In the wake of tragedy, Mokoya the former seeress has abandoned her family and joined a mercenary group who hunt naga. Stalked by grief, she struggles to care about Akeha’s concerns or the slow-burning rebellion. But even in the outer marches of the Protectorate, there are causes worth dying for.
The Red Threads of Fortune an immensely successful and satisfying novella, on par with favourites such as The Drowning Eyes. It had a number of advantages over companion novella The Black Tides of Heaven, not least that I’d already absorbed a lot of the world-building (although first chapter lays out some fundamentals that I really would have appreciated in Tides, clarifying the nature of the Slack and tensing), but I also think it works better on its own terms. I remain uneasy with the 30-some years skated through in Tides; by contrast, Threads is packed in to a few spare days as a situation comes to a head.
It’s still a lot to ask of a novella – there’s enough epic story here to fill a novel if you cared to – but at no point did I feel short-changed. Yes, the first chapter is a little bit info-dumpy, but it’s also packed with cues (Mokoya’s mood swings, Phoenix’s unusual nature) that set up the story to come. We join Mokoya on the hunt with her pack of feathery
velociraptors (OMG YES OBVIOUSLY I LOVED THIS BOOK), crushing her communicator in a fit of rage.
Mokoya is in the far north, where a giant naga threatens the mining community of Bataanar – Akeha’s Machinist stronghold, whose new raja is loyal to the Protector. Hunting it down with no care for her own skin (not even her colour-changing lizard arm, honestly it’s the little details that make me love these books even more), she slowly uncovers the mysteries behind its size and purpose and is forced to re-examine her grief and her sense of self.
The Red Threads of Fortune works for me precisely because it largely skates through the broader political situation in favour of focusing on Mokoya’s emotional journey. While I had qualms about how quickly she established a bond with Rider (insta-love is one of my least favourite tropes), I loved how it allowed us to see the generosity of her marriage (yes, I totally fell for Thennjay this time. He’s an adorable flirt and made of love). I also loved that Yang kept the narrative tight enough to leave it unclear just where Rider’s loyalties truly lay.
And through it all, there’s the inescapable burden of Mokoya’s grief. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a fantasy book that deals with grief as arguably its primary antagonist and it broke my heart into sharp little pieces. It’s hard to sympathise with Mokoya when she lashes out at those around her or pushes away those who love her, but it’s easy to understand. Like Thennjay, I mostly just wanted to give her a hug (or better: have her let him give her a hug). And in spite of her prickly rage and self-imposed isolation, I still enjoyed her company far more than I enjoyed Akeha’s (I like him better as a character rather than the POV, but he’s such an asshat).
Tides set up a civil war in the best epic fantasy tradition – magic vs technology, dictator vs rebels; Threads is grounded in this context, but in spite of Mokoya’s certainty that her mother is behind every terrible thing, the naga is not some devious Tensorate gambit against the Machinists. The events in Bataanar will inevitably have ramifications for the national struggle, but this is a personal tale of loss, rejection and the bond between parents and children (so: ALL THE FEELINGS, obviously).
In the end, of course, Mokoya must confront herself and come to terms with her grief if she is to take control of her destiny. The climax is difficult and triumphant in equal measure, leaving me with nothing but respect for what Yang is doing in this series.
I am very much looking forward to the third volume, due out this summer.
The Tensorate novellas are available now and can nominally be read in any order, but are probably worth reading chronologically (i.e. start with The Black Tides of Heaven)