With their Tensorate series, author Jy Yang has created a world divided between those who have and those who lack the ability to manipulate the physical world through their own formidable powers. The “haves,” known as Tensors, are able to use their mind/spirit to influence the workings of the Slack, ie, earth (gravity), water (motion), fire (temperature), metal (electricity), and forest (flesh and blood). In this world, the “haves” rule with an iron fist and little mercy, but even so, amongst these privileged individuals there is a small group of rebels who see the injustice of one group so dominating another. These first volumes of the Tensorate series tell the story of two such rebels who also happen to be twins and the children of the Protector, the most powerful and threatening dictator on earth. Jy Yang’s writing is direct and thrilling as they take the reader on the twins’ journey from childhood through adulthood. Jy Yang deals beautifully with their characters’ discovery of self as they grapple with who they are and what they are meant to do, and as they learn how to deal with the suffering they inflict and receive.
In The Black Tides of Heaven, the action begins in Chengbee, the capital city of the Protectorate. The Head Abbott is on his way to the Great High Palace, home of the Protector, an enormously powerful and ruthless woman. She owes the monk a debt for his and the monastery’s support of her regime in the suppression of a rebellion. The Abbott had requested that as repayment, the Protector give one of her children over to the monastery for training, thinking that her youngest child Sonami would be sent. The Protector, however, has skillfully worked this situation to her advantage. Rather than hand over Sonami, for whom she has other plans, the Protector has given birth to twins. Much to the Abbott’s surprise, both of these children will be given to the monastery at the age of 6. When the children arrive, it is clear to the Abbott that they are special. Akeha is a bold and daring child, protective of Mokoya, who seems more sensitive and prone to bad dreams. As it turns out, Mokoya is a prophet; their dreams are a foretelling of the future. The Protector, upon learning of Mokoya’s gift, wants the child back. Akeha, the “spare child,” can stay at the monastery. Ultimately, both children return to the palace, where Mokoya’s dreams are captured and kept in a special device so that the Protector can see them and use them against her enemies. When the twins are 16, they make contact with the Gauri people, laborers who lack the special powers of Tensors and whose rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed by the Protectorate. Mokoya has seen the leader of the Gauri, a young man named Thennjay, in a prophecy and insists on speaking to him despite Akeha’s reservations. Meeting with Thennjay will change both of the twins’ lives and lead to a rupture between them. It will also have repercussions for the stability of the Protectorate and for the course of the rebellion.
At this point in the story, both Mokoya and Akeha make decisions that are literally life altering. In this world, humans are born without defined gender but can choose a gender later in life. Mokoya decides to be female and Akeha chooses to become male. Not choosing a gender is also an option, and in these stories, we encounter characters who have chosen not to be one gender or another. In their biographical information, the author Jy Yang identifies as queer and non-binary, and so their writing on this particular subject is illuminating. The pronoun “they/their” (not he/she) is used in reference to these characters (and to Mokoya and Akeha before they are “confirmed” as female and male), and the existence of these non-binary characters is not considered remarkable in this world. Moreover, Jy Yang gives their characters rich and varied sex lives, which also are accepted and unremarkable in this world. Both Akeha and Mokoya will find love (or even loves) but learning to trust and dealing with the fear of losing someone you love will not be easy for either of them. This has nothing to do with their sexuality or gender and everything to do with their crazy mother. I have to say I liked the way Jy Yang wrote about this. The reader will identify with the characters’ struggles (which are simply very human struggles) and feel compassion for them.
While the action in The Black Tides of Heaven focuses mainly on Akeha’s journey, The Red Threads of Fortune revolves around Mokoya. Now in her 30s, she has left Chengbee to escape her past and its pain. Rather than try to deal with her depression, she attempts to bury it in her work with a band of rebels on the outskirts of the Protectorate. They have heard that a monster known as a naga is on the loose, and that this creature (sort of like a dragon) is unusually large and destructive. How did this naga come to be and who is controlling it? The Red Threads of Fortune goes deeper into the political situation in the Protectorate. Akeha and Mokoya have both thrown in their lot with the Machinists, ie, those who believe that humans without Tensor abilities should have access to weapons that would even the field in their dealings with the Protectorate. Some Machinists make it their business to develop these weapons, such as guns and a bomb that sounds a lot like a hydrogen bomb. Has someone gone rogue and developed this creature, or is this the workings of the Protectorate? Mokoya’s job is to hunt down and eliminate the naga, but this work is complicated by her relationship with the mysterious Rider, a person with unusual Slack powers and a murky past. Can Rider be trusted? Will Mokoya’s painful past get in the way of her mission? There is a lovely story line here about loss, its attendant grief, and the painful journey forward to life.
I could not put down these books. “Action-packed” is a tired phrase but they really are action packed, and I love that. Sometimes I wished that a bit more background information had been provided (about Thennjay and the Gauri, for example, or about the relationships between the Protectorate, Tensors and monks), but this certainly did not detract from the plots. Perhaps in future novels, these things will be revealed (and the third in the Tensorate series is out this summer!! The Descent of Monsters), but even if they aren’t, that wouldn’t stop me from reading more. It’s a testament to Jy Yang’s storytelling that this world and the characters they have created are so engrossing and captivating. And get a load of that gorgeous cover art! Maybe one day we’ll see some graphic novel versions of these stories. That would be cool.