I talk a lot about using different gender systems for fantasy and sci-fi worlds, so when I read The Black Tides of Heaven by J. Y. Yang, I was excited from the start. In this first novel from J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate series, Akeha and Mokoya, twin children of the Protector (their mother) navigate a dangerous political climate where those with magical skill are the ruling class under the Protector. When the twins discover Mokoya’s gift of foresight, the twins find themselves as pawns in their mother’s plots. J. Y. Yang is a nonbinary, Singaporean author who has published a number of works published in speculative fiction magazine; this silkpunk high fantasy novella series is their first long series. In the Black Tides of Heaven, J. Y. Yang develops a gender system that is vastly different from our modern day dynamics, but just as strict.
In this world, people are treated genderlessly as children–using they/them pronouns–before they eventually have to “confirm” as either a man or a woman, with magic to aide in the process. This is a gender system that we in the modern day do not have, which is why it’s so interesting. For Mokoya, confirmation comes easily, changing from neutral to feminine in her late teens. Akeha, on the other hand, remains neutral for longer than Mokoya. What struck me most about Akeha’s experience was a feeling of passivity that I saw in them before their confirmation. Their passivity seemed to tie into both their lack of importance to their mother and into their status as unconfirmed at the time. It would not surprise me to discover that J. Y. Yang intended for that passivity to be a part of the gender role of being unconfirmed. In many ways, they are a voyeur to the events of their teenage years, particularly when they discover that their sibling wants to confirm individually, rather than sort through the process (or ignore it!) together. Right from the beginning, Yang created a complex dynamic that–though it has some similarities with our own gender roles–is different and intriguing.
Going further, J. Y. Yang shows us the people left to the wayside in this system, paralleling the pressures to conform to a certain ideal in our own world. In the first two chapters, we see Sanao Sonami who uses her confirmation as a bargaining chip in order to raise her younger siblings Mokoya and Akeha. She promises the Protector grandchildren: confirmation as a woman has a specific use, in an eerie sort of way. We also, much later, see Yongcheow who chose not to confirm of their own free will. Akeha, though, is the primary example of this “outsider” mentality: just as they decide to confirm, they refer to the decision and the feelings involved as “different. Not right, exactly, but there was something there.” (119) Not to mention, the choice to confirm was made shortly after feeling the pressure of Mokoya’s impending confirmation. Yang produced an incredibly realistic system that takes into account the influences of magic, culture, and some humans’ desires to fit people into boxes.
It was for all of these reasons that I completely fell in love with The Black Tides of Heaven, and why I cannot wait to get to the store to pick up The Red Threads of Fortune. Between the detailed world, the well-developed characters, the riveting plot, and–honestly–the beautiful cover artwork, there’s no way I’m not going to get the rest of the series. I would recommend this to both trans and cis people–especially budding speculative fiction writers intending to approach transness. Now I’m just counting the days till I can get my hands on volume two!
The Black Tides of Heaven by J. Y. Yang
Publisher: Tor.com (2017)
Paperback: Around $13
Number of Pages: 240
Content Warnings: Violence, warfare, gore, death, gender pressure, gender dysphoria, emotional manipulation. Trans people do not die in this novel, but they do live dangerously.