Book cover: The Black Tides of Heaven - J Y YangAkeha and Mokoya are the twin children of the Protector, sold to the Grand Monastery in exchange for military support. But Mokoya is a prophet, a resource too valuable for their mother to let go, while Akeha has the heart of a rebel. In a country ruled by fear, can they find peace for themselves – let alone for the rest of their people?

Honestly, no summary can really do justice to these twin novellas, because they are so epic in scope. They’re described as stand-alone and (I think) you can read them in any order, but The Black Tides of Heaven comes first chronologically. Covering a 30 year period, it carries a hefty burden of world-building and back story, starting with the Head Abbot’s journey to see Protector Sanao to collect his payment for services rendered.

As the twins grow up at the Grand Monastery, it is Akeha who recognises their sibling’s gift of foresight. Tested, proven, it takes them back to the palace in Chengbee; but it also drives a wedge between them, which is exacerbated when it becomes evident that Mokoya – unlike Akeha – has begun to identify as female.

Both books have plenty to say on the matter of gender, identity and sexuality: in this world, children are ungendered until they make their choice and take drugs to trigger the physical changes that follow from that decision. Across the two books, the cast includes pretty much every identity and orientation, and repeatedly makes it clear that all this is very fluid and just not a big deal. At no point did this feel like message fiction – it’s just how the world works, and we get enough spelled out (or shown in passing) to make sense of it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always true of the rest of the world. There’s a level of assumed world-building that you will either love or hate – no Basil Exposition can mean a lack of clarity. I never did make sense of the solar cycles, and had only the vaguest grasp of the Slack, the Tensors and the Monastery itself from reading Black Tides. While it felt solid and consistent, it didn’t always feel clear, although it made for a fascinating backdrop.

And it didn’t undermine the story, which is firmly focused on Akeha’s internal struggle to forge an identity separate to Mokoya and to find a purpose. Through Akeha’s turmoil we can understand gender identity; through their gifts, we can broadly understand the Slack; through their desire to escape their mother, the broader political context of the brutal Protectorate and the rebellious Machinists. I stopped worrying about the rest, and found more or less of all my remaining questions answered in Red Threads.

My main problem with Black Tides was that I didn’t particularly like Akeha, who was by turns controlling, presumptuous, arrogant and short-tempered. Once I realised that was my issue, I could move on, albeit without much emotional engagement (…which is unfortunate, as that’s the whole point – these novellas are more about the personal journeys than the broader context). But Akeha can be a bit of an asshat, however much sympathy I had with their resistance to choosing a gender and the way in which their hand felt forced; and honestly SPOILER (mouse over to read – only Akeha would choose a gender out of what looks a lot like spite).

Other readers mileage will vary, and I want to be clear: in spite of mostly reading Akeha with one eyebrow arched, I liked the over-arching tale a lot, precisely because it uses an epic backdrop to focus on a personal story.

Yang’s writing is reliably brilliant, but I think it’s a big ask for a novella to tackle a 36 year time period. In the end, I found the size of the canvas distracted from Akeha, although I can’t see how you’d fix that without writing a novel(!). So I was left a little frustrated, if mostly intrigued – and I’ll say it now: it’s worth sticking with it, because it all pays off in spades in The Red Threads of Fortune.