not be necessary. From the Protector’s point of view, this is a direct attack on the proper way of doing things. She can control the Tensors, but she cannot control people who can make their own machines. Chaos! Disruption! This must be stopped, by any means necessary!
Which includes snaring her errant son and turning him against the Machinists. He faces a choice: submission or death.
This seems to be Bad Mothers Week at James Nicoll Reviews. The Protector is about as lovable as the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang . She is determined to regain and enlarge the Protectorate. She will inflict as much pain and kill as many people as she thinks necessary. Her children are simply pawns in her game. If the ones she has birthed do not suit her needs, she can twist Slack to make more.
I did wonder if perhaps Yang had drawn on tales of Wu Zetian, Empress Consort Wu when she imagined the Protector, but a few moments thought convinced me that this could not have been the case. Over the centuries, Chinese historians have been unsparing in their denunciations of the evil, evil Wu Zetian, who rose to power despite her gender, overturning every stereotype. But the secondary world of this novella does not do gendered roles. Both men and women can be scholars of renown, generals of skill, and in the case of the Protector, monsters on an epic scale. Her gender is irrelevant.
In this secondary world, people can choose what gender they will be as adults (or in some cases, decline to choose and remain neither). Once gendered, they can still choose between non-gendered roles. It’s interesting that this gender egalitarianism in no way extends to other aspects of society: the Protectorate is brutally authoritarian.
Not fun for the citizens, but it works for the plot. The Protector is someone worth resisting. Her twins look pretty good by comparison. Mokoya may be grumpy and Akeha a bit of a cork on a river (he becomes a Machinist almost by happenstance) but neither of them is filling mass graves. I cannot say that I warmed to either of these characters, but I did care what happened to them and their rebellion.
Events in this story precede those in the second novella, Red Threads. Having read the two novellas the wrong way round, I can assure you that you can read the two novellas in either order. My editor insists that while the second is readable as a standalone, it reads better AFTER the first. I read a lot of webcomic archives from end to beginning, so coming at the story backward didn’t bother me2 Finding out how someone got to a known destination can be as interesting as watching their progress toward an unknown goal.
BTW, Yang writes beautifully. If you like gorgeous prose, this may hit the spot.
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