Swim Against the Tide
“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.”
I am rather late to the party, but with the thought that a book that's old to me may be new to someone else, and if another person picks up something I really enjoyed, then that’s all to the good. The Black Tides of Heaven was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novella, Locus Award for Best Novella, and World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. I had high hopes and I am very glad that the story exceeded my expectations.
The first of the two silkpunk novellas belonging to JY Yang’s The Tensorate Series opens with a setting that is distinct from the usual sword-and-magic fantasy worlds sold in bookstores, with names that sound vaguely East Asian, and concepts derived from Chinese or Japanese philosophies yet are utterly unique. The characters Yang crafts exude vibrant defiance and determined individuality, which is delightful considering that the protagonists are a pair of twins.
In this book, Akeha, wilful and adventurous, wants to explore the world. He hears about danger and decides to seek it out, to see if the legends are true. His twin, Mokoya is however plagued with prophetic vision, which lead to a rift between Mokoya and Akeha. Akeha then leaves the Protectorate and his family to become a smuggler and eventually falls for a rebel. Fate then drives Akeha back towards the home he fled.
One hallmark of great world-building is that the readers want to see more of it. I found myself wishing to know more about the Slack, to explore the different realms, to learn how the Protectorate works. Alas, these are just novellas, so Yang didn’t go into too much detail. Their prose flows over the page with just enough for readers to visualize the scenes and sense the atmosphere, the right amount of detail to immerse ourselves in that world. (Of course, as a writer, I was inwardly screaming at far too many exquisite turns of phrases that I wish I could have come up with. Ugh.)
Akeha said, “So how come you decided to be a woman?”
Mokoya’s puzzled frown revealed everything they thought about this question. “I didn’t decide anything. I’ve always felt like one. A girl.”
A facet of the world Yang created that I loved was that individuals can choose which gender they want to be (it makes a lot more sense in the story); their default gender from birth is nonbinary. In too many fantasy stories (I am guilty of this in my own work), the idea of gender roles is woven throughout the politics, the social structure, even the religions that are all made up. Yang essentially said, “Screw that”, and created a world where we are what we know ourselves to be, once we know for sure.
By the end of The Black Tides of Heaven, I really wanted more of Akeha’s adventures after he left his Mother to become a smuggler. There is so much left to explore in Yang’s world - I can only hope they fill in more of the blanks in future books.