‘The Black Tides of Heaven’ by J. Y. Yang



Genres: Fantasy, Novella, LGBT, Asian Fantasy, Tensorate, Non-Earth Setting, Silkpunk

Similar books: The Poppy War, The Eternal Sky Trilogy, Dandelion Dynasty

Previous books in the series/by the author reviewed: None

Rating: Recommended

Here’s the TL;DR for my review:

  • Pros
    • Cool magic system called ‘The Slack’ based around the five elements of Wood, Water, Fire, Air and Metal.
    • This is a trans-positive book. The society in this setting doesn’t pre-suppose people’s gender. Growing up you get to choose what gender you want to be, and then the magicians use ‘The Slack’ to change your innate biology. I just wished they used the magic even more, so people were shapeshifting their biology for more reasons than simple gender-reassignment.
  • Mixed
    • The setting was based around pre-colonial China, featuring an Empress and her princesses. On one hand I liked the Empress’s iron control of the Tensorate/Protectorate, with her faction being fought against by rebels. On the other hand I wanted to see more factions opposing her (like nobles or foreigners or something).
  • Cons
    • The book made use of prophesies. One of the primary characters was a prophet, so this was a feature and not a bug. Unfortunately I find that books based around predestination to be a bit navel-gazy at times, because the characters inevitably care about free will more than action/combat.

Spoiler-tastic Review

I got this book for free a few months back from the Tor.com book club. You should sign up too if you want to get some free books.

Plot: The plot is good. The rebellion against the Empress by her children was compelling, but not super compelling. The short version of this is, that the Empress gave birth to twins: one twin was a prophet and became the Empress’s pawn, and the other who refused to be a pawn. The other twin decides to depose their mother.

Here’s my big problem: this is a prophesy story. Prophecy stories can have trouble being compelling because the ability to foresee the future is an overpowered ability. The prophet, being able to see the future, can undermine their enemies quite easily by virtue of knowing what they will do before they do.

This is one such novel, where the princess’ ability to foresee the future enables the Empress to rule despotically. So this plot became about the overpowered prophet twin vs. the normal twin, and about whether the prophet would allow herself to be defeated. This plot reduces the main character’s agency, because the story resolved itself not based upon the main character’s abilities and choices but on the princess’ love. This rather spoiled the tension because I was pretty sure the princess would side with their sibling instead of the Empress.

Pacing: This had a slightly slow start. Beginning when the twins were born, this showed a few scenes from the twins’ childhood before zooming forward into the future when the plot really began. It was a fine way to start the story, but it could have been tighter.

Characterization: This novel revolves around a society where no one makes gender assumptions, and individuals are allowed to choose what sex they are going to be upon reaching a certain age. The twins chose opposite genders, which was cool and increased tensions between them. When someone chooses a gender, sorcerers use magic to perform gender re-assignment surgery.

One thing I was curious about was whether people are born with no sexual organs at all and thus this sex-change decision was biologically mandatory for the continuation of the species, or if this social tradition is just a tradition. It would be cool if it were the former, but I suspect it was the latter.

Setting: I liked the setting by-and-large. It takes place in a Fantasy China setting reminiscent of those in ‘The Poppy War’ and the Rasa/Song portions of the ‘Eternal Sky Trilogy.’ It’s a vaguely Imperial Chinese sort of kingdom which is recovering after decades of poor leadership. The Empress is just the strong leader required to re-unify the nation and suppress the rebellious Machinists who want to give freedom to the people of the Tensorate.

My one tiny qualm is that I wanted to know more of the world outside of the Tensorate. What are the other kingdoms? Is Fantasy Russia/Mongolia pushing at the Tensorate’s northern flank? What of Fantasy Japan/Korea? Or even Fantasy Britain demanding tea?

Prose/Style: I liked the author’s style. It was a simple story which really echoed the work of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty. The sparse prose really allowed the words on the page to speak for themselves.

Net total, a worthy read if you want to check out an LGBT positive sort of book. I had a fun time reading it, and if you’re in the mood to check out a novella set in an Asian-styled setting this is a worthy read. (Though honestly at 230 pages this is more of a short novel than a novella.) I’ve already got the next book in the series lined up for a read in a few months, so I’ll report back to ya’ll whenever I get around to reading it.

Stay Sunny!


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