The Second Sibling: The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

A companion novella to The Black Tides of Heaven, previously discussed here, The Red Threads of Fortune begins four years later with a different twin as the focal point of the narrative. Mokoya, survivor of a terrible accident that killed her daughter and left her scarred physically and emotionally, has left the Grand Monastery and her husband to hunt monsters at the far reaches of the Protectorate. However, there’s something different about this particular naga hunt—and it will change the course of her future.

While The Black Tides of Heaven flitted through thirty-five years of political and social change, The Red Threads of Fortune takes place over the course of a handful of days. Instead of a slow-building accretion of plot, this novella is fast and direct, an abrupt punch of action and revelation. Given the twins’ skillsets—Akeha as a political revolutionary, Mokoya as a prophet and then beast hunter—the structure of their respective novellas also makes a great deal of thematic sense.

This novella, first and foremost, is about trauma—handling it, or not handling it, and the often messy, unpredictable process of recovering from it. As it takes place at a turning point, the action both external and internal compressed into a brief period of days after years of unseen buildup, it packs a hell of a narrative punch. Mokoya is on the edge of a breakthrough or a breakdown when the novella begins. She has isolated herself from her partner, her brother, and her previous life; her prophetic visions no longer foretell the future but recall her past.

The loss of her daughter and her own maiming are traumas she is unable to address or move beyond. Instead, the reader first encounters her as a passively suicidal hunter trawling the desert without her crew—repressing fantasies of death, the urge to dissolve, and abrupt attacks of disassociation. Yang describes Mokoya’s catastrophic emotional state in abrupt, painful detail without overplaying it, while also acknowledging that Mokoya cannot find her own solution to the problem she knows she has.

Though this is a fantastical novella, set in a world where the protagonists ride raptors and naga and create magical nuclear weapons, the treatment of mental illness and trauma is utterly realistic. The balance of awareness and helplessness Mokoya feels is devastating, giving honest attention to the experience of one’s mind working out of sync with one’s body. After making a series of despair-driven mistakes and then finally communicating about her loss with her partner and her friends, Mokoya comes to a turning point—and, in reclaiming her power over her prophetic abilities and her magic, survives another trauma to open up a fresh lease on her life.

I have a deep streak of appreciation for stories that approach trauma and recovery in such an intuitive, balanced fashion. Yang does solid work with the process, here, and Mokoya is not a model for healthy behavior—but neither are most people. The same ability to background detail for the reader to pick up on which I noted in the previous novella is also present in The Red Threads of Fortune. However, instead of political or cultural detail, this time it is used to show the reader the slow process of grief: a conversation with Adi about her lost child one night, another conversation with Thennjay where she considers his trauma and his response to her own, yet another with the princess who lost her mother, and so on.

While solitude can be necessary, stagnation offers no hope of reprieve. Mokoya realizes this and begins to move forward in fits and starts, willing to grow and make sacrifices again for Rider and for the city of Bataanar. And, though she did not intend to survive her effort to unweave her own prophecy and release the captive soul from the naga, she does—thanks in part to the new emotional connection she was able to create, though she also makes mistakes in the process, with Rider. Mokoya directs her aimless fear and pain to a path. She gives up her living-ghost status and reconnects with the world that she ran from, ready to face it again.

The thematic arc is bright and strong—and the plot, too, is sharp. The speed with which the characters act creates a bounding pace from one scene to the next, one fight to the next, as the reader follows along. While political motives are the initial suspicion, a logical one given the state of the Protectorate and the events of the last novella, in reality the motive for the naga’s attack is also loss. The princess’s mother’s soul is attached to it, and in her young unprocessed grief she calls the beast to her. Neither Mokoya nor Akeha considered that possibility, but Rider did, and in sympathy attempted to talk to princess out of it unsuccessfully.

Loss, when not handled well or allowed to run its course with support, is a violent thing. Yang shows the reader that in two different ways in this novella while also allowing for recovery and understanding. The princess assists Mokoya, in the end, with severing her mother’s soul from the naga despite all the damage she caused to reunite with her. Mokoya survives due to Rider’s skills and attachment to her. Her vision, in her recovery bed, is of the pair of them with children in the future.

There are other small things I appreciated too, such as Mokoya noting when other don’t use the correct pronouns for Rider and Thennjay being pleased with Mokoya finding another lover. The casual and pleasant approach to gender, sexuality, and relationships that underpinned the first novella is not absent here. Yang is careful and thorough in their representation of their characters in a manner that is soothing to read.

This pair of stories forms an interesting duet, each with a very different tone and style, but together they’re a delightful introduction to a new world. I look forward to seeing more in the future.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune are available from Tor.com Publishing.
Read excerpts from Black Tides and Red Threads here.
Check out a review of The Black Tides of Heaven here.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone TellingClarkesworldApex, and Ideomancer.

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