Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg
The Unbalancing, R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon 971-1-61696-380-4, $17.95, 246pp, tp) September 2022.
Back in 2015, R.B. Lemberg published in Strange Horizons a poem titled ‘‘Ranra’s Unbalancing’’, part of their ongoing Birdverse series of stories and poems that eventually gained wider recognition (and award nominations) with the novella The Four Profound Weaves a couple of years ago. Despite some intriguingly cryptic elements (it’s apparently addressed to someone inexplicably obsessed with quince), the poem seemed to imply a much wider world, a world facing a Pompeii-like cataclysm which involved an underwater ‘‘Star of the Tides’’ whose fitful movements led to ‘‘unbalancing the mountain/unbalancing the world.’’ I only know this because Lemberg helpfully draws our attention to the poem in the acknowledgements of The Unbalancing, billed by Tachyon as the first full-length novel of the Birdverse, though it’s actually not that much longer than The Four Profound Weaves. That brevity turns out to be a virtue, as it was with the earlier novella, because Lemberg is content to imply a complex world, and indeed an entire cosmology, without forcing us to sit still for lectures about it. In fact, it’s easy to read The Unbalancing as a kind of unfolding of that earlier poem, which now looks like a soliloquy from a much broader drama – which, though set in the same universe, shares little in the way of character or setting with The Four Profound Weaves.
We do learn a good deal about the Birdverse creation myth, though. A thousand years earlier, the Bird scattered around the world 12 stars, each of which was caught and protected by a starkeeper, who would pass the responsibility along to succeeding generations. Near the archipelago city of Gelle-Geu, the local star lives under the ocean, and has apparently been feeling stressed out and fidgety for so long that it’s gained nicknames like the Sputtering Star or the Unquiet Sleeper. This is important, because it’s tethered to the largest volcano in the archipelago, Mother Mountain, and an unbalancing of the star could disturb the mountain, with disastrous consequences. The main resource the city has in order to protect itself is a magical system derived from the deepnames of the relatively few citizens with magical abilities.
Given the epic scope which becomes apparent in the first few chapters, The Unbalancing begins modestly, with what sounds like an almost petulant session of career counseling. The poet Lilún – one of the two alternating narrators – is visiting the ghost of the original starkeeper Semberi, who is pretty dissatisfied with the passivity of the current starkeeper and wants Lilún to take the job. But the neurodivergent Lilún, uncomfortable with authority or attention, prefers to tend to their poetry and quince trees. Eventually, the starkeeper dies and is replaced by Ranra, who turns out to be our other narrator. Semberi convinces Lilún to at least meet with Ranra, and to the surprise of both, they fall in love. But the impending catastrophe, aggravated by the previous starkeeper’s negligence (or possibly despair) forces them to organize a last-ditch effort to save the city by marshalling the magical powers of those with deepnames. This brings onstage an intriguing cast of well-drawn secondary characters, including Ranra’s former lover Veruma, the shipbuilder Dorod, and the starkeeper’s adviser Ulár. Ulár, who at times feels like an SF character who has wandered into a fantasy novel, is a sort of seismologist who not only warns about the potentially catastrophic disturbances caused by the Unquiet Sleeper, but later concocts an elaborate chart for combining the various deepnames into a powerful network. Many of these characters are queer or nonbinary, and the society of Gelle-Geu seems quite a bit more open than our own: people can identify as male, female, or ichidar (non-binary), and can choose, like Ulár, to be adar, or simply unaligned. While Lemberg’s prose can be as lilting and lovely as their poetry, the novel is not without a fair amount of wit; this is the Birdverse, after all, and the expletives of choice are ‘‘Pluck it!’’ and ‘‘Bird peck it!’’ That sort of dialogue, together with Lemberg’s sharp portrayal of the challenges of holding a relationship together, grounds the novel firmly in character despite the fanciful cosmology of its setting (though we do get some dramatic perorations as the crisis comes to a head). The Birdverse may be mythic in form, but it’s occupied by some fascinating and memorable characters we won’t soon forget, and whose problems subtly and wisely reflect our own.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.
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