The Black Tides of Heaven/The Red Threads of Fortune

The debut entries of JY Yang’s Hugo-award winning Tensorate series have much going for them. The books feature a non-traditional fantasy setting with the Silk-Punk style Protectorate, and a plethora of LGBTQ+ characters and relationship dynamics that are woefully under-explored in a literary genre that prides itself on the ability to break the conventions and rules of our own world. The two novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven, and the Red Threads of Fortune, feature the same characters, though they are disparate stories with completely different themes and structure.

The first book I read, BToH, features a coming-of-age revolutionary plot that spans 40 years and multiple POVs, while the second, RToF, is a monster-hunting action-adventure, love-and-loss tale focused around a single character. I applaud Yang in trying to lay the ground work for a loose anthology-esc type set up for this colorful and unique world, though I don’t think as a whole the series quite hits all of its experimental marks.

An unfortunate consequence of the radically changing structure between novellas is that it produces, I think at times, too disjointed a connection between the stories. This is not aided by the fact that each depart so drastically, or in some cases, abandon/reverse entirely the characterizations and agency established in the adjacent book, I found myself often struggling to reconcile the divide.

The world building, which both stories seem disinterested in concretely visualizing or fully explaining in service of plot flow and keeping to their condensed size, is interesting, but because of the writing’s brevity, won’t let me engage much further than the aesthetic or surface layer quality of the politics, magic, or landscape. After reading both books, I still do not have a great handle on how the Slack works, or even which powers are associated with each of its realms.

Neither BToH or RToF take the time to reiterate or doll out the basic mechanics of the magic system outside the first few chapters, which left me lost deciphering what powers mean to each other in terms of relative intensity or what their limitations might be. RToF in particular has this habit of dropping in new concepts that completely upend or dramatically empower the protagonists’ abilities over a short, short period of time. The result is I’m never really all that worried if someone is going to die, because I know they’ll be granted the means by which to save themselves at the last minute, leaving genuine stakes generally unclear throughout.

The dialog is serviceable but probably the weakest element of the Yang’s prose. I do think BToH did a better job of giving its characters distinct (or at least opposing) ideologies and driving motivations that come through in their speech. RToF, on the other hand, can be frustratingly bland in this aspect, and the emotional beats between characters often feel more demanded by their position in the plot relative to the protagonist than coming from a discernible personal lens. It’s not so much that everyone sounds the same (though that is a problem too), it’s more the stories already have space they need to bridge by the books’ other vague or spartan elements, and the fact none really pick up the Slack (hehe) leaves me wanting as a reader in too many capacities.

I enjoyed these novellas well enough, and I’m happy what they bring to the table in terms of representation and broadening the scope of the genre. Just think they could’ve benefited from a little more space to breathe.

3/5 Too much Slack, not enough tension

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