Thursday, September 29, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg

The magic of names, a quiet romance, queer self-discovery and an impending tragedy

The Unbalancing is the first published novel set in R.B. Lemberg's Birdverse, a rich, multifaceted setting which the author has brought to life over multiple stories and poems. Indeed, the first telling of this story was in 2015, in the poem Ranra's Unbalancing, which involves Ranra, one of the novel's main characters, recounting its climactic events to an unknown gardener. The Unbalancing works if you know that ending (it has to!), but it's not essential reading to appreciate this version of the story, and nor are any of the other Birdverse stories essential reading to know what's going on here. However, while I won't go into specifics for those who want to experience Ranra's story fresh, I think it's impossible to discuss this story without identifying it as a tragedy, in a very foundational sense: its main characters face an overwhelming situation and confront the limitations of their own selves, and these efforts do not end in success. This book contains deep sadness and loss - and yet, it's also full of love, and connection, and hope; and a sense that destruction is worth struggling against even when the odds are overwhelming and those around you have chosen not to fight.

The Unbalancing begins by giving Ranra's nameless gardener both a name and a voice. Erígra Lilún is a reclusive poet living on the islands of Gelle-Gau, a land which sits next to a potentially destructive underwater star. While Lilún has the potential to be one of the most magically powerful people on Gelle-Gau, they have chosen not to take on that full power and the responsibilities that would come with it. Unfortunately for them, their ancestor was one of the Starkeepers, an order tasked with predicting the tremors and difficulties that come with living next to a scary underwater star, and when said ancestor reappears as a ghost to tell them they need to take up the Starkeeper mantle, Lilún agrees to at least meet with the new Starkeeper and see what they are like, and if they really believe they can do a better job. That Starkeeper is, of course, Ranra Kekeri, a driven and magically powerful young woman who has just taken up the mantle from a predecessor who neglected their duties. Seeing in Ranra the crisis management skills that they lack, Lilún chooses to work alongside Ranra rather than replacing her, and the two also form a connection which allows them to engage their magics together in a previously unknown way. However, all signs point to destruction by the star and both Ranra and Lilún's skills - and their relationship - are tested to breaking point as they try to understand and pacify a being that neither of them can even comprehend.

While Bird themself, and the magic of deepnames provide a common thread to other Birdverse stories, Gelle-Gau feels like a very different setting to the city of Iyar or the deserts of Surun' where other stories (notably The Four Profound Weaves) have taken place. Here, polyamory is the norm, though asexuality is named and understood, and gender is understood as a sometimes complex process of self-discovery, with Lilún learning over the course of the novel to find a specific ichidi (non binary) variation which fits with their identity, having not been able to come to that understanding before. The magic of deepnames is a beautiful system for the setting, realised through poetic combination-names and geometric descriptions which feel real even as it's hard to grasp exactly what they might look or sound like. Magic-capable people in the Birdverse can take one, two or three deepnames, each of which can be one or more syllables long: the longer the name, the less raw power it has, but practitioners with more names are usually more powerful and combining names of different lengths allows people to do different things with their magic. Ranra's combination is the Royal House, a three-name strong set of one, one and two syllable names; Lilún could have a Royal House, but instead they have "stopped" at a Scholar's Angle, with a one and a two syllable name. Other characters have similarly named configurations, and the novel ominiously warns us about the Warlord's Triangle, a trio of one syllable names, which is the most powerful configuration but comes with a coercive element that is almost impossible to responsibly wield. It's no accident that these descriptions of neatly configured and classified deepnames, which in turn define the people who wield them in certain ways, confers an overall sense of balance. In contrast, when we get up close to Gelle-Gau's underwater star neighbour, we learn that it exudes a huge number of four- and five-syllable deepnames in messy tendrils. This is such a serious and poetic book that I don't want to bring down the tone of the review with memes, but: Nice balance... would be a shame if something happened to it.

If its setting and magic provide a powerful backdrop to The Unbalancing's tale, Lemberg's characters are more than up to the task of making it shine. Despite the looming apocalypse, the heart of the novel is in its often quiet connections between characters, and the attempts by Ranra and Lilún to understand each other even as they constantly wish they had more time to spend on developing their relationship properly. For Lilún in particular, the speed of events is portrayed as a fundamental challenge for them: while their neurodiversity isn't labelled within the novel, the reader will probably recognise a lot of autistic traits in their interactions with people and the way they respond to overwhelming stimuli. The challenges they face aren't sugarcoated as the crisis escalates - while Lilún's ancestor may feed them lines about how their slow approach is what's needed in a real Starkeeper, they themselves are under no illusion that the world is going to slow down for their benefit, and instead they recognise and try to support Ranra's more quick-reacting approach to her role. Ranra, meanwhile, is dealing with the challenges of leadership (including an ex-lover who remains a beloved friend but whose relationship with her is constantly strained by the distance in their position and power), and also carries with her the trauma of an abusive parent, and lingering resentment over a society that left her with that mother through a childhood of belittlement and verbal abuse despite their general awareness of mental illness. The more we see of Gelle-Gau through Ranra's eyes, the more we recognise its negative, complacent aspects, even as other elements (i.e. the broad queer acceptance) might seem utopian to a contemporary reader.

While it's the longest Birdverse story so far, The Unbalancing isn't a long novel, and while it takes plenty of time over its character moments it still brings us all too quickly to that tragic, powerful ending. And, while it feels odd to describe a tragedy as "earned", within the context of the narrative that feels like the best way to describe this climax. Everything comes to a head in a way that subverts the original sense of prophecy which kicked events off (that Lilún should be Starkeeper, not Ranra), pushes Lilún and especially Ranra to their limits, and leaves us with a bittersweet ending where things are lost, but hope is never fully extinguished. I'd like to see more about the inhabitants of Gelle-Gau and their corner of the Birdverse someday, and if this is a new series to you, then The Unbalancing is a fine place to start.