A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Tensorate Series
by Neon Yang

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 18, 2018
Edits & addenda on August 5, 2018, August 20, 2020, & September 21, 2021

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Several reasons for updating this page, although I am not editing any of my comments below about the various titles in this series, at least not now. Today, September 21, 2021, marks the new edition's publication, in both paperback and e-book (purchase links above). It collects all four novellas into one omnibus volume. I have not seen any information to indicate they have been edited, or any extra story included, but if that turns out to be the case I will mention that later. If you haven't read any of this series, which I highly recommend, this is a great deal. All four are still available individually, and I'm leaving the links for them, but at much higher prices than this omnibus. Even if you only have one or two of them, the collection is still a great deal. The other reason for the update is to include new cover images which show the author now publishes as Neon Yang; previously JY Yang.

1. The Black Tides of Heaven / 2. The Red Threads of Fortune / 3. The Descent of Monsters / 4. The Ascent to Godhood

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There are a growing number of Asian writers in the SF/F genres the past few years. Of course, there have always been many, but I'm talking about ones getting published in the West. JY Yang is from Singapore, but I don't know where they currently live. They have had careers in molecular biology, journalism, and in writing for animated features, comics, and games. They graduated from the Clarion West writing program in 2013, and in 2015 earned an MA in Creative Writing at a UK university. They have published over two dozen stories in the past few years, mainly for online journals, but a few are available on Kindle. If I'm not mistaken, this is their first fiction to receive a print edition, except for a few that have appeared in anthologies. The links I'll provide are for paperbacks, but they are also available on Kindle, and I assume for all other e-readers too.

These stories fall within the sub-genre of "silkpunk," a term I believe I first heard in relation to Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings a couple of years ago. I'm sure most readers are familiar with cyberpunk and steampunk and what they entail. Silkpunk features stories set in Asian countries, either historical or contemporary, or in an alternate history context, or else in a fantasy realm reminiscent of Asian cultures. The Tensorate series is set on the planet Ea, which is either in a multi-star system, or else its rotation is much faster than normal. The sun (or suns) rise and set six times each "day." Another anomaly is that some areas of the planet experience different gravitational forces. The Quarterlands in the southern hemisphere has lower gravity, but not much else is known about it. Rumors say animals grow much larger there than in the north, but I'm not sure about the humans who dwell there. We only meet one person from that area (I think), but they are an orphan who only spent a portion of their life there. You can see a map and read descriptions of the various regions here.

The Black Tides of Heaven introduces us to the Protectorate, the ruling government of these lands, with its capital in the city of Chengbee in Kuanjin Province. The supreme leader is the Protector, the Lady Sanao Hekate, whom in the first chapter presents to Head Abbot Sung of the Grand Monastery her blood debt promised after he helped suppress an uprising the year before. He had expected it to be her child Sonami, at that time fifteen years old and not yet having chosen their gender. Instead, it is the newly born twins, Mokoya and Akeha. Sung says they are too young to be brought into his order, so it is decided they will stay in the care of Sonami until they are six. The next time we see Sonami she has chosen her gender. That choice is left to the individual, and there is no set time for it. Some make the choice at a very young age, such as Sonami's son when he was only three. The twins do not choose until they are seventeen. Mokoya chooses to be female, Akeha male. After the choice, one can undergo transitional surgery if they wish, but it is not required, and a choice also does not obligate them to any specific sexual orientation. Shortly after his choosing, Akeha leaves Chengbee. There are several reasons for that, one of them being he is attracted to the man Mokoya has chosen as a mate.

The major fantasy element is that of the Tensorate, a cadre of people trained to channel the forces of the Slack. That is described in a way that made me think of the various elemental benders in Avatar: the Last Airbender, although in this case there are five different "natures" of the Slack; earth, water, fire, metal, and forests. "Air" seems to be incorporated into the fire nature ("Know it through the rising of the air and the melt of winter ice, the nature of things that gives them their temperature.") Another way to look at it is like the Force from the Star Wars universe, which is described as an energy field that is everywhere, binding the universe together. The First Sutra (mantra) of the Tensors is, "The Slack is all, and all is the Slack. It knows no beginning and no end, no time and no space. All that is, exists through the grace of the Slack. All that moves, moves through the grace of the Slack." The Protector and all of her children, all of the royal palace, are trained as Tensors. Their powers can be used in various ways, as a weapon, to power transportation devices, or something as simple as lighting a room. Another fantasy element is that at an early age Mokoya was blessed (or cursed) with prophetic visions. They were unable to alter events they had witnessed, and when the Protector learns of this, she brings the twins back to the palace. A device is able to record the visions, and even though the Protector and her advisors learn they also cannot affect the outcome, they can at least study the visions so as to be prepared for the aftermath.

The narrative goes through several time jumps, with Part One covering the twins' birth through their formative years at the monastery. In Part Two they are seventeen, and that ends with Akeha's departure. Part Three is in their twenty-ninth year, and focuses on Akeha's activities before and after he encounters a group knowns as the Machinists. They have discovered the scientific principles of electricity and chemistry, among others, and are determined to overthrow the Protectorate. Some of the Machinists are disaffected Tensors, so they are able to utilize both disciplines. Part Four is when they are thirty-five, and it ends with Akeha returning to Chengbee after a tragic accident. Mokoya had married Thennjay, originally an itinerant circus performer, whom they had seen in a vision as the new Head Abbot. Thennjay is obstinant enough to defy several of the Protector's directives, also going against his order's traditional vow of chastity. He and Mokoya, who has gone back to the monastery with him, also align with a Machinist cell. A tragic event brings Akeha back to Chengbee, one which will also drive a wedge between him and his sister, and between his sister and her husband, but I won't spoil that.

The Black Tides of Heaven did not win any awards that I'm aware of, but it was a finalist for many; Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus, Tiptree, Kitchies, and Gaylactic Spectrum.

On an off-topic note, I've shown the author's name as it is on the books, as well on their website. I'm sure the J and Y are initials, rather than their name being Jy, and in one place on their site they are identified as just J. I don't know if that is typical for Asian names. Goodreads has them listed using the traditional periods for initals. My original comments concerning the author's name are now moot. As mentioned above, they publish now as Neon Yang.


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The Red Threads of Fortune begins about four years later. I won't spoil the event which has caused Mokoya to leave Chengbee and her husband. She is in the Gusai Desert in search of a rumored naga, which is described in such a way as to evoke images of a dragon. She does encounter one, although it is not as large as had been reported. She tracks it to its cave lair where she discovers its human companion, who identifies themself as Rider, who says there is a much larger naga in the area that they have also been tracking. When it does appear it attacks the nearby capital city of Batanaar. By this time both Akeha and Thennjay have reached the area with a contingent of Machinists, but word also comes that the Protector is sending her Tensor troops.

Mokoya has to deal with conflicting reports about the origin of the giant naga and who is controlling it. She vacillates between believing it is Princess Wanbeng, daughter of Batanaar's raja, or maybe Tan Khimyan, the raja's chief advisor, who throws suspicion onto Rider. I won't reveal the answer. Mokoya eventually figures it out, and also thinks she knows how to counter the latest vision she's had. It involves a technique Rider taught her, and in utilizing it she not only defeats the naga, she averts the death of someone she loves. Again, I don't want to spoil anything, but I was expecting another event to occur, but it didn't, or at least it hasn't yet. If I was able to do what Rider, and now Mokoya can do, and if it's possible to alter the technique to not only encompass space, but also time, I know exactly what I would do in the situation. We'll have to wait to see.

Both of these are novellas, released on the same day last year. I've seen them identified as stand-alone stories, but I don't agree. The first focuses more on Akeha, the second on Mokoya. If they covered roughly the same time period from different perspectives it probably wouldn't matter, but the second follows the first in chronology. Black Tides should definitely be read first, and Mx. Yang says the same. Not sure about something else they've said, which is if anyone cares to nominate either for awards they would prefer it be Black Tides. I'm assuming that is to avoid each cancelling the other for a spot on the ballot. I liked both. It might seem odd, me being male, but I identified more with Mokoya, but that might have more to do with the trauma she has endured, and the way she has coped, or in some cases avoided coping with it. I still have quite a bit of short fiction to read before I make my final Hugo nominations, but these are in contention for novellas at this time. On a negative note, I think they both suffer from not being incorporated into one novel, which could have been expanded to give more background information on how the Tensorate started, since there had been other cultures before that. I would also have liked an expansion of the Machinists' history and all they have created.

The author is queer and non-binary, so it's no surprise they handle the gender distinctions and different romantic pairings with sincerity, subtlety, and compassion, while also presenting them as just a matter of fact. There are moments of passion and tenderness, but also anxiety based on the decisions and actions of various characters. Both stories are well written, with good character development, except for the Protector herself. How did she come to power, and how long ago? What caused her indifference to the fates of her children, her cruelty to her constituents? We might get that if any future story is a prequel. Another title is up for pre-order. The Descent of Monsters will be released July 31. If the information at Amazon is correct, it is quite a bit shorter than the first two, so I'm not sure if it is also novella length. Other than noticing the title and availability, I avoided reading any blurb or synopsis about it. Based on the strength of what I've just read, I will be following Mx. Yang and whatever they produce in the future. At the appropriate time, I will add to this review.

EDIT: I nominated both of these for a Hugo, but only Black Tides made the final ballot. Red Threads' sole nomination was for a Locus award. I don't know the word counts for the individual stories, but the first two have been verified as novellas, and the author says the same for the third. For SF award purposes, a novella ranges between 17,500-40,000 words. The third title has not yet been added to the 2018 Nebula recommended reading list for any category. Then again, neither have several novels I've read that definitely belong there.


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(Posted August 5, 2018)
The Descent of Monsters, which was a finalist for Locus and Lambda awards, is written in a different style than the previous stories. Most of it is detailed in either private journals, or in letters to and from several Tensors involved in an investigation into what happened at the Rewar Teng Institute of Experimental Methods, and why the Protectorate seems to be trying to bury the investigation. Other sections include (heavily redacted) transcripts of interrogations of the suspects, the only two humans discovered alive in the complex: Akeha and Rider. That surprised me, since I figured if anyone was going to be working with Rider it would be Mokoya, but we don't find out why she wasn't until later. I think it had been at least a year since the conclusion of the second novella. The institute had apparently been conducting experiments on various animal species, perhaps trying to produce hybrids. A very large naga was found dead in a cave underneath the institute, and that is also where Akeha and Rider had been found.

I almost stopped reading at that point, since I thought I might have forgotten something from the end of Red Threads about why Mokoya was not with Rider, and also wondered if the naga was the same as they had fought earlier, which I recalled they had killed. I didn't stop though, since this was a short read, but immediately went back and re-read the two previous stories, and also read Descent again. It was not the same naga, in fact was a much larger one, and it seemed to have been a hybrid of naga and raptor, a large bird like an eagle or falcon, one of which Mokoya kept as a pet. I confirmed on re-reading that this was the first time a date was mentioned, that of 1062, and I assume that is from the establishment of the Protectorate, but I'm not positive.

Rider suspected the Tensors were also experimenting on human children, and had come to the institute in search of their long lost twin. That was never mentioned in the previous story, so it may be something the author thought of later. On their approach to the complex Rider saw signs of death and destruction, leading them to think a large predator had escaped from the institute. Rider arrived even before the official Protectorate investigators, but apparently not before some of the Tensor scientists made their escape. How else to explain that hundreds of people and animals were killed and facilities destroyed, but no journals or records of experiments are found? Rider hopes that means that if there were children there, some may have been spirited away before the major destruction, and if so that their sibling survived. The primary investigator is stone-walled at every turn, every inquiry for more information. She isn't even allowed to visit the site, instead has to rely on second-hand reports, most of them clearly missing vital details.

There is a conclusion of sorts, but only for the main questions concerning the institute. There is obviously more story to tell, which seems to be building toward a war between the Protectorate and the Machinists. There are those who don't belong to either faction, but I'm sure they will still be forced to choose a side. For those who might think my reviews are more synopsis than analysis, I've only touched on an overview of the major plot points. There's so much emotion behind the characters, which is the most rewarding part, so hopefully I've just whet your appetite for more exploration. No word yet on another title, how many to expect, or what length they'll be. I do want to continue with the story, but I'd prefer a novel to conclude it. At least the Kindle files have been inexpensive, and I got the first one on sale, so I've spent less than $10. They're worth much more, and if my budget would allow I'd buy the paperbacks too, because I know I'll want to read this series several more times. All are recommended, but Red Threads is still my favorite.


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(Posted August 20, 2020)
It has been more than a year since The Ascent to Godhood was published, and about eleven months since I purchased it for Kindle. Not sure why it took me so long to get to it. It is the shortest yet, but apparently still a novella, since that is the category for which it was nominated for a Locus award this year. It came in ninth place. It is again different in style than the others. This time it is one character relating past events to someone else while getting drunk in a bar. We don't find out until later that the listener knew, perhaps was related to, the investigator in the previous story. The narrator is Lady Han, former associate of Protector Sanao Hekate, later an ally of the Machinists. I had wanted a prequel about how the Protectorate started, which we don't get here, but we do learn how Hekate came to power.

I'm puzzled by the title though. Who ascends to godhood? I can't recall any previous mention that the Protectors were considered gods, and there is nothing here to indicate it either. The page on the author's website concerning this series hasn't been updated since before this was published, and at that time the title was The Ascent to Heaven. So who ascended to heaven, who became a god? It's not clear, unless the position of Protector is considered such, or else it's just a generic belief in an afterlife, but still, to whom does the title refer? I do like it, but this question is just one of my frustrations. I had expected more of an elaboration on the conclusion of the previous story, but it gets the briefest mention, and it was not what I expected. Lady Han (not her real name) was sold by her family when she was about twelve. The man who bought her takes her and several other country girls to the capital of Chengbee, where she is again sold to a woman who trains girls to be dancers, musicians, and escorts; geishas essentially. She attracts the attention of Hekate, the oldest daughter of the current Protector, who gives her her new name, and a new purpose. Lady Han becomes one of many of Hekate's concubines, but also helps her to obtain information about rival families and businessmen. The rest plays out like a fantasy version of I Claudius or House of Cards. Mistrust, subterfuge, blackmail, and murder eventually places Hekate at the head of the Protectorate. No wonder she was so cruel to her children, and the country as a whole. Those traits seem to have been embedded in her DNA.

I spent a day re-reading the other stories before this one, which makes at least four times for the first two, three for the third. I will read them all again one of these days, even if there are no further additions. Red Threads is still my favorite, but I can't say I'm disappointed by the others, except that the last two did not progress in the way I had anticipated. The style of the first two is more lyrical, the others mundane, since the third consists of reports and reflections of scientists, and the fourth narrator is, or at least began her life as, a simple country girl. My original ratings for all of them at Goodreads was four stars, but I've upgraded the first two to five stars. All are recommended.


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Neon Yang


Detailed in review

Purchase Links for paperbacks:
Black Tides
Red Threads

Black Tides
Red Threads