The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang (Tor, 2018)
Reviewed by Carl Lavigne
I have never read a book quite like JY Yang’s, The Descent of Monsters, the third novella in their silkpunk Tensorate series. I have read and loved their first two installments, I have read Victorian epistolary novels, I have imbibed mysteries, thrillers, and other assorted noir, but never something that so successfully wove all these disparate DNAs together.
For those unfamiliar with the series, they take place in a world where technology, spirituality, and magic interlock. The magic system, known as Slackcraft, resembles a fusion of Weaving from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and Bending from Avatar: The Last Airbender. These powers are depicted alternately between facilitating great innovation and being wielded to enable brutal systemic oppression. Yang’s world also features prominently a system of flexible gender identity and expression. Yang, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, has consistently made work invested in the question of who is allowed to choose who they are. These concerns run throughout the series and are central to many character’s complex interiors.
In their latest book, Yang introduces readers to a new protagonist, Tensor Chuwan Sariman, a canny government detective who swears like a sailor, assigned the thankless job of covering up a failed government experiment. The voice is as fresh and exciting as the formal structure of the novella, and expand the Tensorate series in new directions. The narration is made up of diary entries, redacted government reports, scraps of paper, and love letters, all of which coalesce into a bloody stained-glass mosaic both haunting and beautiful. Rest assured, fan favorite characters reappear to wreak havoc on readers’ heartstrings, as Yang’s world unfurls before us like a pirate’s treasure map.
The Descent of Monsters is hardly lighthearted pulp. As the mystery grows, Yang confronts readers with questions of what it costs to be complicit in empire. In the throes of the book’s conclusion, a character muses, “Cruel as the fates might be, they cannot match the cruelty of humans.” Like the best science fiction and fantasy, this novella frames real world struggles in a new light. Who is allowed to tell stories of oppression? Whose will be listened to? And who will be killed for telling theirs? Yang’s novella is a testament to the truth in Vijay Prashad’s declaration, “Stories of survival are the first draft of revolutionary action.”
Yang’s work is darkly relevant in the age of the surveillance state and eroding trust in the institutions claiming to protect humanity’s best interests. Their characters are vivid, their prose is trim and sharp, and they are bound to be writing genre-defining stories for years to come. The Descent of Monsters pulls no punches and is escapist fantasy only in the terms of Alexander Chee: “a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” Read it now before some shady government agency tries to redact it all.