Review: The Black Tides of Heaven

The Black Tides of Heaven by J. Y. Yang

The Black Tides of a Heaven is a fantasy novella set in a medieval pseudo-China where magic, monsters and gunpowder co-exist. So far, so good.

The story starts by following twins, Mokoya and Akeha, who are unwanted by their empress-mother and gifted to a monastery to fulfil a political obligation. So far, still okay. We’re straying into typical fantasy tropes, here, but Yang keeps things interesting by granting Mokoya the power of prophecy; she can see snapshots of the future but can’t do anything to change it. This got me interested as, early in the book, Yang gives a couple of quick scenes showing the twins trying to avoid Mokoya’s prophesied futures. We briefly get a sense of the twins’ frustrations and anxieties as they puzzle over their seeming inability to fully understand and change the prophecies.

And then the story changes. We follow Akeha as he leaves the monastery and we don’t deal with Mokoya again until the end of the book. There are no more prophecies, no more quandaries, and what seemed to be a major plot element just disappears…

…to be replaced by romance. The last half of the book is a mish-mash of romance and vague descriptions of things that Akeha did while travelling. For example, we are told that, “[Akeha] had run from her troops. He had killed and watched others be killed. He had held the hands of dying friends, delivered bad news to grieving spouses and parents. He had seen families torn apart, watched the elderly starve, held children with all hope ripped from them.” But we never see any of this being done. We aren’t there when any of this happens; Akeha simply tells us about it. (In fact, very little actually happens in the last half of the story.)

So when the final confrontation between good and evil comes (as it must, according to this particular fantasy formula), it doesn’t carry much weight. As a character, Akeha doesn’t have much flesh on his bones and the big baddie has even less, so I didn’t care too much who won and who lost.

There are some saving graces to the book. I’m not a particular fan of romance but it is handled reasonably well here. There isn’t much depth or complexity to the emotions but the romance isn’t gratuitous or overblown.

Gender is also handled in an interesting way (LGBTQ themes run throughout the book). In short, everyone in the world of Black Tides transitions and, while this isn’t essential to the story, neither does it get in the way. The effect is that gender-fluidity seems a natural part of the background, with no need of significant explanation.

Fundamentally, though, I felt let down by the characters. The lack of depth and nuance in Mokoya and Akesha prevented me from seeing them as much more than stock characters. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in an action-oriented story but it is a serious hindrance once Yang shifts to romance. This, combined with the fact that significant plot elements are abandoned half-way through the book, left me feeling underwhelmed.

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