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.’Neon Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang (formerly J.Y. Yang) may only be the length of a novella, but it packs a whole lot of emotional punches in such a small package. The paperback version is 236 pages. It was nominated for the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Kitschies Golden Tentacle, and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella. It is one of a pair of standalone intros to the author’s Tensorate Series, and now I need to get my hands on the second novella of the pair: The Red Threads of Fortune. Neon Yang (they/them) is non-binary, queer, and from Singapore.
The Protector rules the land with an iron fist. The Head Abbot of the Grand Monastery had made a deal with the Protector: since he helped the Protector with riots the previous summer, in return she would send one of her children to the monastery. Instead of specifically requesting that she send her youngest child, who already wanted to go to the monastery, the Abbot left his request vague enough that the Protector decided to become pregnant and send that new child to fulfil her blood debt. But she unexpectedly delivered twins.
This world is really interesting. There is a form of magic called slackcraft, where practitioners can mold the world around them to their liking by altering different elements, like water or earth. This can go so far as to conceive a baby via slackcraft (as the Protector did).
The world of this book also has a really interesting concept of gender as well: children wear genderfree tunics and use they/them pronouns until they choose their gender. Slackcraft doctors pause the onset of puberty until this choosing, which can happen at any age though the child is given time to figure out if their chosen gender is their true gender. Sometimes a child as young as three can declare their gender, other times people wait until they are nearly an adult at seventeen. Once their gender is declared, they are confirmed, occasionally with the help of confirmation doctors who shift their bones to align their body with their chosen gender.
For the first half of the book, we follow both twins, Mokoya and Aheka, and then for the latter half, we mostly follow the “spare” child, Aheka. Mokoya grows into a prophet, and Aheka is never quite sure what they should be doing, since they were never wanted or expected. It was lovely seeing Aheka grow into themselves as the novella went on.
CW: violence, mention of surgery, death of a child (offscreen)
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