Review: The Black Tides of Heaven (Novella) J.Y.Yang

My Hugo reading has been somewhat disrupted by a brief overseas trip and a short shift of location. JY Yang’s novella unfortunately got particularly disrupted by that. I had started reading it, got distracted (it didn’t really grab me initially) and I returned to it a couple of weeks later feeling guilty.

The novella had got a lot better in the intervening time, a stories somehow manage to do even though they are just sitting there waiting for their reader to pick them up again. There is no easy way to distinguish “this book isn’t engaging me” from “I’m distracted”, so either the second half of the novella is better than the first or I became sufficiently focused to appreciate it. But every review can’t be a review of the reader, although in truth every review is of an event that exists between the story and the reader.

The Protector of the Kingdom is a powerful despot of a kingdom – a fantasy land with a Chinese aspect, as well as influences from South Asian and Middle-Eastern mythology. To her surprise the Protector gives birth to twins, causing a minor change in her many and complex plans. Cynical and manipulative, the twins are just chess pieces in the Protector’s many machinations but the story follows them as two people as they grow from infants to adults.

The scope of the novella is huge, and it covers a lot of ground in a short time. We learn about the magic system, aspects of the religious orders, ethnic minority groups, internal conflicts, fantastic beasts, and a broad picture of richly imagined fantasy world. It is probably too much for a novella that also has to encompass the childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of two central characters. Even so, that the novella doesn’t collapse under its own weight is a testament to the efficiency with which all this background is introduced.

As I said above, I found the second half easier to engage with than the first. It focuses more on Akeha, the surpising “spare” half of the twins, who in post-adolesence decides to be confirmed as a male (gender is assigned post-childhood in this world). Fate, prophercy, control and inevitability (whether magical or political) play out as important themes but, again, I think their impact as ideas get lost amid the scale of the story.

The Black Tides of Heaven is the first in a sequence of novellas set in the same world. I haven’t read the sequel The Red Threads of Fortune, which apparently follows the other twin Mokoya after the events of this story. I feel though I would have enjoyed this as a longer novel with a less fragmented sense of time. There were parts were I would have been happier to linger longer with the characters as they were.

Interesting in scope, and definitely Hugo worthy, it felt to me as edited highlights of a deeper story that I’d like to immerse myself in. I’ll definitely read the sequel.

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Black Tides of Heaven (Novella) J.Y.Yang

  1. Edited highlights of a deeper story sounds not too far from my own impression — in a good way. Take all the key scenes from a massive fantasy epic, and squash it into one novella.

    On the one hand, this snapshots of the highlights weakened some of my attachment to the characters as characters, on the other, it moved fast and covered everything it ought to cover, including a significant transformation arc.

    (As a personal note, I did sometimes find myself stumbling over the use of the singular personal they in this when I hadn’t in webcomics, but I consider that a failing in me, not the novella, which used them as a cultural and character development point.)

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  2. I felt that this novella, and the twin-novella set, had some serious structural issues. The marketing claimed that you could start with either, which just seems bizarre given that Threads really spoils this. For this novella, you have an opening half which strongly establishes both characters, then the meat of the story just concentrates on one – that just seemed poor planning to me.
    On the other hand the worldbuilding is fascinating and it’s a good story – I just don’t know why it’s been put together the way it has.

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  3. “Black Tides of Heaven” is this year’s memory hole finalist, i.e. the Hugo finalist I forget as soon as I’ve read it. I usualy have one like that every year, where I have to remind myself “And what was this one about again?”, when it comes to voting. “Black Tides” is “the one with the twins and the gorgeous cover” for me.

    I guess the structure and the highly condensed nature of the narrative are partly to blame for this phenomenon. It’s certainly an interesting experiment, but I don’t think it works quite as intended.

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  4. I thought it was all right, but agree that it was a little too condensed/highlights. Everyone doesn’t have to go on like Jordan or Sanderson (I’d probably have liked this better after crawling through Sanderson!), but I really would have liked a bit more of it. Jumping along for the highlights wasn’t enough for an epic like this, with all the worldbuilding. And I really would have liked to know more about some of the supporting characters. The structure just didn’t work for me.

    The Red Threads one is NOT a companion, no matter what they say, it’s a sequel. And even though it’s set in one place and time, it’s not as good as this one. So… I dunno.

    The worldbuilding is SPECTACULAR, though, and I like the Machinists.

    I think I’d like a proper novel with all the bits filled in that contained the two novellas. What I think I’d really like best is “The Authorized Guide to the Tensorate World”, with lots of juicy non-fiction entries about the society, the magic, maps, etc.

    The cover couldn’t be any better, though.

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  5. The second one subverts some of the worldbuilding from the first one, which made me wonder if it wasn’t carefully thought-out. (Or maybe just not written down!) 🙂 I’m still curious to see what the third one is like.

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  7. You’re basically right — the upshot of all this is it’s really really overrated, especially in a field that includes the Pinsker, McGuire, and Wells novellas. I feel bad to say this, because it’s not a BAD story, and Yang is certainly a writer worth watching, but the praise for this story grossly outpaces its virtues.

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  8. I really had problems getting through this one–2 people, both gender neutral, and the constant use of the pronoun “they” to refer to one, the other, or both, had me confused much of the time. I don’t object to that usage, but the plural pronoun was used so many times when one of the character’s names could have been used earlier in the particular sentence or paragraph without any awkwardness and would have limited confusion–of course the tight construction of the story magnified this issue for me. The world building was good–the cover art magnificent. The plot was ok, and the characters interesting, but the grammar just tossed me for a loop. I don’t find “it” to be dehumanizing, and it’s never been reserved for for inanimate objects. The gender neutral folks, apparently offended by the English language’s only gender neutral pronouns, need to come up with new plural pronouns to help out the rest of us–how are they managing in languages that are totally gender dependent? I’m curious.

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    • There are odd sentences using ‘they’ that trip me up but otherwise I find ‘they’ unnoticeable.

      “It” had been intentionally used to dehumanise in the past (including for racist purposes), so even if usage changed the word has a bad history of usage when applied to people.

      I don’t know how more gendered languages are managing change in use, though I think most have more than two grammatical genders, so there are other things in play. English has the benefit of really only requiring grammatical agreement of gender for pronouns and is otherwise largely ungendered, so fixing pronouns is a simple solution for English.

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