Category Archives: Novella

The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

It was my turn to pick a book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after we’d read quite a few lengthy stories, I decided to go for a novella. I checked out the shortlists from the 2018 Hugo Awards, and this book looked the most interesting.

“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang is a fantasy novella, is the first in a trilogy of silkpunk novellas called the “Tensorate” series. It begins with twins Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, who grow up in the Grand Monastery in the Protectorate after given away by their mother as newborns to settle a debt. Raised genderfree like all children of the Protectorate, the twins are especially close. However, as their gifts develop, the reach adulthood and politics shift, the twins find that their once unbreakable bond pulled to its limits.

This is a really interesting novella with a setting that I absolutely adored. The magic system, the Slack, was intriguing and the twins were a great way to explore the limits of different kinds of powers. The premise of children being raised genderfree was really interesting as well, as well as the ability for children to affirm their gender as adults.  Yang has a sparse but compelling style of writing and it was so refreshing to read fantasy set somewhere that wasn’t based on medieval Europe. I was so excited to cook some themed food for my book club, and I scoured the novella for references to food and built the menu around that.

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I think, however, that this is one of the very rare times that I felt like the book was too short. Not too short in that it ended abruptly, but too short in the way a piano accordion is short when compressed and there’s a lot that’s folded away out of sight. The story ranges from the twins’ birth to their adulthood, but it skips along so quickly that it did feel a little hard to get invested in the characters. Yang clearly has a lot in mind for their world the Tensorate, and I think that there was enough to this book that they could go back and beef it up with more characterisation and worldbuilding.

I would also like to say something about pronouns. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that use gender-neutral pronouns like “Ancillary Justice” and “The Left Hand of Darkness“. In the former, Leckie uses she to refer to everyone, and in the latter le Guin uses he. Yang uses they, which I have seen used and used myself online and in my personal life. However, there were a couple of moments where the meaning wasn’t immediately clear from context whether Yang was referring to one twin in a gender-neutral singular, or whether Yang was referring to both twins with a plural. The English language is, unfortunately, very clunky when it comes to pronouns. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m almost wondering, especially in a book set in a world inspired by cultures in Asia, whether or not it might have been better to just abandon English pronouns altogether and pick a pronoun from a language that already has gender neutral pronoun. Indonesian, for example, uses the pronoun dia for everyone regardless of gender.

Anyway, this was an interesting and creative story that I felt could have been easily expanded into a full novel. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkein, this is a good place to start and I’m keen to read more of Yang’s work.

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The Black Tides of Heaven (Kindle)

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The Fish Girl

This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.

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“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.

This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.

I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.

This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Novella