|Art by Jeff Brown|
“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power” part 1, by R.B. Lemberg
I’m going to be looking at this more in depth after the second part is released but let me just tell you that I have been waiting for this story. My first introduction to BirdVerse was actually through poetry, I think, and my love of the setting and the characters only grew as I read more. “Geometries of Belonging” is still one of my favorite stories and this novella has the advantage of featuring some of the same characters, though much earlier in their lives. It also brings with it elements from the poem “Ranra’s Unbalancing” and more and it is just so good. It explores consent and desire in striking and intimate ways and the character work is sharp and deep. The Old Royal is a teacher, older and sure of themself, and yet still definitely capable of making mistakes and learning new things, as they find out over the course of the novella. There’s this deep feeling I get from the character that they’re weary, tired of violence and betrayal and the cycle of it all. And yet the Raker wakes them up, and it is amazing. You really do need to check this one out. For now I’ll just leave it at that, but be sure to check back in after the second part drops and I will have a much longer review. Until then, READ THIS STORY!!!
"Ora et Labora" by Theodore McCombs (8884 words)
This is a dense and dark story about difference and about disorder, about pain and about hatred and about hope. It’s the story of Obb, a young boy given to a church because he is Disordered, though he doesn’t know what that means and fights with everything he has against it. What it means for his life is that he joins a sort of school where he must learn math, where he has to fit in. There’s a lot going on in this story, and a lot that only really makes sense once Obb is able to get past his first and instant dislike of what has happened to him, his resistance to the injustice that he has endured. A lot of what makes the setting and the situation so compelling is that it complicates the reasons why everyone is buying into this system, complicates the seeming cruelty and religious overtones of the world and the church that Obb has been given to. Behind the scenes, the world building moves in small fits and starts, setting up both the function of the church and the lie it covers over. It’s an interesting way of examining difference and power in a fantasy landscape, and one that doesn’t become less uncomfortable even as it makes more sense.
[SPOILERS] And okay I kind of want to talk about the “true nature” of the setting, which reveals that the Disordered are essentially queer people who are sent to the church because the church has created a sort of refuge. To my understanding, and I could be interpreting this all wrong, there is something that is keeping the birthrate down and so the church, which must have been made up of queer people or those who didn’t want the system to descend into killing all queer people, decided to corner the market on math, which becomes like magic. Queer people are insulated from prejudice and violence because as part of the church they are separate from the general population and also treated as necessary wizards. To this end, the church guards math quite strictly, and also makes people send all queer children to the church for indoctrination/protection. It’s an interesting and pretty fucked up system, and one that obviously Obb hates, because it’s based not just on lies but also abuse of its students. Because so much of Obb’s suffering could have been avoided had someone just talked to him a little. It’s a bit striking that even in a system where queer people hold positions of power, and where learning is so important, teaching the oblates about themselves isn’t more valued. In my opinion this aspect of the setting felt a bit jarring, because if the goal is to protect queer children one would figure talking to them and explaining things a little would be helpful, especially with how guarded the church is about runaways.
But the story stands pretty firmly by this idea that power and lies have a tendency to feed back on themselves, getting more and more out of control, until the very thing that was supposed to save queer children is the thing hurting them. Which is sharp and interesting. There’s certainly a lot to get out of the piece and I love the language of it, Obb’s feeling of isolation and longing without really knowing what’s going on. And his trajectory really makes sense, though it’s hardly the happiest or most hopeful of outcomes for him. Given the world and his circumstances, though, it certainly fits. So yeah, go check it out!