So my partner recently handed me the Tensorate series by Jy Yang and…Wow! That was a great decision.
The Tensorate Series consists of 4 novellas written by Jy Yang. They follow a loose timeline around the lives of the Sanao twins, Akeha and Mokoya. I love the world Yang created as a backdrop to these stories. Yang lives in Singapore, and their surroundings seem to influence their writing. Throughout each novel, we see a country, the Protectorate, that is an actual melting pot: people of various Asian backgrounds, religions, classes, all roiling together in the same stew, rubbing up against one another. There is still stratification in the Protectorate–for instance, the Kuanjin ethnicity seems to be privileged over Kebangilans and Gauris–but there is also an awareness of this in Yang’s writing that I rarely see in fictional novels. If anything, they bring the differences to the forefront to be commented upon. Characters are not shy about noticing one another’s differences and are not frowned upon for bringing it up as much as people would be in the United States. I enjoy hearing the Asian-ness in the writing.
While Yang’s writing style remains impressive throughout the series, I think the soft spot in my heart is always for Akeha’s story, The Black Tides of Heaven. This title comes from a saying that Akeha’s lover says, “The black tides of heaven director the courses of human lives…but as with all waters, one can swim against the tide” (166). Yongcheow says this to Akeha when Akeha claims his mother believes he is a mistake. Akeha is a lovable brute. Perhaps this says more about me than him, but I relate to him greatly. As a child, he is dauntless, reckless. It is interesting to watch him navigate his bond with his sister when they are children. At the time, both Mokoya and Akeha are non-binary. They live in a society that confirms gender later in life than at birth. Mokoya is clearly a controlling factor in Akeha’s life. He seems to put her wishes and desires before his own. I actually felt proud of him when he yanked the reins of his life out of Mokoya’s hands. He confirms his gender as a man (an unexpected move–none of the Protector’s other children were men), and promptly leaves the Protectorate for 18 years. To, you know, grow up and shit.
My heart breaks for him when he leaves Thennjay. Sadly, I don’t have much sympathy for Mokoya in the first book. She seems spoiled and a little ungrateful. Maybe also, it’s queerer for Thennjay to love Akeha than to love Mokoya. (I have no biases here at all, obviously). He gets just one kiss for all those feelings he has. Then he wanders into the woods to become Yongcheow’s honey and a Machinist. All in all, I think Akeha does pretty well for himself. I love a good rebellion, and it seems like a good choice to put our endearingly grumpy murderer twin in its waiting hands.
My heart breaks for him again when his niece dies. The irony of the century is when Akeha finally comes home after she dies. I remember reading that part and thinking, dammit Keha, couldn’t you have stopped being a butt-hurt little shit some time before that moment? There is something about stories that are both beautiful and sad, though. They are always the most memorable to me.
The other three novellas take us on a roller coaster of narrative styles. The Red Threads of Fortune tell us about Mokoya’s perspective after her accident. I like that Yang chose to write her in that way. She becomes a much more approachable character as a slightly broken, grieving mother than as The Prophet Of The Protectorate Married To The Head Abbot. Things I like about this book: Rider does really cool things with the slack. Mokoya fights with Thennjay Sometimes. Good to know. Mokoya and Akeha love each other. Yay. There’s a background thread of how the Machinists, the Monastery, and the Protectorate are kind of all at odds with each other, but it gets a little lost. The plot that I was most interested in was the one of intrigue and betrayal between Rider and Mokoya, and what they find out about Wanbeng.
In the third book, The Descent of Monsters, Yang takes a turn into darker secrets of the Protectorate. Of the four novellas, I thought this was the darkest one. I don’t know if it was meant to be hokey, but there are times when Chuwan Sariman is so oppositional to authority that it’s over-the-top. Granted, she does seem justified. The authorities are kind of gross in this book. They seem totally cool with sweeping the deaths of several people under the rug, not to mention the torture and abuse of several children. Maybe this was one of those Star Wars things: make really hard political themes easier to swallow with goofy and lovable main characters. The narrative style was also great, but presents a few pacing problems. For example, since we gain information through reports, interviews, and journal entries, the big reveal about the prophet-children does not feel as big as it possibly could have been. We only really know it is true at the very end. We spend a lot of time wandering around the lab, but some of it is repetitive. This is fair, since a number of the characters experience the same crime scene, but perhaps it could have been done just once–in Rider’s journal, for example–and the reader would get a feel for why covering up what happened at the lab is so horrific.
Lastly, The Ascent to Godhood takes us on a more intimate, sentimental journey. In this novella, we learn about Lady Han’s relationship with the Protector. After reading this book, my thoughts were that the Protectorate has seen some shit! Also, the Protector’s family is a riot. I’m not sure why, but I felt like pacing was again slightly off. Granted, it is a drunken monologue by Lady Han. Perhaps questionable pacing is the point. I feel the story could be improved if pacing was done more intentionally. For example, if Lady Han kept going back and forth in time, then the lurches might make sense. Again, Yang seems to skip over the parts that are truly revealing. A lot of groundwork was laid for Hemana’s betrayal of Hekate, but there didn’t seem to be as much for Hekate’s betrayal of Han. The reason is there and justified, but it comes as a small revelation, followed swiftly by the arrival of Xiuqing and Han’s escape. The end is actually more interesting to me than the beginning–and in other stories about rebellion leaders, such as Lawrence of Arabia or even The Empire Strikes Back, we get to see more of a before-and-after turning point that makes a rebellion leader. Then again, a novella is a rather different art form than a feature-length film. Perhaps the beginning–Lady Han and Hekate as young women–was all Yang wanted to get across.
In short, Yang has done some stunning work with this series. There are deep insights about gender, resistance, and being human embedded in each novella, and Yang does a great job of not hitting you over the head with some tired message. The characters in the series experience development and honest emotions like grief, fear, resentment, jealousy, and triumph. They also get to have secrets, which I feel makes them even more human and engaging. I deeply appreciate the world Yang created. Even with magic, it’s a reflection of a world that feels more real to me than that of most other books.