"Joyously wild stuff. Highly recommended." The New York Times
A Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards for Best Novella
The Black Tides of Heaven is one of a pair of unique, standalone introductions to JY Yang's Tensorate Series, which Kate Elliott calls "effortlessly fascinating." For more of the story you can read its twin novella The Red Threads of Fortune, available simultaneously.
Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as infants. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While Mokoya received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What's more, they saw the sickness at the heart of their mother's Protectorate.
A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue as a pawn in their mother's twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond they share with their twin?
The Tensorate Series
Book 1: The Black Tides of Heaven
Book 2: The Red Threads of Fortune
Book 3: The Descent of Monsters
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
HEAD ABBOT SUNG of the Grand Monastery did not know it yet, but this night would change the course of all his days.
He stood at the foot of the staircase leading to the Great High Palace of the Protectorate: that sprawling, magnificent edifice that few across the land would ever gain the privilege of seeing up close, much less entering. Tonight the Protector herself had summoned him.
Eight hundred alabaster steps stretched above his head. Tradition dictated that the journey to the palace be conducted without slackcraft, and Head Abbot Sung was nothing if not a traditionalist. There was no way around it, and so — he began to climb.
Darkness had fallen like a cool hand onto the peaks of Chengbee's exhausted, perspiring roofs. As the Head Abbot mounted step after step, his robes clung to him: under his arms, in the small of his back. The moon rolled uncloaked across the naked sky, but in less than an hour, the sun would return to scorch the land, bringing with it the start of the next waking day. On good days the nighttime exhalations of the capital city took on a lively air, the kind of energy that gathers where the young and restless cluster around the bones of something old. But all summer Chengbee had lain listless, panting like a thirsty dog.
Last summer, temperatures like these had wilted fields and dried rivers, turning them into brown gashes in the land, stinking of dust and rot. Fish bellies by the thousands had clogged the surfaces of lakes. The heat had brought on food and water rationing, the rationing had brought on riots of discontent, and the riots had brought the Protector's iron fist down upon the populace. Blood had run in the streets instead of rain, and the ruined fields were tilled with a fresh crop of gravestones.
The streets had stayed quiet this year. The Head Abbot found that this did not weigh on his conscience as much as he'd thought it would.
By the four hundredth step, the Head Abbot's breath was acid and his legs were lead. Four hundred more to go. No amount of meditation and training — not even a lifetime's worth — could compensate for old age.
Still, he climbed onward. Even a man of his stature could not defy a direct summons from the Protector. And there was the matter of the debt she owed him from the last summer.
It was strange. The Protector had not been seen in public for several months now, and webs of rumors had been spun into that absence: She was ill. She was dead. Her eldest children were embroiled in a power struggle. There had been a coup by her ministers, some of whom had publicly voiced opposition to last summer's brutality. The Head Abbot had heard all these whispers, weighed their respective merits, and been unable to come to a conclusion.
At least now he could rule out the rumor of her death.
He ascended the last step with a great sigh. His legs were curdled jelly, and the entrance pavilion lay shrouded in a curtain of stars that danced and pulsed as blood slowly returned to his head.
Head Abbot Sung had grown up in a tiny village in the northern reaches of the Mengsua Range, a trading post of a mere thousand. The Great High Palace, with its wide courtyards and endless gardens, was easily three times the size of his home village. Its thousands of denizens — cooks and courtiers, administrators and treasurers — traveled from point to point on floating carts.
One such cart awaited the Head Abbot as his vision cleared. Standing beside its squarish, silk-draped bulk was someone he had hoped to see: Sanao Sonami, the youngest of Protector Sanao's six children. Sonami had just turned fifteen, yet still wore the genderfree tunic of a child, their hair cropped to a small square at the top of their head and gathered into a bun. They bowed, hands folded in deference. "Venerable One. I have been asked to bring you to my mother."
The Head Abbot bowed in return. "I hope you have been well, Sonami."
"As much as I can be."
The cart was just big enough for two seated face-to-face. On the inside it was shockingly plain, simple red cushions over rosewood so dark it was almost black. Sonami pulsed gently through the Slack, and the cart began to move, floating serenely over the ground. For one so young and untrained, their slackcraft had an elegance and a simplicity to it that the Head Abbot appreciated. As the white walls and wooden bridges of the Great High Palace drifted past the cart's embroidered windows, he asked, "Has your mother spoken to you about coming to the monastery?"
Sonami shook their head. "I only wish."
"I see." The Head Abbot had hoped that the summons were about the fate of the child — though perhaps "hope" was too strong a word when it came to matters concerning the Protector.
Sonami said quietly, hands folded together, "She has decided that I should apprentice with the masters of forest-nature in the Tensorate."
"Is that so?"
The child stared at their feet. "She has not said it directly. But Mother has ways of making her wishes known."
"Well, perhaps our discussion today might change her mind."
"Discussion?" Sonami looked at the Head Abbot, alarmed. "Then no one has told you?"
"What have they not told me?"
"If you're asking, it means they haven't...." The child subsided into their seat with a sigh. "Then it is not my place to tell you, either."
The Head Abbot had no idea what the child meant. A mystery to be solved at the end of this journey, he thought.
Sonami said, "When you agreed to help Mother with the riots last summer, what exactly did you ask for in return?"
"I asked for one of her children to be sent to the monastery."
"And did you say my name, specifically?"
The Head Abbot chuckled. "No one would be so bold, with such a direct request. I cannot imagine how the Protector would have responded. Of course, it was expected that she would send you eventually. That was what we had hoped for, wasn't it?" All her older children had already had their roles in the administration parceled out to them. Sonami was the only one left.
The child frowned and then looked out of the window. The cart was approaching a marvel of slackcraft: a massive square of water that stood unsupported, enveloping the center of the Grand Palace. A hundred yields high and a thousand yields in length and breadth, the moat-cube was large enough to swallow fifty houses. Golden fish bigger than a child's head sluiced through crystalline turquoise.
Sonami tugged gently on the Slack, and the waters parted just enough to admit the cart. Curious fish swam around this intrusion into their habitat. The cart was headed for the innermost sanctuary of the Grand Palace, the place where only the Protector, her closest advisors, and her family were admitted. Head Abbot Sung had never seen it himself, until now.
The cart exited the water into the hollow center of the cube. A lifetime of purging emotion and base desire had not prepared the Head Abbot for the spectacle of the Protector's sanctuary. Stone floated on water, slabs of gray forming a base for a tessellation of square buildings woven out of wood of every color. Trees — cherry, willow, ash — entwined with one another, roots and branches knitting into nets through which light dappled: lantern light, dancing from the enormous paper globes that hung glowing in the air.
Then the Head Abbot realized that the trees and the buildings were one and the same. Some unknown Tensor architect had knitted living wood around stone foundations, folded them into right-angled, geometric shapes indistinguishable from traditional construction. Even the carvings on the ends of roof beams were live wood, guided into precise shape by slackcraft. Dragons and phoenixes and flaming lions lived and breathed and grew.
"It took a lot of work," said Sonami, to the Head Abbot's fresh, unbelieving intake of air.
"Did your mother do this?"
"No, I did." As the Head Abbot frowned, they added, "I, and a few others. But it was I who directed the design." The child looked out at their handiwork. "The old sanctuary was designed by someone who was purged after the riots. Mother wanted it changed."
"And she asked you to do it?"
Sonami nodded. "It was a test. I did not know it at that time, but it was."
"It's very well done."
"Mother says I have talents that are best not wasted. It's a rare gift, she says."
Sonami stopped the cart under the canopy of two intertwined cherry trees, one red and one white. As they disembarked, Sonami said, quietly, "You should not have given my mother space to interpret your request however she wished."
The child led the Head Abbot up a series of gentle stone steps. As he walked down a corridor of wood framed by windows of delicate silkscreen, the Head Abbot steeled himself. If the Protector imagined he would give up on their agreement without a fight, she was wrong. The ancient codes that governed such things ran deeper than the rivers and older than her blood. She could not throw them away so easily. To disrespect them would be to call into question the very nature of authority itself. And she, a descendant of foreign invaders into this land, would not want that.
She had promised the monastery one of her children, and she would give the monastery one of her children. The Head Abbot would see to that.
With a gesture, Sonami rolled aside the white silk door protecting their destination. Cool air gusted around the Head Abbot's ankles and neck, and enveloped him as he stepped inside.
And then he heard it: the high, thin wailing of a newborn.
A baby. A child.
The Head Abbot shut his eyes and silently recited a centering sutra before following Sonami past the privacy screens that had been set up in the room.
Protector Sanao reclined on a divan, supported by cushions of yellow silk, her face unpainted and her hair gathered cleanly in a bun on her head like a farmer girl's. She wore plain robes, the thick linen dyed dark blue, with none of the finery associated with her office. But she didn't need ornamentation to occupy the room as the sun occupies the sky.
"Venerable One," she said, her voice hard and smooth as marble, "I've brought you here to settle our debt from last summer."
The Head Abbot had already seen all he needed: the looseness of her robes, the flushed skin that spoke of her recent exertions. The mysteries that had plagued him like summer heat — her public disappearance, Sonami's cryptic remarks — unraveled like old yarn.
The Protector pointed, and one of her aides, a Tensor barely older than Sonami, ran forward to pull the red cloth off the woven basket on the table between them.
The Head Abbot knew what was in that basket, and he mentally prepared for the moment he had to look inside. Yet when that moment came, he blinked in surprise. Inside, swaddled in cloth, was not one red-faced, writhing infant, but two. One of them was crying; the other looked like it wanted to, but hadn't figured out how.
"Twins," the Protector simply said.
The Head Abbot looked at her and then back at the basket. Words would not come to him.
"You asked a blood price, and I am paying fully, and a little bit more. The fates conspired to double our blessings. Consider this gesture of generosity a measure of my gratitude for the monastery's support last year."
The crying infant stopped wailing to stare up at the Head Abbot. It had mismatched eyes, one brown, one yellowish. Its face crumpled in confusion, or some other unreadable emotion — it was only an infant, after all. Then it started crying again. Finally, the other twin joined in.
The Head Abbot's feelings swung like a pendulum. Anger at himself, for not having predicted this. Disgust at the Protector, for having done this.
The Protector folded her hands together. "They are yours now. Do with them as you wish."
"The Grand Monastery does not apprentice children younger than six," he said. And it was true. They had no facilities, no resources to deal with the unannounced arrival of two hungry newborns. "I will take them to one of the minor monasteries that has an orphanage, perhaps —"
"I did not birth these children to have them raised by nuns in some gutter district," the Protector said crisply.
Head Abbot Sung found himself at a loss for words again.
"Very well," she said. "If the Grand Monastery will not take them, I will raise them myself until they are six. You may return for them then." She gestured to the Tensor aide. "Xiaoyang."
The aide replaced the red cloth and took the basket away, disappearing behind the wall of painted silk that stood behind the Protector.
The Protector smiled at the Head Abbot like a tiger would. "I am sure you will find them adequate when you return," she said smoothly.
He stared at her.
"Do you contest the fulfillment of our agreement?"
"No, Your Eminence." He bowed in obeisance. What else could he do?
Sonami led him back out. They both settled into the cart and sat there awhile in silence.
The Head Abbot said to the somber child, "I am sorry."
Sonami shook their head. "You tried your best. Mother is Mother. She does what she wants."
"Indeed." He folded his hands together. "But I don't understand the purpose of twins." She must have had a reason for conceiving two children.
"It was an accident," Sonami said. "Conception through slackcraft has its risks."
"But why would she keep both infants?"
Sonami stared. "Mother is not infinitely cruel."
They started the cart moving again. As it slid back through the walls of water, Sonami said, "I will make sure the children are taken care of. I will look after them myself."
Their voice, although small, was cool and calm. The Head Abbot imagined that in maturity, Sonami might sound not so different from their mother.
He asked, "Will your mother allow that?"
"She will. I'll make sure of it."
The Head Abbot looked out at the marvels passing by without comment. How easily she had outmaneuvered him. He had stumbled in like a baby rabbit, eyes fused shut, and she had been the fox lying in wait, licking its chops. Here, at last, was the true face of the woman who had taken the derelict Protectorate of her ancestors — a feeble nation cowering in the shadow of almost-forgotten glories — and expanded it until her iron grip controlled more than half of known Ea.
Sonami said, "Venerable One, do you believe in the power of the fortunes?"
"Of course, child. They are what guides us and shapes the Slack."
The child nodded. "The fortunes didn't give Mother twins for no reason. That means that if there's a plan, she's not the one controlling it. And that does make me feel better." A small, brief smile overtook their face. "Perhaps this is for the best."
The Head Abbot blinked. This child, features still cushioned by the fat of innocence, spoke with the quiet confidence many took a lifetime to achieve. He had always suspected they were extraordinary, and not just because of their proficiency with slackcraft. When Sonami had first approached him with a desire to be admitted to the monastery, he had thought that with the right guidance, the child might one day grow up to take his place as Head Abbot, with all the secrets tied to that office.
Now none of them would ever know. That version of the future had been sealed off from them.
"Perhaps this is for the best," he agreed.
THE MASSIVE CART THAT came from the Great High Palace was one of those that filled the width of streets in processions, painted lucky red and silk-draped in yet more red. Head Abbot Sung stood at the top of the stairs and watched its bright, meandering passage up the road that led to the Grand Monastery. The morning fog had long since retreated from the tree-embroidered mountains that formed Chengbee's backbone, and the light breeze scattered cherry blossom petals around his sandals.
The Head Abbot stood tall, but privately he was glad that the twins were coming to him, instead of the other way around. It was a long way down the mountain, and a long way up to the Great High Palace, and in recent years his knees had begun to hurt during the morning rituals and when thunderstorms were coming. The onset of age was like a dam breaking: slowly at first, then all at once.
Sonami was the first to exit the cart, a graceful figure wrapped in a light silk dress the color of chrysanthemums and jade. She had chosen her gender the same year the twins were born and had grown well into that role. As a young woman of twenty, she had her mother's height, and the fine features of her face bore more than a passing resemblance to the Protector's.
Excerpted from "The Black Tides of Heaven"
Copyright © 2017 JY Yang.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
At first I was just going to give this 5 stars purely for world-building, but now I realize it deserves it for more than that. Like, the world-building, it's... breath-taking in a way of just imagining the effort it took to come up with everything and have the information about the world conveyed in a way that felt natural. The magic system, "the Slack," is explained in a very concise way and even if I didn't fully remember what each element did, I was still able to fully enjoy the story. The history of the land and past attempts at rebellion are presented very well. Not to mention how in this universe, all children are assumed genderless until the child decides their gender on their own (which also leads to a phenomenal description as to how it feels to realize your gender). After reading this and her other novella, Between the Firmaments, I can come to the conclusion that Yang is just a phenomenal world-builder. Not only that, but I got really intrigued by the twins. They have clear and distinct voices and personalities and we were able to see both even if this book focuses on Akeha's perspective. My realization of how much I love this novella grew slowly, but I definitely think this deserves 5 stars. It's one blemish is how it does give off an insta-love vibe, but if you can get over that, please give this a try.
Really enjoyed it.
Engaging, emotional, fascinating story set in a rich and interesting world. Would love to read more in this setting.
'The Black Tides of Heaven' is interesting in that for all that it is the story of a revolutionary, it's not the story of a revolution. Akeha is uncertain and unsure; their twin sees inescapable futures, and beside that immutability, their own existence seems almost an afterthought. Without getting in to spoilers, this is the story of their ability to choose, and how they make their own self - separate from their sister and her prophecies, their mother's oppressive Protectorate, and the confines of their own expectations about gender, relationships, politics, and love. There isn't a lot of action; after the successful test of a fearful new weapon, the scene is about the dinner their husband made for them. But the always keeps us engaged in how Akeha feels, and what his emotional landscape is like, and it's really very affecting throughout. This, and its paired novella 'The Red Threads of Fortune,' really bode well for a new fantasy world and a new set of stories there.