Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang

[Tor Novella]
★★★★☆ Rich, Complex, Rewarding

(Epic Fantasy; Tensorate) The Protector’s twin children threaten her absolute rule. Their magic is almost as strong as hers, and they pursue technology as well. (40,011 words; Time: 2h:13m)

This is the first novella in a series, but it tells a self-contained story. (Technically, this is a short novel, but it’s within the 5,000-word tolerance the Hugo Awards allow.) See related articles on Tor.com.

"," by (edited by Carl Engle-Laird), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The elaborate setting adds the most to this story. The worldbuilding is incredible, as is the author's ability to reveal it to us without resorting to infodumps but also without burdening us with too much confusion. The magic, the technology, the politics, the culture--it's all very well done. Most important, it all feels very consistent; the characters are comfortable with their world, and, as a result, so are we. It's fun watching it all come together as you read.

In particular, the complex interactions between the Protector, the Tensorate, the Monastery, and the different groups of people are fun to unravel, and the details of the magic system add a lot of color as well.

In terms of plot, this is Akeha’s story, primarily, and it tells how he grew up, accepted his own nature, and reached an accommodation with his mother. The sweep of the novella, covering 35 years of his life, is quite impressive.

Figuring out the gender system is a good bit of the fun, although this novella doesn't quite explain it fully. One possible interpretation that seems consistent is to assume that everyone is born in a female body, but that those who choose to be male are later transformed by a magic spell. This is consistent with the text that described how the spell changed Akeha's hips when he chose to be a man, and it also explains why Yongcheow has to wear compression bandages (to hide his breasts) because he skipped the transformation for some reason.

Con: Much of the gender system goes unexplained and remains confusing. How does reproduction work in this world when Mother seems never to have been involved with a man?

There are a lot of loose ends in this story. For example, what was the point of the weapons cache and why was it guarded by one of the last kirins in the world? What are the rebels hoping to replace the Protectorate with? Democracy? Oligarchy? Magocracy?

Other Reviews: Search Web, GoodReads.com
JY Yang Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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17 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. We deleted a comment for violating our commenting policy, which says "Obviously-bad comments, such as spam, personal attacks, off-topic rants, etc. or comments which use abusive or disrespectful language are subject to deletion without notice."

  2. "They" as a singular pronoun is already in use in the real world, and has been since Jane Austin's day. New ideas are the spice of science fiction and fantasy, and some people like things spicier than others, but "they" as a singular pronoun is ...fairly mild.

    1. As a linguist, I'll admit there's something interesting about the "singular-specific" use of "they," which is not something used in English in the past.

      You're thinking of the "singular-indefinite they," which is used when either the gender is unknown or even the individual. For example, "Does everyone have their papers?" Or "Someone was outside. They knocked on the door."

      I'm fine with those usages, for the most part, although I favor using "he or she" instead for various reasons.

      The problem is with using "they" for a specific person not to indicate unknown gender but rather to indicate a new, third gender. This is the usage I can't seem to get used to, and I'm not alone. It just clashes too strongly with the other uses of "they."

      It doesn't help that authors who do this have a bad habit of providing little or no physical description of the person involved. I end up visualizing the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Someone else told me she visualizes three raccoons in a raincoat.

      Of course, it is supposed to be fantasy . . .

    2. I hate singular-indefinite they. Singular-specific they is even more frustrating, though, because it leaves more ambiguity in the sentence than is necessary. "They called me back yesterday" could refer to my nonbinary friend, but it could also refer to my two young cousins who were checking up on me and called together. Gender is important to get right because it conveys a meaning, but so is number!

      Since people don't like the already existing gender-neutral pronoun "it", I am in favor of making up a gender-neutral pronoun that can replace singular they in all instances. Common suggestions have included ze/hir, xe/xem, and ey/em.

      Even ignoring the existence of nonbinary people (since most people aren't nonbinary), we need a functional non-gendered singular term that isn't they. "He" has historically been used, but it's sexist to insist on continuing that. "He or she" is awkward. And "they" is confusing.

    3. What I like about "he or she" is that it explicitly mentions women. I don't think you can include people by leaving them out, and I suspect any single replacement will end up meaning "he" eventually.

      Something I haven't seen anyone do is create a new pronoun that is not irregular. We handle the irregularity of he/him/his and she/her/hers because we use them so heavily, but a new, unfamiliar word really needs to be regular.

      So suppose we decided to use "kai". Then we'd say "Kai is here." "Give it to kai." And "This is kai's." Pick any syllable, but give it the morphology of a common name, and I suspect people will adjust to it much more easily.

      Now if I could just find a writer willing to give it a try. :-)

    4. I hadn’t ever seen the distinction made before regarding pronouns for a specific known person rather than pronouns for a single person who is not known. Is this something that appears in other languages, that a pronoun that is acceptable when a person is “generic” is never acceptable when the person is specific?
      In any case, I would point out that using pronouns often has the ambiguity that Silver Shoelaces brings up. “He called me back yesterday” is only specific if only one person using he pronouns called you yesterday. Likewise she.
      Pronoun antecedent connection is always important of course, and it is marginally more difficult when using singular they, especially since the current audience expects they to be plural and unlearning those habits of thought is difficult. It’s still doable, however and a good writer can construct sentences that don’t tangle you up over a pronoun’s antecedents.
      What I don’t like about “he or she” is that “he” goes first. If you advocated using “she” for anyone whose gender was not known and “she or he” when the writer was making sure to be inclusive, that would be better about explicitly mentioning women.
      And “I handed kai kai’s book and kai thanked me” seems really awkward, compared to “I handed kim ker book and ke thanked me.” I suppose that’s a matter of taste, and possibly experience; you’ll have to find an author whose tastes match yours. Perhaps one who isn’t comfortable with singular they but whose objections are purely based on linguistics and not due to discomfort with non binary people or a society in which gender isn’t considered particularly important. :-)

    5. The way I look at it, the problem with trying to extend the meaning of "they" is that it fights with both the syntax and semantics the reader has grown up with.

      The trouble with "ke" and "ker" is that it fights with morphology and makes you learn new semantics.

      The advantage of "kai" is that it only makes you learn new semantics; it leverages the morphology and syntax the reader already knows.

      A separate problem with singular-definite "they" is that it messes you up for the next story you read. Every time you read "they" you do a double take for fifteen minutes or so.

      As for other languages, the issue isn't really with what can be done but rather with what is done. Trying to give new meaning to a very common word in a closed category is going to be very, very hard if you didn't grow up with it. Using a brand new word at least means you aren't fighting with the reader. Anything is going to feel awkward at first. The question is how long it takes before it starts to seem natural. In the case of singular-definite "they," I've decided the answer is "never." (For me, at least, but also for others.) This is going to limit the potential audience for stories with non-binary characters. There needs to be a better solution.

      Another advantage of a word like "kai" is that you could distinguish between the pronoun for children (who are neuter in the story) vs. one for adult non-binary people. (This comes up in the sequel.) Using the same pronoun for both creates the uncomfortable impression that the protagonist is romancing a child. Using, say, "kai" and "zee" would nicely split the two.

      As for authors who don't like (or believe in) non-binary people, I suspect those folks aren't very likely to have a non-binary character in the first place. :-)

  3. Also regarding the transition aspects of the story


    I got the impression that children are socially neuter until they choose and confirm a gender (and that usually that confirmation is socially intended to take some time to give the newly gendered person time to decide for sure if they are comfortable in that gender), but not biologically neuter—with the possible exception of delayed puberty, which isn’t specifically referred to but would make physical transition easier for those who do so.
    Specifically for Yeongchow the story refers to “compression bandages” that he was wearing before he got injured and that he shouldn’t wear again until after he healed—I took these to be a binder to confine his breasts. Also the story refers to Akeha’s hips aching after seeing the confirmation doctors—I took this to mean that his pelvis had been altered to be more male-like.
    So FWIW I don’t see any reason to think that human biology is massively altered in this story. I think it is simply that the physical attributes of a child are not considered important to their gender. The physical attributes of an adult are apparently a different matter, at least to some section of society, or Yeongchow would not have considered it necessary to warn Akeha that he had never chosen to see the confirmation doctors.
    Sorry about the second comment; it took me a minute to figure out that I could turn the screen upside down :-)

    1. I rewrote that part of the review to eliminate some objectionable material and (while I was at it) to incorporate your info about the bandages.

  4. Edited as discussed in the article "Apology & Open Letter Responses."

    We have left most of this comment thread intact, because it was a discussion in good faith, but it should be clear to everyone by now that the use of “non-binary they” has become universal and it’s not helpful to discuss alternatives anymore.

  5. I believe your word count may be inaccurate, and I'm wondering how you came up with it. I've counted the words in this manuscript (both the retail version as well as a copy provided directly by the publisher) in several word processors, and the count was under 40k every time. It's close, but with extraneous material, including the excerpt and author biography removed, it came in at novella length. You may want to double-check.

    1. I just checked my copy from Kobo with LibreOffice (converting it to an rtf file with calibre and cutting out all extraneous beginning and ending stuff) and got exactly 40,011 words as well. It's still close enough to considered a novella.

    2. Sure. The novella is sold on the Amazon Kindle without digital rights management (DRM) software, so it's simple to import it into Calibre and convert it to a Word (DOCX) document. Then I open the document with Office 365 and select all the text starting from "PART ONE MOKOYA" and continuing to "As long as there was love, there would be hope. It was enough." It comes to 40,011 words.

    3. @Laura: It's an issue because the Nebula awards do not have any leeway. If it's really 40,011 words, then it's ineligible for the Nebula. I've had correspondance from other people on this issue. SFWA really ought to add at least a 1% margin on this.

    4. Oh! I didn't know that -- I was thinking Hugo rules. I'll take another look when I get a chance. I know LibreOffice will count things like little doohickies separating scenes as words.

    5. Ok, discovered that scene breaks were separated with 3 asterisks, counting as 3 words. Did a find & replace with nothing and the word count was reduced to 39,951.

  6. This was at best a 3 for me. Started well and gradually went downhill.