Neon Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven: Slackcraft and Gender Choice

Jun 19, 2021 | 2021 Articles, Fantasy & Fangs, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

A considered silence simmered. Then Yongcheow spoke. “The saying goes ‘The black tides of heaven direct the course of human lives.’” To which a wise teacher said, “But as with all waters, one can swim against the tide.” His gaze was unshakeable as it fixed on Akeha. “I chose to swim.” —Neon Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven

fantasy non-binary authorI’m not quite sure what I expected when reading Neon Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven (2017). Terms like silkpunk and Asian fantasy/mythology were running through my head, but other than a passing acquaintance with Zen koans, the Tao te Ching, and the Mahabarata, I was in unfamiliar waters. I soon learned that “Silkpunk” is the term writer Ken Liu has coined for the genre of a “very specific technology and literary aesthetic” blending magic and technology in an Asian setting. Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series, of which The Black Tides of Heaven is the first, has been my introduction to what might be called silkpunk by some (if not by others), and it does seem to fall within the late 19th and early 20th century with a mix of machines, munitions, rebellion, and magic sometimes powered by technology and sometimes just awash with magical forces and legendary creatures.

Chingbee, a city in The Protectorate, is our scene where the Protector rules the land from her lofty palace. Our story begins with her fulfillment of a promise made to Abbot Sung to send one of her children to him to be brought up in the monastic tradition. The promise is fulfilled, yet there’s a twist complicating the favor that is the first of many twists of fortune in the story since the promised child turns out to be twins, Mokoya and Akeha. They come to the monastery six years later to begin their training, but it is soon evident, as the years pass and the children are taught the ways of Slackcraft, that Mokoya has a gift for prophecy and a destiny that will reach far beyond the monastery. Akeha’s gift is for Slackcraft, the heart of the Protectorate. When they reach adolescence, they come to a time when many have chosen to remain genderless, as all children were raised or to choose to be male or female. Mokoya chooses to be female, then Akeha chooses to be male. The pronouns they/them are used before this choice in order to be all inclusive. The twins’ paths diverge as they move toward adulthood and their lives differ radically as one joins a rebellion and the other’s dreams inform against that same rebellion, so the reader, too, is pulled in opposite directions. Three more novellas follow this first volume, so much more adventure is to be had.

Yang presents all sides of their world politics dispassionately, while their characters are hotly involved in one of the other—no mean trick, that. The world they built is a beautiful one, and I must say that other writers have spent hundreds of pages in doing what Yang accomplishes in less than 300. Do remember too that even the mythological creatures Yang invokes may be monsters to us, but they have their own logic in behaving the way they do. So, too, their characters. The Black Tides of Heaven covers so much territory in so little time that you may be as breathless as I was at its end.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


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