Bite-size Books: The Descent of Monsters

Book cover: The Descent of Monsters - JY Yang (a person in red robes and braids in an epic post standing on a dragon)After a slaughter at a remote research institute, Tensor Chuwan Sariman is assigned to find out what really happened. But her investigation is stymied at every turn – by the Tensorate itself. What were they really studying? What do the authorities have to hide?

The third novella in J Y Yang’s Tensorate series moves from matters of the resistance to matters of the Tensorate. Or so it seems. It soon becomes clear that Machinists were involved in events at the Rewar Teng Institute – including Sanao Akeha himself, along with the enigmatic Rider. In case you’re new to the series – don’t start here!

Investigator Chuwan Sariman suspects she is being set up from the start. A low-level Tensor, this is her first big case – and although it is a big case, she is assigned no support team. Worse, the accounts she receives are heavily redacted. It’s fairly clear that she’s expected to close the investigation as quickly as possible, rubber stamping a Machinist incursion without pressing for details of why they were there.

But she has enough uncensored material to see that the rebels deny any involvement; and like any good fictional investigator out of their depth, Sariman wants the truth, dammit. Her case becomes a cause that puts her in conflict with her superiors and with the Tensorate itself.

Sariman is an archetype I have a great deal of affection for – the hot-headed cop determined to uncover the truth. However, as we meet her mid-investigation, her character arc felt truncated – we never get much of a sense of who she was before the crisis, which makes her rebellion feel inevitable rather than dramatic. It’s not obvious how big a deal it really is for her to go rogue.

It’s a shame, because the tidbits we get about her past are fascinating. In particular, I wanted to know how a Tensor ended up married to a pirate. While I didn’t feel she was an entirely reliable narrator, Sariman clearly perceived herself as loyal and law-abiding – how did she come to meet a pirate, let alone end up married to one (and how did she reconcile that with her job)?

…I may have latched on to the wrong story here.

And sadly, this is my least favourite Tensorate novella to date. Putting aside any mild frustration that it isn’t about pirates and policewomen, I found it difficult to engage with. It is narrated through Sariman’s reports, letters and diary entries, and I liked the conceit, but not the execution. Everything is an account of events that have already happened, reducing the drama and undermining the tension. It’s a tough style to pull off, and it didn’t work for me here.

The underlying plot is a tasty stew of amoral scientists and dubious government with high personal stakes for Rider. I think I would have enjoyed it more as a straightforward narrative, but I also wonder whether it needed more room to breathe. While I loved The Red Threads of Fortune as a novella, this was also an issue for me in The Black Tides of Heaven; I think I’m generally coming round to the opinion that perhaps what the Tensorate really needs is a full-length novel to show it at its best.