The Nebula Awards will be announced May 19, 2018. The awards are given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This post is the fifth in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Nebula award for best novella. The Nebula defines a work as a novella if it is between 17,500 and 40,000 words. These are short books.
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang is…shoot, I’m not sure how to describe it. Others have described it as silkpunk (it’s not), Asian fantasy (kind of but not really), or some sort of epic thingy (that’s not written in the style of an epic at all). I don’t usually like to provide details of an author’s created world in my reviews because authors work really hard to introduce readers to their worlds in their stories. Who am I to short circuit that introduction? At the same time, though, I want to give MY readers, friends, and followers kind of a heads up of what they’re getting into if they were to pick the book up. So, the highlights: it is an entirely fictional world, set in an entirely fictional country that has magic, and the magic fuels technology levels to more-or-less 19th century/early 20th century. There is an “Asian” flavor, but that’s confined to pretty much names and some creature/legend stuff.
Now that the description of the world is out of the way, we come to the real question…is it any good? I don’t know if it’s good or not – I’m not some gatekeeping arbiter of all that is Good and Worthy in the written world – but I do know that it is not a book that I particularly enjoyed reading. People that share my tastes would also probably not enjoy this book too much.
The length of the book felt wrong. I know that this is the first of a series, and that’s fine, I’m not bothered by the way the story ended. No, my complaint is that the story felt…jerky. I didn’t understand characters’ motivations, and it was not because the author was showing rather than telling; it was because sometimes the characters’ actions made no sense. I had a hard time really understanding WHY the protagonists felt the way they did towards various authority figures or each other.
The world building is uneven. It seemed like the author tried to fit too much into one tiny book: unique gender dynamics, a magic system, a political situation, various factions, ethnic groups. Some of those aspects of the world – unique gender dynamics and a magic system – were described at least at a basic level such that I could follow the action and hope that the sequels provide more detail. On the other hand, MAJOR characters are sometimes given only two or three “lines,” and I didn’t understand why I should or should not be rooting for one particular political entity over another. I didn’t understand the main central external conflicts of the book.
The Black Tides of Heaven also felt heavy. It’s a depressing read, with almost no humor or joy to be found within. There are occasional cool action sequences, but the extremity of the violence and aftermath of pain and sadness counters whatever short-lived joy a fan of action scenes may experience. And sometimes, when I feel that I was expected to feel sad, I felt nothing, due to the aforementioned lack of characterization or world building.
As is, the book had some fine elements and interesting concepts. It just felt more like a rough draft of a longer, better book.
My rating: 3 stars.
And that concludes my series of reviews for the Nebula novella nominees! I am not going to write a review for All Systems Red because my blogging partner already wrote a review for it a while back. I agree with Ardis’ review, so I don’t really see a point in writing something that says pretty much the same thing.