The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang, is a difficult book to describe. The worldbuilding is very… dense, is probably the right word. It feels like it goes all the way down, from magic, to politics, to religion and philosophy, to conceptions of gender, to things that don’t even appear in the narrative but one senses are there (for example, days and nights are clearly measured differently, but it isn’t clear how in this book – Yang’s website mentions in passing that the sun rises and sets six times a day, which explains a lot, and it’s clear that Yang has a really, really thorough and specific idea of how everything in this world works, not all of which makes it into the text).
The setting is ‘silkpunk’ – which is to say, it has a medieval Asian feel (I want to say alt-Japanese, based on the names and the religion, but I’m really not knowledgeable enough about asian cultures to be sure, and it feels like it borrows from a few different cultures anyway), with magic, and technology. The protagonist, Sanao Akeha, is one of a pair of twins born to the Protector, the ruthless ruler of the lands in which the story takes place, and given to the Grand Monastery as payment of a debt. Their twin, Sanao Mokoya, is a prophet, and once this becomes evident, both twins are returned to the Protector, who has a use for prophecy. (Mokoya is the protagonist of the twin novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, which takes place during and after this story, and which I have not read.)
In this world, children are born with no gender, and choose, when they are ready, which gender they will be, taking the drugs to confirm this gender (a small number of people never make a choice and continue in the body they were born with). Sanao eventually chooses to be he (and Mokoya to be she), so I’ll use those genders from here. (Also, wow, I feel like non-binary genders are almost a mini-theme in this year’s Hugos. I’ve seen more characters who prefer ‘they’ just in the last few weeks than in my entire life to date. It works, both here and elsewhere, but it’s definitely a thing this year. I understand that Yang is non-binary, which probably influenced their choice in this instance.)
Yes, but what is this story about? Well, here’s where it gets a little bit strange, at least for me. *I* thought the story was about the politics – the Protectorate versus the Monastery, the slackcraft-using ‘Tensors’ versus the ‘Machinists’, who work to create technologies that everyone can use without help from slackcrafters. The relationships are central, certainly, but there are, at various points, out and out rebellions going on in which Akeha (and to a lesser extent, Mokoya) are involved.
But… the climactic point at the book does not resolve any of this. It resolves the relationships – leading me to suspect that these were, in fact, intended to be the focus of the book – but leaves the question of what is going to happen to the Machinist rebels very much unanswered, and unanswered in a situation where there is apparently unlimited political power on one side, and something that looks a lot like a nuclear bomb on the other side (and I’m not *entirely* certain that this technology is not now known to both sides).
Perhaps the twin novel resolves some of this?
So I don’t quite know what to say about this novel. It feels brilliant, but unfinished, and perhaps this is because my priorities were not those of the author. I feel as though I can’t judge it without reading the other novel, and I’m sort of reluctant to do that because I feel that a winning novella ought to be able to stand alone as a book. And maybe it’s just that I’ve completely failed to get the point of the book?
(Or maybe I’m just a bit dim-witted – I feel as though there are several books this year which have had ambiguous or unfinished sort of endings, and I’m not sure if this is a trend or a sign that my reading comprehension is lacking…)
I don’t know where to put this on my ballot. I’ll have to think about it a bit more.