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Genre is an odd thing. At times, it’s merely a sales tactic, where similar books are grouped together in a bookstore to make them easier to find. But it can also be a codified canon of literature in which authors are engaged in a decades-long conversation, bouncing themes and tropes off one another. Every now and again, a book or author will come along that really breaks away from the conversation and ignores those tropes and conventions. One recent example is Singaporean author JY Yang, who published the final installment of their genre-blending Tensorate series last month.
The series is made up of four short novellas: The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven, The Descent of Monsters, and The Ascent to Godhood. It’s set in a world where an oppressive monarchy called the Protectorate is facing an entrenched revolution from a rebel group called the Machinists. The Protectorate holds onto power by controlling who can utilize a magical system known as Slackcraft, and it utterly controls the lives of its subjects. However, it’s grown decadent and corrupt over the decades, and under the reign of Lady Sanao Hekate, The Protector, it’s brutally cracked down on its citizens. That’s given rise to the Machinists, who work to topple the government, all while bringing power to the people with the help of machines that take the place of Slackcraft and those who control it.
Yang plays out their story through an incredible blend of science fiction and fantasy. There’s magic, dinosaurs, weird scientific experiments, spycraft, revolutionaries, mad scientists, and more, all packed into the four books. The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven each tell the story of Sanao Hekate’s children: Mokoya, who has prophetic visions, and Akeha, who can innately understand what motivates people into action. Akeha leaves the Grand Monastery to join the Machinists, while Mokoya sets off on her own after the death of her daughter, hunting Naga, giant monsters that roam the world.
In The Descent of Monsters, we follow Chuwan Sariman, a Tensorate investigator who is trying to piece together what happened at an experimental science facility, and who ultimately finds a horrifying conspiracy that shows just how far the Protectorate will go to hold onto its power. In the latest and final installment, The Ascent of Goodhood, we learn how the Protectorate came to be, and how Sanao Hekate became its leader.
The arc of Yang’s story feels eerily relevant in 2019. It’s a story about the balance of power in society, and how corruption sets in quickly, no matter what one’s original intentions are. We see glimpses of how that happens: the experimental and immoral programs that the Protectorate sets up to try and hold onto power, and the lengths that the Machinists will go to take on their enemies. Along the way, Yang shows how those conflicts impact the people involved, and how they rationalize what they’re fighting for.
The series hails from Tor.com, an imprint of Tor Books that’s been experimenting with digital-first, and shorter novellas and novelettes for the last decade. The same publisher released Martha Wells’ fantastic Murderbot series, which demonstrated that long-form storytelling doesn’t necessarily need to be in the structure of your standard novel. Wells played out Murderbot’s story in four installments, each with their own arc and characters.
Yang takes that a step further in their series: not only are they sketching out a massive world and story between the four installments, they’re playing with the form that those stories take. The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven are relatively conventionally told, but Yang takes a slightly different approach with The Descent of Monsters, writing out a thriller through the use of official reports, documents, and letters. The Ascent of Goodhood, meanwhile, is a one-sided conversation between Lady Han and an unnamed partner.
With that unconventional approach, Yang plays out a much larger story than the four slim books would otherwise suggest. We get the outlines of a grand history and epic struggle between an oppressive empire and the people who oppose it. In the form of an fantasy saga, this story might have been written with excruciating detail (looking at you, George R.R. Martin), but here, Yang covers the high points, telling the stories of the key characters, and allowing the reader to connect the dots and put together how they fit alongside one another. It’s an appealing format, especially for an impatient reader like myself.