The Protector is dead. The Machinists are rejoicing – except one. Lady Han is a legend, a fierce leader who took the resistance and made it a force to reckon with. But Hekate has been the centre of her life since she was a girl…
Say one thing for J Y Yang: they bring a fresh approach to every story.
While each tale of the Tensorate builds on preceding novellas and adds nuance to characters and layers to world-building, no two have the same feel. While each is a personal story set against a backdrop of political conflict in a stunning fantasy world, The Black Tides of Heaven was a coming of age tale; The Red Threads of Fortune explored the poignancy of grief; and The Descent of Monsters was first coolly analytical and then almost noir in its unravelling. With The Ascent to Godhood, J Y Yang gives us a memoir.
Of course, the thing I love about J Y Yang is that there’s always more than one thing to say.
Where Black Tides and Red Threads were billed as ‘companion novellas’ that could be approached in any order, Ascent is a clear sequel to the events at the end of Descent. However, it’s vague enough about those events to throw the concept of reading order up in the air, because it is also the history behind the entire series to date.
Lady Han (not her real name) was a poor girl from the provinces, sold by her parents to a broker who promptly sold her to Madam Wong to be trained as an entertainment girl (yes, that euphemism means exactly what you think it means). It’s not necessarily that she was good at it –
Madam Wong said I danced like I wanted to strangle somebody
– but she’s determined, and she’s good enough. Honestly, the best thing about Lady Han is her attitude. We meet her as a cantankerous old lady (my new favourite narrative voice, thank you Lady Trent), but she exhibits a reckless fierceness that shapes her life and makes her someone to be reckoned with.
Ascent is both a rags to riches story and a love story –
What a romantic idea. But reality is nothing like that.
– well, sort of. Yang’s narrative is blisteringly clear that there’s no romance in being poor. Lady Han muses on how her life’s path (daughter, mother or slave) and her gender were more or less determined from birth – choices are an extravagance for those with means, and those who live closer to the capital. It’s a first suggestion in the world of the Tensorate that gender is not always fluid; that the right to choose is a privilege not afforded to everyone.
Likewise, there’s no heroism to being sold into slavery: Han sometimes comes across as selfish, but she’s driven by a clear-eyed understanding of how precarious her situation is and is willing to do whatever it takes to improve her chances of survival. It makes her the perfect tool for Hekate, the Protector’s daughter, a mysterious, powerful noblewoman who draws her into her web.
We see Hekate only through Han’s eyes, just as we’ve glimpsed her through her children’s eyes in previous novellas. This is the closest we’ll ever get: a history of how she supported her brother’s rise and engineered his fall; a perspective that shows her to be as self-interested as Han and infinitely more ambitious, buoyed up by her certainty of her rank and ability, determined to influence the future of the Protectorate.
Han is Hekate’s tool – her maid, her thief, her assassin, her lover – utterly devoted, passionately in love, willing to submerge her own desires and control her jealousies in service to her beloved mistress.
…which rather begs the question of how she ended up the leader of the Machinist rebellion.
Regret’s not my thing
Yes, The Ascent to Godhood is both the history of the Protector’s rise and a lovers-to-enemies rollercoaster. One of my favourite things about the Tensorate novellas is the depth of the world-building, and I loved how this novella strengthened my sense of the world by giving it a (recent) history. My other favourite thing is that the turbulent times are always the setting for personal stories: even though this is nominally about Hekate, it’s just as much a memoir of Han.
However, this is why it lost me a little in the final act. I’m such a fickle reader. I – no, no regrets, Han wouldn’t approve.
Firstly, much like her rise to power, Han’s betrayal treads a well-worn path (yes, I know I’m being unreasonable: her motivations are entirely reasonable and 100% in self-centred character – Han was hardly going to have been driven by some sudden altruistic impulse). At the same time, I rather like that her about-face is as hypocritical as it is heartfelt. After all, nothing is done to her that she hasn’t done to others. Ultimately, she’s as much a villain as Hekate; and the narrative makes no attempt to soften or redeem that.
Secondly, Ascent did a brilliant job of investing me in Han, monster that she is, rather than in Hekate. Besides, we know from the other novellas what happened next for Hekate – I wanted to know more about Han’s life as a Machinist. I know, I know, it’s not what this one’s about – but like The Descent of Monsters, I ended up attached to the wrong story.
Don’t get me wrong: this is currently my second favourite Tensorate novella after Red Threads, and I am already thinking about a reread because HELL YES cantankerous old lady narrators with negotiable moral frameworks. But once again, what I’m really left wanting is a full-blown novel of the Tensorate.