Mokoya and Akeha are twins, children of the Full Lands’ ruthless ruler, Lady Sanao Hekate. Mokoya is the incandescent core burning beneath the earth, Akeha the lightning splitting open the sky. Mokoya can see the future, Akeha can stop the heart of flying leviathans. Mokoya becomes her mother’s official Prophet, an unwilling instrument of dictatorial oppression, while Akeha runs from home and fights for the Machinists, a resistance movement that wants to bring power and technology to the people. This is what happens in The Black Tides of Heaven, which is told from Akeha’s point of view. In The Red Threads of Fortune, told from Mokoya’s perspective, Mokoya is finally free from her mother’s clutches, but grieves the loss of a loved one, and we find her chasing nagas (gigantic flying snakes) astride a feathery raptor the size of a house. Both books contain thrilling action sequences, swoon-worthy romance, and electrifying world-building.
JY Yang’s twin novellas firmly belong within the recent wave of loving but subversive reinterpretations of the epic fantasy genre–alongside Kai Ashante Wilson’s novellas Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and A Taste of Honey, Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels, and Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series (if you can think of other examples, please tell me in the comments). All these books combine familiar epic fantasy tropes (dragons, prophecies, magical duels, and so on) with settings inspired by non-European cultures and mythologies, an abundance of poc and queer characters, and a preoccupation for the struggles of the marginalised. Of course, each of these books has something that sets it apart from the others, as each reflects their respective authors’ interests and idiosyncrasies. In the case of Black Tides and Red Threads, we get an Asian-inspired world, with creatures straight from Asian mythology and priestly and ruling classes reminiscent of Asian history and culture–among other things. But perhaps the books’ most notable characteristic is their gender politics.
In at least some of the cultures of the Full Lands (including the one associated with the ruling class), it is customary for people to choose their own gender regardless of the biology with which they are born. Before this choice occurs, people are non-binary, and are referred to with “they”, “their”, “them”, and so on. The choice–known as confirmation–can occur, I think, pretty much whenever the person feels they are ready: could be in childhood, could be in adolescence, could be later. One prominent character chooses not to be confirmed. For those who do go through confirmation, if the chosen gender does not correspond with someone’s biology at birth, they then usually undergo body modification as well–though here, again, there is one prominent character in the books who chooses not to take this step.
(Not that this is the only awesome aspect of JY Yang’s world-building. As I’ve already hinted, this universe also includes domesticated (veloci)raptors. Also, one of the characters has magic tattoos that are meant to etch into their bones when they die, so their skeleton will display a record of their life. And another character has a feathery lizard arm that changes colour based on her emotions. These are just a few of my favourite touches–there’s plenty I’m leaving for you to discover, readers, were you to make the excellent choice of reading these books.)
Besides its Asian-inspired setting and its gender politics, a third key way in which Black Tides, in particular, subverts the epic fantasy genre is through its compressed length. Black Tides squishes a full thirty-five years in Akeha’s life, and of the history of his country, in little more than 200 pages. (Red Threads has a similar length but only covers a few days’ worth of plot.) All this through the miracle of time jumps, and sheer breakneck pacing. I have to say–sometimes, I wished the story would slow down a bit. Maybe dwell a little longer on some of the secondary characters, or on this or that fascinating custom. And–of course it makes sense to give one novella to Akeha and one to Mokoya, but I missed getting only the occasional glimpse of Mokoya’s side of the story in Black Tides. That said–the book’s fast pace also made everything that much more thrilling and compelling. And, from the sounds of things, it seems that there will be plenty more stories set in this world, so I probably will get my wish of spending some more time with some of my favourite secondary characters, and finding out more about how the world works.
I wholeheartedly recommend these books. They contain one of the most exciting and electrifying speculative worlds I’ve explored in a long time, as well as thrilling hijinks and wonderful characters. I personally preferred Black Tides, though that might simply be because it was the first one I read. If you want to find out a little bit more about the books, I’d also recommend reading this interview with the author. In the meantime, I’ll be checking out their short stories, one of which features immortal alien cannibals. How can I resist?