Third in the Tensorate Series, The Descent of Monsters is the record of an investigation conducted by Chuwan Sariman into the gruesome destruction of the Rewar Teng research facility by one of its captive creatures. Sariman is a foul-mouthed Tensor of foreign background whose role in the Protectorate has never been secure. Married to a pirate and motivated via an internal sense of justice rather than an external set of politics, she’s not cut out to conduct a cover-up.
Though it’s clear that’s what’s expected of her.
However, the presence of Rider and Sanao Akeha at the corpse of the escaped creature complicates matters for both Sariman and the Protectorate. The Investigator is determined to get to the bottom of the realities hiding behind the façade of Rewar Teng, though it means becoming an outlaw herself.
A review, minor spoilers.
The novella opens with two letters: one from Rider to their twin, separated from them at birth, and one from Sariman to her lover. Rider’s letter promises their effort to reunite and rescue their twin from the Protectorate; Sariman’s letter is the frame for the novella, enlisting her wife to seek out justice after her death using the enclosed materials—investigation reports, interrogation logs, journals and further letters. These materials create the novella itself, an epistolary tale.
Yang’s continual experimentation with narrative tropes, points of view, and forms of storytelling in the Tensorate series is one of its strongest points. All three of the novellas in this universe approach their protagonist and plot from different angles though the world remains the same, keeping the reader on their toes. Sariman as our framing narrator enables The Descent of Monsters to stand alone as a piece of noir-esque detective fiction, though familiarity with the Sanao twins and Rider of course adds depth and context. However, it simultaneously continues the larger thread of Protectorate versus Machinist, magic and science and human folly, that so intrigued readers in the first pair of novellas. That’s a deft authorial maneuver, one Yang handles with seeming ease.
The epistolary approach also allows two distinct versions of Sariman to interact with the reader: one who writes polite but firm requests for information and apologizes for “misunderstandings” to the Protectorate bureaucracy, and one who says things like “Well, fuck you all. You can’t control me anymore.” The dichotomy draws attention to a version of the middle class we haven’t encountered before in the series. Sariman is an adopted child of a foreign nation, and as such, has clawed past constant bigotry to achieve her lackluster position as a Tensor where her achievements are almost constantly credited to someone else’s name.
She isn’t royal and she isn’t a rebel, she’s just a married bottom-tier investigator whose pirate wife rarely sees her. But she’s got conviction and a slow-burning hatred for the hypocrisy and monstrousness of her nation. When faced with the lazy cover-up the government is pushing her to sign off on, in conjunction with the gruesome reality of the Rewar Teng institute’s hybrid experimentation program gone wrong, she hits a breaking point and goes rogue.
“Well, fuck you all,” indeed.
Sariman is, as I’ve implied, a breath of fresh air as a narrator. She’s blunt, crass, and motivated in the way an average person in a shit but ethically unambiguous situation might be. She cares about truth and justice more than government reputations. Her interactions with our prior protagonists are limited—she is, after all, not much part of their world—but connect the reader to the larger scope of the story, particularly in terms of Sonami’s machinations. Though Sariman is cognizant of the fact that she’s dissolving her entire life around her, she refuses to let matters of brutal death and missing persons and her own haunting but prophetic nightmares rest without digging to the stinking truth at the core. That unflinching drive manifests in every line of her letters and memos, pushing the plot forward at an aggressive clip.
The casual but constant queerness of the Tensorate stories is also, as always, a pleasure. Sariman herself notes that she needs to be more careful of Rider’s pronouns at one point. There are a mix of different relationship combinations and genders spread all throughout the background of the novella. The investigation of the events at Rewar Teng is of precedence, but Yang has a gift for working in minor, human, breathing details around a fast-paced plot. For example, Rider’s physical limitations play a significant role in their initial exploration of the research institute. The wounds of previous encounters haven’t been forgotten. These consistent and lifelike details increase the tension of the novella a hundredfold.
Yang’s manipulation of textual devices, too, creates an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere. The first appearance of the interrogation log for Rider is a genius stroke, as it is almost entirely redacted, huge chunks of their version of events removed from the government record. We aren’t able to read the full log until Sariman illegally procures it later on. Our experience of the investigation through Sariman’s memos—in particular her frustration at the clear pressure she’s being put under to falsify a cover-up and ignore missing evidence—contributes to a strong investment in discovering the truth on the reader’s part as well.
After all, we’re aware from the earliest pages that our narrator is dead and has passed on the burden of her discoveries to her wife with the remit to “make them pay.” The obvious implication of a second novella handling this material—the experiment’s children, Sonami’s political maneuvers, the unit of Thennay and Rider and the Sanao twins—has me full of anticipation. The investigation occurs in The Descent of Monsters but the fallout is yet to come, and I’m eager to see where it goes over the course of another installment. The Tensorate saga is one of the freshest things I’ve read in ages and it has yet to disappoint.
Lee 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 Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.