And back to a book club book! It feels ages since I did one of these. And this one is kinda cheating, because it was my nomination, and I would totally have read it anyway, even if it didn’t win. But hey ho.
The thing that lured me in (other than the good reviews I kept seeing) about this is how the “series” is set up. The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven aren’t set in a sequence, per se, but rather exist as two complementary books set in the same universe. They were released on the same day, and are both novella length, and definitely related, but what all the blurbs told me is that they were a series exactly. And well, that intrigues me, as a conceit. Also the Kindle book was so cheap. Given that neither of the two books technically comes first (and at the time, I did not know that The Black Tides of Heaven is billed as #1 on Goodreads)… I may have made an arbitrary choice about which to read, entirely based on the fact that red is my favourite colour. Never let it be said that I am not a shallow woman.
Speaking of which, the other thing that really lured me into reading this/the other one is just how stunningly beautiful the cover art is. It makes me tempted to buy them in hard copy just to possess them, which I may yet do if I like the other as much as this one. But they’re both just LOVELY and I am, as I have said before, a sucker for a good cover.
And, as quite often happens in these cases, I was not disappointed by the pretty book. I really, genuinely enjoyed it.
We follow a woman called Mokoya who is struggling with the losses in her life and running away from it all to a dangerous line of work in the wilderness – hunting naga, dangerous, flying predators. She’s a trained Tensor (able to manipulate the stuff of the world) and very able to handle herself, but is plagued with visions of her past and drifting, uncontrollable emotions that make her unstable and troubled. We watch as one of her naga hunts leads her back to the stuff of her life before, and into something bigger and wider-reaching. As a basic plot premise, it’s not the newest thing ever, but the execution is what lets it rise above. Mokoya is brilliantly written as a deeply troubled woman struggling with her life and her own thoughts – there is something horrible and compelling about watching her try to stuff away her intrusive thoughts with recitations, with how often it happens and how deeply it affects her, even before you know the full extent of the source of those thoughts and feelings.
What strikes me most about Yang’s portrayal of Mokoya is how they’ve managed to make her both so unpredictable and yet believable, and still someone we sympathise with, all in so little space. The book is only a novella – 208 pages I believe in hard copy – and yet we get fully acquainted with Mokoya as a person and a perspective, and I very keenly want to read more about her.
And she’s not a solo character either. There’s a decent supporting cast who likewise manage to push forward as real and compelling people with a small amount of page time, from Adi, the quiet, pragmatic hunting-team leader, Akeha, Mokoya’s restless brother, the mysterious Rider, and Thennjay, the head of the Monastery where Tensors train, with his seemingly unlimited calm and patience. I love Thennjay… quite a lot. He’s the sort of character I tend to enjoy anyway (see whatsisname the kindly professor in The Black Magician Trilogy), but it’s a very well executed example of the type, and we get some really compelling insight on what might be below the surface of his calm later on from Mokoya.
The plot is great too. Sure, it’s not hugely convoluted – because it’s novella length – but it does what it does in the space it has at a reasonable, measured pace and without feeling like it’s making leaps over necessary parts in order to cram more in. It definitely feels like it’s the length it was meant to be, and it does a lot but not too much with what it’s got. Sure, like a lot that’s going on, it’s not the most stunningly, never before-seen, shocking thing out there. But it avoids being tropey and it does what it does incredibly well (and I say this as someone not always super keen on the novella as a form – I tend to finish them feeling unsatisfied – but this one feels properly complete).
The things it does do particularly worth noting are firstly the gender stuff. It’s only touched on slightly a few times, but this is a world in which children are not assigned gender at birth or otherwise by someone else. They are accorded gender neutral “they” pronouns until they reach an age (unspecified in this but I believe discussed in The Black Tides of Heaven) wherein they make their own decision about their gender. I like this as a system, and a concept. One of the characters – Rider – is also identified as taking “they” pronouns, but their form of “I” (this is as discussed, very much intimating to the reader that this novel’s dialogue is “in translation”, rather than a different form in the English) is one which has an archaic adult gender-neutral form. This hints at more about the world in terms of its gendering system, and I hope the other book will clue me in on this (why yes, I’m gonna read it pretty promptly, it’s already sitting on my Kindle).
Secondly, it’s woo, non-Western world-building time again. The internet specifically tells me that The Read Threads of Fortune is “silkpunk”, which I’d not heard of before but which apparently Ken Liu used to describe The Grace of Kings:
Like steampunk, silkpunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes as its inspiration the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity.
The Red Threads of Fortune is a little more technologically advanced in some ways (as Yang themself puts it, especially in the areas of biotechnology), but very much draws on similar aesthetics and the authors own cultural background.
I really, really love the world they’ve built, more than anything else about this novella. The magic system is fascinating, in the way that sometimes they are when someone hits on just that right note – see Garth Nix’s bell system, for instance – and I just want to keep reading more. It’s got that balance between codified logic, with its five natures and the rules Mokoya chants to herself when she needs to calm down, but with intuitive leaps and things even the characters don’t seem to understand, but sit well with the reader as just… making sense. I don’t want a Sanderson-style chart at the back of my book with everything thoroughly explained… but I like the feeling that there’s some logic behind it all, even if the characters themselves don’t know it all. There needs to be mystery, and that feeling of “well, it just makes sense so let’s go with it”, and the Tensors are precisely that, from the very little we see of it through Mokoya.
Essentially, it’s a fantastic, wonderfully executed novella and one that absolutely inspires me to read the companion novella and seek out more by Yang. I’m really glad I nominated it for book club… if slightly amused that one of the shorter books I’ve read this year has produced one of the longer posts.