Mirra is a magic-user in a village where magic is a man’s preserve. Fierce and independent, she is forced to leave her home when her secret is uncovered. Her travels – and those of her daughter Kindness – form a magical duology of self-discovery and self-worth.
The two novellas Of Oysters, Pearls and Magic and The Path of Kindness are carefully crafted to mirror one another, looping through shared themes, opposing characters and elemental motifs. This should have made for an over-arching story that was greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, I found that I loved Of Oysters, Pearls and Magic but The Path of Kindness left me cold.
Chng’s prose style is evocative, with a light clarity that I really enjoyed (although my edition could do with another edit to clean it up; lingering signs of this originally being self-published as a web serial). The tone of the first book is that of a memoir or diary; I had the sense of Mirra looking back, the pain of her turbulent memories softened by time and distance. The text is interspersed with recipes, unexpected and unusual asides that add an everyday flavour that reinforces the setting.
In spite of giving relatively little detail (no room for Basil Exposition here!), Chng conveys the sense of something greater with her world-building. This is an indeterminate future, where we have achieved space travel and colonised another planet. I liked that the setting felt Far Eastern in flavour, but that Mirra’s travels soon reveal the influences of other cultures in other parts of the land (her lover Josh is a red-headed Innerlander, whose grandmother loves scones and Earl Grey tea).
I was amused by the aside that men needed to own magic to make up for women’s higher social position; but I liked more that this division wasn’t universal – it’s specific to the sea shore. Chng also showcases a range of romantic and sexual partners; there’s no stigma here to being straight, queer, or asexual (or in choosing to be alone), and we see a number of polyamorous as well as monogamous relationships.
We learn enough about the world to make Mirra feel grounded, but the focus is firmly on her emotional journey. Cast out of her village for using magic, she travels to the City to learn from the famous Sea Witch (made outcast before her). Mirra is very self-sufficient, having become mistrustful of others after her rejection by her village.
The first half of Of Oysters, Pearls and Magic – probably the strongest section of The Tale of Yin overall – deals with her learning to open up to her emotions again, embracing hope and compassion; the second follows her inland after the City is destroyed by a volcanic eruption and her newfound stability is threatened. This second half was a little less satisfying, if very poignant. While I liked that the focus stayed on Mirra, I was left with many questions about her companions Auri and Josh, whose relationship was fraught for reasons that weren’t spelled out. However, the glimpses of the broader world and the kindness of strangers in the face of grief made this a memorable read.
The second book in the duology, The Path of Kindness, focuses on Mirra’s daughter. Overwhelmed by the expectation attached to being Mirra’s daughter, she chooses to leave their village. Her journey of discovery leads her to the Innerlands and the City as she seeks for something to make the cornerstone of her life. The narrative is more immediate than Mirra’s, and more self-absorbed – Kindness is still a teenager, and her growing pains are difficult. I found Kindness harder to relate to, and consequently enjoyed her story much less. Others on the read-along had the opposite reaction, though, so mileage will vary! I was fascinated by the nuance that the recipes included here become more complex as Kindness grows wiser and finds herself – arguably as she makes time for home-building.
Overall, this was an engrossing world that made for a fascinating setting – I’d happily read more stories set here.