Unreview: The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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When I first heard of The Tensorate Series, alarm bells rang in my head. The core concepts sound cool: A crypto-Asian continent-spanning nation fracturing at the seams, exotic monsters roaming the wilds of a strange world, Tensors who use magic based on the classic Chinese elements and the Force, a pair of children who will shape the destiny of the nation. And the writer is Singaporean. Then I saw the publisher.

Tor.

For the uninitiated, Tor allegedly publishes science fiction and fantasy, but its offerings are mired in social justice messaging. At best, its works are merely uninspired hack jobs — think everything by John Scalzi, which is essentially rehashed fan fiction of more popular franchises. At its worst, we have The Tensorate Series.

The Tensorate Series is composed of two novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune. Having picked up the latter first, I’ll break it down in this post — and if I find a copy of the former, I’ll post another unreview. The Red Threads of Fortune can be summed up in one word.

Unreadable.

Two Broken Women and a Monster

The first chapter opens with protagonist Sanao Mokoya staring at the remains of her voice transmitter (not-radio), trying and failing to repair the damage with magic. The remains of the voice transmitter she just broke.

When she is alone.

In a desert.

Hunting a naga.

Mokoya is too dumb to live. She destroyed a vital piece of equipment in the middle of a mission to locate the nest of an allegedly dangerous monster. She even acknowledges that it was a mistake. And why did she break the transmitter? In her words:

Could she admit she had been startled by Adi’s voice coming out of nowhere and had lashed out like a frightened animal?

Here I see an impetuous, self-destructive idiot on a hair trigger without the emotional self-control to reign in her temper and exercise the discipline necessary for a solo mission. This isn’t the kind of character who will survive an action-heavy story, much less a character with whom I can identify.

But that’s not all: Adi, her boss, is also an idiot.

Why was Mokoya alone? She even acknowledges that ‘scouting alone was a mistake’. Yet she went and convinced Adi, the leader of her crew, to let her go alone, because…reasons.

Mokoya justified her decision to go alone by saying, ‘I trained as a pugilist in the Grand Monastery. I can handle a naga, no matter how big. I’m the only one on this crew who can.’

Later on, it is revealed that ‘Naga hunting was a specialty of Adi’s crew’.

Mokoya is the only person on the crew who can handle a naga, but the crew specialises in hunting naga? That makes no sense. A crew that specialises in hunting naga will have every combatant skilled in the art of handling naga. A naga-hunting crew reliant on a sole naga wrangler will be forced to close down when the specialist goes down. Or perhaps Mokoya simply meant that she was the only one in the crew who can handle a naga of any size.

Either Adi is an idiot who placed the livelihoods of the crew in Mokoya’s hands, or Mokoya can’t communicate properly. I’m betting the former, because Adi allowed Mokoya to go gallivanting in the desert to hunt a monster with nothing but a voice transmitter and a pack of raptors.

It’s implied that Adi sees this as a favor, to be collected upon later, but if you’re hunting a super-predator (or any kind of hostile creature), a solo mission is the height of lunacy. The buddy rule exists to ensure complete situational awareness (a point unknowingly reinforced later). Further, Mokoya is a Tensor, the equivalent of a magician, and a skilled martial artist; if she dies in the desert, the crew would lose a valuable asset, and a competent boss would do everything to prevent that.

Only, it doesn’t matter in this case, for the naga is a veritable idiot.

Mokoya spends most of the chapter woolgathering, spending the time dumping information on the reader. Then the naga appears, swooping down from behind her, so close the wind of its passage startled her raptor and threw her off her mount–

–and flies down into a nearby canyon to roost in its nest.

Up to this point, a naga is treated in-universe as an terrible monster, so dangerous that a single naga can destroy villages and rip up the countryside. Mokoya suspects that this particular naga was unnaturally modified. And Mokoya and her raptors was in the middle of open desert, with neither cover nor concealment, easily visible to anyone from the air.

So why did the naga ignore her?

Yang chose to allow Mokoya to survive the encounter by having the naga ignore her. This defangs the naga and undercuts the reader’s expectation of a deadly predator. There is no sense of threat from the creature, and with it Mokoya’s mission lacks urgency and peril.

Thus, the first chapter is about an idiot working for an idiot to hunt an idiot.

Language and Its Discontents

After breaking her not-radio, Mokoya shouts the word ‘Cheebye‘ over and over again. It is a derogatory term for the female sexual organ, usually appended by ‘chao‘ (‘smelly’), and highly favored by Singaporean men.

It is also a Hokkien word. A dialect hitherto unseen up to this point.

Adi also uses the same profanity a lot. In fact, she doesn’t even speak the same language as Mokoya. Here are some quotes:

“Ha nah ha nah, you go lah, not my pasal whether you die or not.”
“Mokoya! Kanina–is that you or a ghost?”
“Eh, hello, I let you go by yourself doesn’t mean you can ignore me, okay?”

Adi speaks Singlish. A language that shouldn’t exist in this world.

Singlish is a modern tongue that arose from peculiar and specific circumstances. When the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles found an island dominated by Malays with a small Chinese minority. After establishing a colony here, the British used English as the language of administration, and imported huge numbers of labourers from China and India. So many Chinese settled in Singapore that they outnumbered the indigenous Malays and became the new majority. English bridged the four peoples, but these cultures quickly left their mark.

Singlish is built on British English but obeys Chinese grammatical rules, and indeed it reads as a near-literal translation of spoken Chinese. Its pronunciation is based on Chinese, Hokkien and Malay. Singlish also borrows heavily from Singapore’s four major languages, including Hokkien (hence cheebye and kanina) and Malay (pasal, which might also be a Tagalog or Indonesian word).

Singlish is a creole that could only be born under unique circumstances. Circumstances like a major trade city in a Malay-majority region with an English-speaking coloniser so powerful that it could bring in subjects from faraway lands.

As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent city in the world of the Tensorate. The main characters of the Tensorate series sport quasi-East Asian names. Not Chinese, closer to Japanese. During a mental soliloquy (read: infodump) in the middle of the chapter, there are allusions to a Chinese-speaking society, a Mongolian-esque nation and an Indian analog. All of them are widely separated by thousands of li, and there is no mention of any special place where peoples of all nations live and congregate.

In other words, the worldbuilding doesn’t support the existence of Singlish.

But even if it does, the jarring use of Hokkien and Singlish points to a deeper issue with the story: its refusal of the mythic.

The planet of the Tensorate series is a strange world. It has low-gravity areas where monsters breed and roam. Suns cross the sky six times a day. The Slack underpins all creation, granting untold power to the gifted few who can touch it. It is a world that exists only in fantasies.

Mythic language reinforces the element of the fantastic. Unusual vocabulary and measured cadence draws in the reader, sucking him into the world and keeping him there, reminding him always that this is not our world. Mythic language paints the fictitious world in vivid colours, prickles the senses, and teases the reader with possibilities of what could be and what might have been.

When Aragon addresses the men of the West, he addresses their fears and encourages them to push on, he acknowledges great evil and ignites the spark of defiance, he speaks to their shared identity and history as Men of the West and inspires them to victory and glory. When Palpatine lies to the Galactic Senate, he presents the image of the eternal tyrant taking the reigns of power. These speeches point to mythic archetypes long buried in the human consciousness, roused to roaring life, transporting the audience deeper into the world of the story.

When Adi speaks, I am transported to my living room.

The world of the Tensorate is not Singapore. There is no reason characters should speak Singlish or any kind of mundane English. The use of everyday English in a fantastic setting tears the reader away from the book and the characters. It makes the characters feel as though they were abducted from our world instead of fully-fleshed inhabitants of theirs.

Consider Mokoya. She was raised and trained by warrior monks as a pugilist, she has the power of prophecy, and she can manipulate the elements. But, as the quotes above show, she speaks exactly like a Singaporean Chinese woman lifted from the streets of modern-day Singapore. Her cadence is Singaporean, her word choices are Singaporean, even her profanity is Singaporean. In her voice I hear an echo of modern Singapore, not the echo of a religious, martial and magical upbringing in an exotic land.

The few concessions to the exotic are laughable. A radio is called a ‘voice transmitter’ — never mind that it can receive voices as well. The naga of this universe seem like Western dragons with wings that don’t breathe fire — not the half-human half-snake water-dwelling creatures from Asian myth. The one unusual word that stood out was the word ‘gravesent’, used as a pejorative. That it stands out at all points to the distinct lack of the mythic.

The language of a fantasy story should ground the reader in a sense of place. The language of this story tears me out of it.

Place Without A Place

I’ve read the first chapter a half-dozen times. I can’t tell if Mokoya were traversing a desert, flying through a fogbank, or wading through a wasteland of pink slime.

There is no sense of place here. Words like ‘desert’ and ‘bluff’ and ‘cliff’ and ‘mountain’ appear, but there is no veracity to these words, no sense of scale or context. They are just there, as though they came into being only when Mokoya observed them.

The closest the reader has to a sense of place is an infodump in the middle of the chapter as Mokoya works out a puzzle. Mokoya thinks of nearby nations and peoples and cultures as she ponders the naga’s behaviour. That infodump is both boring and irrelevant at that point in the story. But it does show Mokoya woolgathering in the middle of a solo hunt for a dangerous monster — but that’s all right, because the naga ignored her, because reasons.

I don’t see a sense of place here. Only a sense that the writer’s craft is sorely lacking.

Everything Has Consequences

The chapter began with a Strong Female Character who places herself in mortal peril twice. It ends with the naga ignoring her, and with her using a different gadget to talk to Adi.

This chapter has no sense of consequences. Mokoya breaks her not-radio when she is hunting solo in the desert, but that’s okay because she can use another kind of not-radio with her magic, which she had conveniently brought with her and forgotten about until the end of the chapter. Mokoya goes on a dangerous quest solo, but that’s okay because she knows what she is doing. Only, she shows that she doesn’t know what she is doing by daydreaming in the middle of a hunt, but that’s okay because the naga pays even less attention to its surroundings than she does.

If the effects of Mokoya’s actions can be undone by the end of the chapter, if nothing she does has any grave consequences, then why does the chapter even exist? Far better to have Mokoya regret her stupidity by being forced to flee from a raging naga that she failed to detect, or better yet, open the story with Mokoya and the rest of the crew taking down the naga and discovering something unusual about it.

The chapter is just barely-disguised exposition. It exists to introduce the obligatory Strong But Flawed Female Character, the Overbearing Boss who is differentiated through her unique speech patterns, how the magic works, hint at the Machinists and some ominous enemy faction, some nearby nations, a dangerous monster and Mokoya’s mission. It doesn’t advance the story one bit. If this chapter were cut, the story loses nothing.

I couldn’t get past the first chapter of the story. It demonstrates poor writing craft and even poorer publishing strategy. I have no doubt that Tor chose to publish this story primarily because it features a Strong Female Character written by a genderqueer Person of Color from an exotic but modern country. Not because it tells a compelling story.

Social justice and bad writing has consequences. I refuse to read the rest of the story, and urge you to ignore it.

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Unlike The Red Threads of Fortune, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons features a female main character who overcomes her enemies through skill, cunning, wits and sheer ruthlessness. You can pick up the book on Amazon.

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