“The saying goes, ‘The black tides of heaven direct the courses of human lives.’ To which a wise teacher said ‘But as with all waters, one can swim against the tide’ […] I chose to swim. So can you.”
I know that people always say you aren’t supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, but with cover-art that gorgeous how could you not immediately want to pick it up and investigate? I am always eager to read fantasy literature whose settings draw inspiration from countries, cultures and histories that deviate from the often medieval-European standard that many western readers are accustomed to, so this novella definitely jumped out at me as something that I should take a look at! The story follows Mokoyo and Akeha, a set of twins who were sold to a monastery as infants by their cold and calculating mother, The Protector (their nation’s ruler). In a world where people have the ability to manipulate an all-encompassing magical/cosmic force referred to as “the Slack” to perform various fantastical feats, the twins soon discover that Mokoyo has the rare prophetic gift of being able to see visions of the future. With their mother eager to take advantage of this unique ability to squash a rising rebellion, the ensuing plot explores how both twins struggle to forge their own identities without losing one-another, and while I thought that it’s more limited novella-length format created some issues in terms of general development and pacing, it was still a great read.
I would say that the first half of this approx. 200+ page novella does a pretty good job at balancing the time allotted to each of the twins, and it was really sweet seeing how much the they emotionally depended on each other (especially considering that said portion of the book pertained to their childhood and early-adolescence). However, as they enter adulthood and a rift begins to form between them, the narrative focuses significantly more on Akeha. I felt this was generally to the text’s benefit though, as it gave Akeha a much greater opportunity for character development and, subsequently, made them my favorite character. Unfortunately, the result of this was that Mokoyo’s story and character felt a lot less fleshed out in comparison, but it’s my understanding that J.Y. Yang’s companion novella “The Red Threads of Fortune” has a much greater focus on them. While I thought that the situations and conflicts that these siblings faced were pretty interesting, they’re personalities weren’t especially captivating, and (for me) this applied to most of the side characters as well. However, I understand that the smaller-sized format of a novella does limit an author’s abilities to go super in-depth with every character’s background, motivations and development.
While the pacing was a bit inconsistent in this book, I appreciated that it never dragged. Yes, there were certain sections that were comparatively slower than others, but a novella only has so much time to attempt to tell a complete and satisfying narrative, so things have to be kept moving. The first half, which (as previously stated) focused on the twins’ youth, I felt kept things going at a decent pace, but in the novella’s latter half there were times when I experienced reader whiplash from how fast events were suddenly moving (even by novella standards). There were romances in this book as well that I felt were a bit rushed in their development, but this wasn’t a huge complaint for me, as each respective love interest was fairly likable and their relationships were nice and refreshingly drama-free.
For me, this novella’s greatest strength was it’s setting, that appeared to draw influence from several Asian cultures (although I’m no expert on asian cultures so please tell me if I’m wrong), and it’s unique magic system. The setting featured lots of fantastical beasts and atmospheric magical forces, and the story’s focus on how said magic clashed with the increased industrialization on a rebel force definitely gave me some Princess Mononoke vibes. When the magic system was first laid out, it’s was described as tapping into the energies of elemental natures/forces (fire, water, earth, etc), so I initially thought it would be more “Avatar: The Last Airbender”-esque. However, it is explained that harnessing each of the energies of these natures instead allows people to manipulate their environments in a very specific way; water allows one to manipulate motion, earth allows one to alter gravity, etc. I’ve never really seen a system that interprets elemental magic this way, so I found it to be very interesting!
Overall, I would say that I recommend this book, especially if you are looking for a nice relatively quick read. It’s a refreshing departure from several elements of traditional fantasy, and I definitely want to pick up the companion novella to see how Yang continues to develop this world and it’s characters. 3.5/5