In the two novellas that begin Neon Yang’s Tensorate Series — The Black Tides Of Heaven (paperback, digital) and The Red Threads Of Fortune (paperback, digital) — we’re introduced to twins named Mokoya and Akeha. But while you might think one of the novellas is about Mokoya and the other is about Akeha, Yang explains in the following interview that not only are these books not so cut and dry, btu they’re actually rather different in approach and in terms of what part of the larger saga they’re presenting.
I always like to start with the basics. What is The Black Tides Of Heaven about, what is The Red Threads Of Fortune about, and how do the two novellas connect, both chronologically and narratively?
The novellas are set in the world of the Protectorate, where magic — Slackcraft — can be learned by anyone, but the training is difficult and takes a long time, and is therefore restricted to the privileged in the highest echelons of society. The protagonists of the books are twins, Mokoya and Akeha, and the youngest children of the tyrannical Protector, whose iron grip controls large parts of the known world. The children are given to a monastery to repay a blood price, but when Mokoya develops a gift for prophecy, they are thrown back into their mother’s orbit.
The two novellas are quite different. The Black Tides Of Heaven is told from Akeha’s point of view and is basically a family drama spanning thirty-eight years, tracking the twins from birth to adulthood as they find their places in the world and rebel against their mother’s rule. The Red Threads Of Fortune, on the other hand, is like an action film, covering a string of events that takes place over three days. It’s set several years after the end of The Black Tides Of Heaven, and sees Mokoya trying to pick up the pieces of her life after the events at the end of that novella. But both books are stand-alone novellas, and could possibly be read in either order.
Where did you get the original idea for The Red Threads Of Fortune and The Black Tides Of Heaven, and how different are the finished novellas from that original idea?
At this point I can no longer remember where the original idea for the books came from. What usually happens is a few days where ideas boil intensely in my head, followed by a very long process of distilling that soup out into something resembling a proper draft. I think I had the idea for the magic system first, then I developed Mokoya as a character, and then the relationships around her began to fill in. I completely rewrote The Red Threads Of Fortune three times before publication, but The Black Tides Of Heaven is basically the first draft, except for the ending.
The Black Tides Of Heaven and The Red Threads Of Fortune have been referred to as “silkpunk fantasy.” Do you agree with this?
So the “silkpunk fantasy” label was applied by my publishers, Tor.com Publishing. It’s not something I chose for them myself…mostly because I missed the interview where Ken Liu coined the term to describe his Dandelion Dynasty books [The Grace Of Kings, The Wall Of Storms], so I wasn’t aware of it beforehand. I remember my editor Carl saying saying “Ken came up with the term, but I’m going to make this a genre because it becomes a genre when there’s more than one writer doing it.” I guess the genre is currently “East-Asia-influenced retro-tech plus sprawling empire…”? It’s easier to market the books if you can condense the aesthetic down to a single word, which is the main rationale I’d give for it.
Right. Now, what you have said is that The Black Tides Of Heaven and The Red Threads Of Fortune are part of The Tensorate Series. What can you tell us about this series? Are there more books coming?
Well, I can definitely tell you that there are two more novellas waiting in the wings which Tor have bought. Novella #3, tentatively titled The Descent Of Monsters, opens with an investigation of a disaster at a Tensorate research facility, which is strangely tied to Rider’s past. You’ll meet them; they’re one of the key characters in The Red Threads Of Fortune. It’s slated to come out in mid-2018. Novella #4, The Ascent To Heaven, explores the Protector’s past, untangling the traumatic events that shaped her into the kind of woman who treats her children like livestock. That one is due sometime in 2019.
Sorry, I’m a very slow writer.
In my mind, there’s more to The Tensorate Series. In the above two novellas I lay the groundwork for a larger story, hints at future events that I could potentially explore. I do have loose plans for a novel series set in this world, but who knows what will happen?
Speaking of novels, why did you decide to write The Red Threads Of Fortune and The Black Tides Of Heaven as two separate novellas, as opposed to a single novel?
Aha, see, The Red Threads Of Fortune was always meant to be a standalone novella. But as I was writing it, my squirrel brain was filling up narrative gaps with backstory and other ideas. By the time I sent it to who would become my editor, it had the magic line “I have ideas for at least one more novella set in this world.” And then I got agented, and my agent — DongWon Song, who is an A+ agent on top of being a wonderful guy — he said, “Write a one-paragraph pitch for a second novella and we’ll sell them as a pair.” And that’s what happened.
The two novellas are completely different, in terms of tone and pacing and even genre, so they wouldn’t have been compressible into a single work anyway.
Was it also your decision to publish The Black Tides Of Heaven and The Red Threads Of Fortune as two separate books, as opposed to a single collection?
I’d originally envisioned The Black Tides Of Heaven as a sequel to The Red Threads Of Fortune. But Tor.com Publishing wanted to conduct an experiment [by publishing both at the same time], and it’s been a fairly interesting one so far. I think it helps that the books are short so it’s possible to inhale both in one sitting, different as they are.
Do you think people should do that, should read The Black Tides Of Heaven and The Red Threads Of Fortune one after the other? Or should we wait until all of the books in The Tensorate Series are out and then read them all in rapid succession?
Yes, I think people should definitely read both as soon as they come out. And then leave me nice reviews on the Internet. Not that I have a vested interest in this, or anything.
No, of course not. So then which do you think people should read first, The Red Threads Of Fortune or The Black Tides Of Heaven? Or does it not really matter?
Originally, my preference was for people to read them in the order that I wrote them — The Red Threads Of Fortune, then The Black Tides Of Heaven — because I feel like I developed a lot as a writer in between these books. But I’ve since been told by people who’ve already read them that, if possible, one should read The Black Tides Of Heaven first because it’s a better introduction to the world building in the series.
So are there any writers or specific books that you feel were a big influence on either The Black Tides Of Heaven or The Red Threads Of Fortune, but did not have as big of an impact on the other one?
Bizarrely, I think the works of David Mitchell [Cloud Atlas] had an influence on The Black Tides Of Heaven, which has four sections set years apart, with a slightly different tone to each one based on Akeha’s personal development at that time. I deeply admire the way Mitchell structures these segmented narratives in his books, and that has led me to be more playful with structure in my own books.
I was also chowing through Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy [Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance] while I was writing The Black Tides Of Heaven, and I think I channeled a bit of that lush language into the book.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games? Do you think any of them had a big impact on The Black Tides Of Heaven or The Red Threads Of Fortune?
I’ve described the mélange of influences that went into the setting of Red Threads as “Star Wars meets Jurassic World meets Dragon Age meets Mad Max,” and this is still accurate. I’m a garbage can nerdperson at heart, and I just tossed everything I liked into a blender and came up with something, to be honest.
So has there been any interest in making a movie, TV show, or video game out of The Red Threads Of Fortune and The Black Tides Of Heaven?
You know, if anyone wants to make a media adaptation of the books, please call my agent. The rights are still available. But since you’re asking, I’m actually less invested in seeing a live-action version than I am in having it adapted as an anime. I think the aesthetics of the series work better in animation. I think magic and magic battles look kind of goofy in CGI. Way cooler as drawn art.
If it was to be made into an anime, who would you like to voice the lead roles and why them?
I don’t have a fancast in my head. I am terrible at this stuff. What I would love is for people to read the books and then come up with their own fancasts. And then tell me. Somebody get on that.
Finally, if someone enjoys both The Black Tides Of Heaven and The Red Threads Of Fortune, and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for the next books in The Tensorate Series, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
Is this the part where I get to recommend all my friends’ works?
Sure. If you want.
I think you should read the rest of Tor.com Publishing’s novella line because they are all brilliant. Rose Lemberg has a beautiful novella out called A Portrait Of The Desert In Personages Of Power, which is also secondary-world fantasy and genderqueer as anything. Ken Liu’s books, of course. You probably already have. And I’m really excited to start on N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy [The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky], which I have heard nothing but effusive praise about.