Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Black Tides of Heaven

Neon Yang
Completed 10/5/2022, Reviewed 10/6/2022
4 stars

This is probably the first fantasy I’ve read with a complete but not complicated non-binary gender fluid society.  With it’s three sequels bound in one volume, this novella was nominated for the 2022 Lambda Literary Award.  Standalone, it was nominated for the 2017 Sideways and Golden Tentacle Awards.  It has a very engaging story about twins with special powers who take very different paths, but ultimately are trying to escape and rebel against the shadow of their monarch mother.  

Akeha and Mokoya are twins of their mother the Protector who rules their land with an iron fist.  She bears the twins solely for the purpose of repaying a debt to the monastery that helped her overcome a rebellion.  The twins go off the monastery and learn the spiritual and magical ways of the monks and nuns.  Soon Mokoya displays the ability to see the future through their dreams.  When the Protector gets wind of this, she demands them back so she can exploit the gift to keep her enemies at bay.  They do return to the castle but are very unhappy.  When the time comes to decide their genders, Mokoya decides to be a female and return to the Monastery.  Akeha decides to be a male and runs away from their abusive, exploitive mother.  Eventually, he becomes linked to the Machinists, a rebel group aimed at overthrowing the Protectorate.

The narrative is mostly told from Akeha’s point of view, but it feels like you’re inside the head of both them and Mokoya.  I found myself empathizing with them and their plight, particularly their frustration with their scheming mother.  She knows how to press their buttons and does it well.  Once she makes the twins return to the castle, she makes Mokoya wear a box that records and transmits their dreams to her so that she can see what’s about to happen and try to fight it.  But the twins already know that there is no getting around Fate.  The box is the ultimate in parental control of the lives of children, and I think everyone can relate to that at some level.

Yang was primarily a short story writer.  When they were approached with the idea of writing a longer piece, they procrastinated for a while out of fear.  When they finally wrote this novella, they came up with a hit.  It was well received, and for good reason.  It’s beautifully written, with just enough prosy description to get a good sense of the world of the Protectorate, its religions, and culture.  At first you would think the non-binary nature of the society would be a difficult read, but it was not.  I found it to be very easy to slip into the culture and follow Akeha and Mokoya’s lives, before and after their choosing their gender.

I give this novella four stars out of five.  I have the whole series of novellas and I’ll be reading them one after the other because I like the world Yang built so well.  The remaining three are shorter than this one, so it shouldn’t take me too much time to get through them all.  

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