Tuesday, April 5, 2022

REVIEW: The Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg

I have been fortunate enough to be reading short SFF during a lot of the development and release of R.B. Lemberg's Birdverse stories. And doubly fortunate to get the chance to read the first Birdverse novel, The Unbalancing, which is dropping in September but is very much available for preorders now. Though releasing after the last Birdverse novella, The Four Profound Weaves, The Unbalancing reaches back into the history of the setting to look at the fate of the Star of the Tides, an event that has echoed through the Birdverse. Before I give too much away, though, let's dive right into the review!

We failed, but we did the work. – Erígra Lilún

There’s something about watching a disaster unfold. I am reminded of the movie Titantic and how, really, the plot was telegraphed long before the audience ever stepped into the theater. People knew that the boat would sink. That a great many people would die. With R.B. Lemberg’s The Unbalancing, there’s a striking similarity. Ever since “Ranra’s Unbalancing” was published at Strange Horizons, the shape of Ranra’s story has been known. Birdverse is a setting that has unfolded through poetry and prose for years now, each new story a part of a larger tapestry, but always one that’s been coherent and consistent. So the core history behind The Unbalancing, which finds Ranra Kekeri trying to save the Star of the Tides and her island home, isn’t unknown. That doesn’t mean, however, that any of the story’s power is lost in the telling. In fact, knowing the disaster is coming only makes the tension that much more acute.

From the start, the stakes of the piece are as high as they can be. And each decision from the characters, made with the best of reasons, comes with a sinking and cringing realization that it’s bringing everything that much closer to disaster. The characters all know something is wrong with the Star of the Tides, with the magical anchor that brings magical energy and prosperity to the islands. They know that the star might be dying. What they don’t know is when. Is how. And Lemberg captures that tragic art with beauty and power, casting a wide range of people trying their hardest to avoid catastrophe. It’s at turns inspiring and heartbreaking, tightly paced and full of romance, action, and a sweeping world building.

We gift all to each other. – Dorod Laagar

The islands themselves in which the story unfolds are vividly imagined and no less a character than the people who inhabit them. It’s a place of stunning and scenic beauty, but also artistic and cultural freedom. Here the world isn’t divided into strict binaries, and one of the foundations of the book and cornerstones of its plot has little to do with the Star of the Tides or its possible destruction. Rather, it’s about one of the viewpoint characters, Erígra Lilún, and their identity. They are someone for whom interacting with people has always been difficult. They operate at a different pace than most people prefer, and it leaves them struggling in certain areas, like how to present and conceptualize their gender. They know that they are ichidi, or non-binary, but there are variations within that which they have a hard time navigating. It takes time. And pondering. And poetry. But on the islands this isn’t really a problem. The culture is supportive and open, full of a vibrant spectrum of people and peoples.

Not that misunderstandings or frictions don’t happen. Even in a free and honest place, identity can be complex, sometimes fragile. Built over trauma and uncertainty. The characters in the story all generally get along and like each other, but that doesn’t stop them from hurting each other. Taking advantage of each other. Failing to communicate. There are difficult conversations throughout the novel and they are captured so well, ring so real…and so too does the fact that some of them happen too late. Because while in ideal circumstances, everyone could go at their own pace, everyone could get the care and attention they need, circumstances are rarely ideal. And the failures of the past have a way of compounding, making the present a dance on the edge of ruin.

That doesn’t mean people stop trying. Even small, personal victories can be profound. Transforming. Healing. And for Lilún that means finding their expression, finding a kind of peace with themself, and even when they very much cannot move at their own pace, it means finding a community that can still support them, that they want to be a part of, and that values and cares for them exactly as they are. It’s that sense of community and union that makes the islands such a vibrant place, and its possible loss so tragic, especially given how closed, oppressive, and authoritarian some of the rest of the world of Birdverse can be. And yet it’s also how, despite everything, the book manages to chart a course away from complete despair and loss, and toward a future made possible by the giving and generosity of many.

It is never the time for poetry, and it is always the time – Erígra Lilún

Even while the world seems to be exploding, the sky falling, the Star of the Tides dying, this is also a novel very much about new beginnings. About the sudden and intense relationship that the two viewpoint characters, Ranra Kekeri and Erígra Lilún, join into. Another something that moves very much faster than Lilún is comfortable with, but they consent all the same, embrace this frightening and new experience with all their being and heart. And their relationship unlocks new secrets, new power, that might indeed be able to save the islands, to soothe and heal the Star of the Tides…or destroy it even faster than it would have otherwise. Their love is poetry, as inappropriate and dangerous in this time of life and death as it is unavoidable and, for these characters, necessary.

I love the nuanced ways the characters talk about relationships, about consent, about the times when asking isn’t really possible, and what that means for everyone involved. These are messy characters, who live and breathe and strive and fall short. Who have been hurt and are afraid of being hurt again, or hurting others. Lilún hesitates, and Ranra rushes forward, and yet together they find a way to be patient, and to be decisive, in a way that seems to enrich them both. And the relationships span their network of friends and former lovers, their work partners and their families. I’ve always admired Birdverse for its open and complex ways of looking at power and love, and this novel is no exception. It’s romantic and blisteringly hot at times, playful and shy at others, and always inclusive and careful in how it recognizes and affirms all the ways people are themselves. Even as the world is falling apart. Especially as the world is falling apart.

I carry my world – Zúr ichidi variation saying

It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to write self-insert fanfic based on a book series, but here we are. Because part of what I love about Birdverse, about the world The Unbalancing reveals more of, is that there is space for queer joy, queer victories, queer defeats that are not death. There are dangers, and there is hatred, and there is loss and difficulty. But there is also power and expression and language and art. There are things to dive deep into, from deep name magical geometry to artistic representations of ichidi variations. And there is the rush of action, the danger and the effort of trying to keep the world from completely unraveling. There is revolution and change. And through it all people reaching for their own truths, and each other.

The Unbalancing is the latest glimpse into the great tapestry of Birdverse, and it’s inspiring and contemplative and hot and tense. It finds a group of queer nerds thrust into a place of power, tasked with the impossible, and faced with the legacy of loss, despair, and inaction. Through that, though, they find strength in each other to act, and to reach for an outcome that might not be victory, but which isn’t entirely defeat. It’s a beautiful and nuanced work about love, power, and magic. As always with Birdverese, I am profoundly satisfied and also reminded just how hungry I am for more. It’s a phenomenal read!


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