Singapore – The Black Tides of Heaven

Guest post by Keren Landsman (author of The Heart of the Circle)

Translator’s note: This review was originally written in Hebrew using a mixed gendered form of writing to adapt the gendered Hebrew language to the gender neutral language of the book. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate back. I translated the review using the gender-neutral language of the original book 

When I was asked to join the Sefer HaOmer project, I knew I was going to accept. The idea of visiting geek communities around the world as a kind of journey greatly appealed to me. And from the list of books I was offered, The Black Tides of Heaven sounded exactly like the type of book I was looking for – YA silkpunk written by a nonbinary queer author from Singapore. (Who I even met a few years ago!)

I was expecting a light story about teenagers, in a technological world based on Singapore, a country I know only from books and movies. Instead I got a story about family, war, and class struggle, in a primarily magic-based world that felt very different from all the other magical worlds I had read until now.

Bonded by Birth; Separated by Politics

Twins Mokoya and Akeha are sent to a monastery, in accordance with an agreement signed between their mother (the ruler of the land) and the head of the monastery, several years earlier. In exchange for the monastery’s support, the mother promised to give her next child to the monastery. She gave birth to twins and planned to abandon them at the monastery in order to rid herself of the debt, and continue to rule her kingdom with an iron fist. The head of the monastery soon learns that he got the better end of the deal. Mokoya has prophetic powers; powers that are greatly enhanced by the head of the monastery’s tutelage. Furthermore, while at the monastery, the bond between Mokoya and Akeha becomes stronger and allows the twins to communicate between themselves in a way that is not possible for anyone else in the world. When their mother learns of the mistake she made, a power struggle begins that separates the twins, and ultimately divides the land.

In the course of the story, Mokoya and Akeha will fight fearsome monsters and save lives, but will also suffer through a painful separation, war, political disputes, loss and hardship.

A Fusion of Magic and Technology

The novel is divided into four parts. The first part was the slowest and most frustrating (for me) because it deals with the all too familiar plot of cold parenting and lonely children. The final part is the part where all the conflicts that have built up throughout the story reach their climax, and it is also the most fascinating, as far as I’m concerned. It includes one of the cutest dialogues I’ve ever seen between a couple (along the lines of “I thought of the perfect name for this device!” “And that’s why you woke me up in the middle of the night??”)

There are two fascinating things in this novella, in my opinion. The first is the attempt to describe a world of magic and technology when part of the technology relies on magic to work. This is mainly described in the final part of the novella, and I would have liked it to be elaborated on a bit more. There are a lot of references to magical terms that correspond to the natural elements, magic can be used for destruction, but also for healing, and the combination with technology is unique.

Gender Plays an Important Role

The second, the main and most interesting thing, is the role gender plays in the story. The core assumption is that everyone is genderless until each person decides for themselves whether they are a man or a woman. After the decision is made, two things happen. First he or she starts using the unique pronouns associated with their chosen gender. The second is medical treatment to transition the person into their chosen gender. Whoever chooses to be a man receives muscles and a beard. Whoever chooses to be a woman receives narrow hips and the ability to give birth to children. At no point in the story is there a description of the gender of those who didn’t make a choice because it’s not relevant. In addition, one of the characters who identifies as a man admits at a certain stage that he did not undergo the surgical transition, and another character tells that person that it doesn’t make a difference. Of course it doesn’t make a difference because sex has nothing to do with gender!

This separation is fascinating. It contributes to the world-building, but also frustrates me as someone who reads and writes in Hebrew – because many of the literary choices can’t be translated well. We don’t have gender-neutral verbs or gender neutral forms of address. At the stage before Mokoya and Akeha have chosen their genders, the story refers to them as “they”, which is the gender-neutral pronoun used in English. However, we don’t have a corresponding pronoun in Hebrew. In addition, when we encounter a character who hasn’t yet transitioned into their gender, we don’t have a single word to describe that character. Their gender isn’t relevant, but which pronoun can you use in Hebrew to describe a person whose gender isn’t defined?

Of course my problem isn’t the theoretical problem of translating stories into Hebrew. My real problem is when it comes to my genderfluid and non-binary friends, because our language doesn’t allow me to address them appropriately. Language is a basic and vital communication tool, and if I lack that basic tool to communicate with my friends, I am denied the possibility of transmitting and accepting full and complex ideas. This is exactly like the “Newspeak” of 1984. The language determines which ideas can be expressed, and if we lack the words to express different genders other than man or woman, or the words to describe the lack of compatibility between gender and sex, or words for those without any gender – how can we communicate with each other in a respectful manner?

About The Author

Neon Yang (they/them) is a queer non-binary author based in Singapore. They have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Lambda Literary, ignyte and Locus awards, and their work has been an OTHERWISE AWARD honoree.

The Black Tides of Heaven (Tensorate #1)

Author: Neon Yang

Cover Artist: Yuko Shimizu

Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates

Published: 2017

Pages: 236

Format reviewed: Digital

Hugo, Locus and World Fantasy finalist for best novella