The Tensorate, by Neon Yang, is a tricky set of novellas to review. Each story follows a different character for varying spans of time. They tell different stories and they vary how those stories are told. The latter ones rely on worldbuilding from the first two, expanding the world only slightly. The characters are engaging, the world is a well realized silk-punk, and the individual plots are forceful and emotional. Individually, the stories are fun but, taken as a whole the books are a wonderful tapestry exploring the power of identity within an Empire that is threatened by internal rebellion, and the people who choose to rebel.
It would be easy to fill this review with synopses, digging into each individual novella and laying out the land. There is a lot to say about each one, even as they grow shorter as the books progress. I will avoid this and give a general layout of the world the stories take place in, so I can discuss the heart of the books, the characters, later in the review. The Tensorate, takes place in, you guessed it, the Tensorate. The Slack, the magical energies of the world, is harnessed by monks, and this magic/monks is tightly controlled by the Protector. The Protector is the ruler of the Tensorate, and will use whatever power is in her grasp to hold onto it, bargaining her future offspring in process. But even as she manages to hang on a few more decades, rebellion brews again in provinces further from the reach of her throne. The Machinists hope to build a better world for everyone. Not everyone has access to the Slack, and even fewer have the ability or privilege to master it. The Protector makes sure that those with a feel for the Slack are under her control, stifling any dissent.
The stories initially revolve around Akeha and Mokoya, twin children of the Protector who were traded to the Grand Monastery for their help in quelling a rebellion. Once the Protector learns that Mokoya has developed the ability to see the future in her dreams, she tries to pull them apart. As they grow older, a tension grows between the twins. Soon Akeha leaves the Grand Monastery in rebellion and in search of himself, as Mokoya tries to do what good she can within her mother’s purview. The latter novels break away from the twins, giving the reader deeper perspectives on the Tensorate and the Machinist rebellion. They follow characters who are adjacent to the twins, in one way or another, but they are not about them.
And that’s just the set up to the Black Tides of Heaven. In all honesty, the plot of these stories isn’t really the point. Yang is a great storyteller, using the limited space of the novellas to dive into character. The plot is important, but it’s not the strength of the books. The characters react to it, and form themselves to it or around it, but then become the drivers of it. They are formed and transformed by the world, and push with it, or against it depending on the lives they’ve led and the people they want to be.
Akeha, for me personally, was the most relatable. He is the extra twin, and becomes who he is in reaction to the world. His sister’s choice to become a woman, and try to persuade the Protector from within, pushes Akeha to find his life outside of it. He falls into this sort of emotional trap where he only realizes himself as opposition to the things he dislikes. It leads him to more open places, giving him the space to grow, but it also somewhat stifles him. It pushes him from his sister in a way that feels more neglectful than it is spiteful. The “eventually I will visit her and patch it up,” mentality that has accompanied many long nights of working towards a better future.
Mokoya takes a bigger stage in the second book, The Red Threads of Fortune. The ending of the first book (no spoilers), really sets her down the path of a hopeless future. A place where she can only survive, by putting herself in danger, while running from the life she had been leading. Yang captures this feeling without letting Mokoya wallow in a way that drags the story. It feels raw yet blunted with a bit of time. I felt for her, and wanted her to realize what she was putting herself and her family through, but I also patiently let her journey take her.
Yang’s supporting cast is a thrill as well. Yang knows how to write foils. Akeha and Mokoya become entangled with a number of delightful people during their formative periods. I mean that mostly from a character perspective, but they are also the kind of people I’d want in my life if I were struggling with something. They aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, but they are excellent catalysts, reflecting both the good and the bad back at the main characters. I absolutely adore Rider and their relationship with the twins.
Where Yang really shines is in the last two novellas. Descent of Monsters follows Investigator Chuwan of the Tensorate as they review a crime scene at an experimental lab. It’s written as a collection of journals as Chuwan dives further into the mystery even as she grows increasingly concerned that her superiors are covering it up. The broken up story grows more frantic and determined as Chuwan discovers more of the corruption at the heart of the Tensorate. She questions her own complicity, and as a reader, I became increasingly fearful for her life as she presses forward with the investigation.
Yang’s writing is gripping throughout Descent. Chuwen’s descriptions of the crime scene are detailed, and uncanny. Each clue pushing to weirder and darker twists to the mystery. While there was a prevailing sense of unease with the Tensorate as an idea through the other stories, this book really brings the Protector’s machinations into full light. On it’s own it would have had trouble, but within the collection it’s damn near perfect.
And that brings us to the real bastard of the bunch, The Ascent to Godhood. I don’t even know how to talk about this one because Yang broke me here. If Akeha is the one I related to most, Lady Han is the one I felt for the most. Ascent is the drunken monologuing of the Machinist leader mourning the loss of her once friend and lover, Hekate. It’s the kind of rambling story you’d hear at a bar (in this case a tavern), about how her relationship with Hekate was filled with admiration, ambition and love, before becoming a sour war. Hekate wasn’t just an ordinary woman, she had designs to become the Protector, and through intrigue and some help from Lady Han herself (in those days she was a court dancer), she implemented them and secured her place on the throne. The main thing that really struck me was Yang’s ability to portray the contradictory emotions Lady Han has about Hekate. How one could grow to hate someone as intimately and fiercely as they once loved them. While the victory is to be celebrated, Lady Han can’t help but think of the person she lost, and who she became to fight her. It’s deeply affecting, even now the hairs on my body raise as I write this.
There is a lot to love about this series. Your own mileage may vary, depending on how the ideas speak to you. But for those of us driven by character, and seeing how the push and pull of a world can affect the people in it, The Tensorate really shines. The world is cool and intriguing, but also still mysterious. Yang doesn’t explain everything, and seems to absolutely refuse explaining the Slack, which honestly, kudos for that risk. I loved its ambiguity and ethereal tangibility, like one knows what it is, without it being defined. There is also an incredible amount of queer representation within the books. Gender, in some cases, is more fluid, and all the relationships are deliberately unlabeled and queer.
It’s not one big story about the fall of tyrant to a rebellion. It’s not one man’s or woman’s story of bucking the system that made them who they are. It’s not the story of a ragtag bunch freeing the nation from oppression. Instead, Yang tells the myriad of stories that exist within that decades-long project. How family ties, platonic and romantic relationships muddy the water of right and wrong. The Tensorate is about the people who find themselves within that system, and push against it in ways both big and small, individually and as a community. Yang pulls at the threads, showing how these systems and their downfall, are just people acting and reacting to each other, and having to live with the consequences of fighting the thing you hate, or becoming it. If Yang decides to grace us with more in Tensorate I’ll be happy. But I’m also looking forward to what else they might have up their sleeve in the future.
Rating: The Tensorate – 9/10