by R.B. Lemberg
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: September 20, 2022
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
In this first full-length novel from the acclaimed Birdverse, new love blossoms between an impatient starkeeper and a reclusive poet as they try together to save their island home. Nebula, Locus, and Ignyte finalist R. B. Lemberg (The Four Profound Weaves) has crafted a gorgeous tale of the inevitable transformations of communities and their worlds. The Unbalancing is rooted in the mystical cosmology, neurodiversity, and queerness that infuses Lemberg’s lyrical prose, which has invited glowing comparisons to N. K. Jemisin, Patricia A. McKillip, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
Beneath the waters by the islands of Gelle-Geu, a star sleeps restlessly. The celebrated new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri, who is preoccupied by the increasing tremors, confronts the problems left behind by her predecessor.
Meanwhile, the poet Erígra Lilún, who merely wants to be left alone, is repeatedly asked by their ancestor Semberi to take over the starkeeping helm. Semberi insists upon telling Lilun mysterious tales of the deliverance of the stars by the goddess Bird.
When Ranra and Lilun meet, sparks begin to fly. An unforeseen configuration of their magical deepnames illuminates the trouble under the tides. For Ranra and Lilun, their story is just beginning; for the people of Gelle-Geu, it may well be too late to save their home.
There is no one else in the world that writes fantasy like R.B. Lemberg: lyrical, heartfelt, and queer, the kind of deeply thoughtful writing that leaves you pondering things long after you’ve finished the book. It’s a magical experience and one I look forward to every time, but one that’s also accessible for a new reader. So while this takes place in the pre-existing Birdverse, no prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy this book.
Gelle-Geu is an island paradise, thanks to the Star of the Tides tethered to the islands that brings them magical energy and prosperity. The stars were brought there by the goddess Bird, though the star under Gelle-Geu has never been awake like the others. But Ranra, the newly elected starkeeper, has long suspected that something’s wrong, and it’s quickly evident that she has even less time to fix things than she thought. With the help of Lilún, a poet who’s also mysteriously connected to the star, can they prevent the death of the star and the collapse of their island?
“Keeper, I need to be blunt. I do not like this word, fix, that you keep repeating. The stars are alive—they have pain and stories, they have journeys and dreams—this I’m sure of. The stars are alive even if they are asleep. The stars, when awake, can consent and withdraw their consent, and they can converse with their keepers. The stars are people, and you do not fix people.”
Most of the synopsis mentions Ranra, but for me, it was Lilún who was the heart of the book. A poet, they prefer to spend their days tending to the quince grove on the island, mostly ignoring the grumpy ghost of their ancestor Semberí. Semberí seems to think that it’s Lilún’s responsibility to become the starkeeper, to try to connect with and soothe the star. Despite not being the starkeeper, Lilún is still somehow connected to the star and they can feel its nightmares. And now that Ranra has completed the starkeeper ceremonies, she can feel the same fear.
“I could carry the pain, but I did not have the gentleness.”
The two main characters couldn’t be more different than each other. Ranra is always go go go, impatient to solve the problem of the star and terrified they have less time than they believe. After a childhood spent with a mother who always found fault with her, she’s desperate to prove her competence. Lilún on the other hand is careful and deliberate, the sort of person who prefers to sit down and consider new experiences in their mind. They’re coded as neurodivergent, disliking eye contact and overwhelmed by large noisy crowds. Though the two are attracted to each other from their first meeting, figuring out how to work together to save the star is a frustrating process for both of them.
“The islands had weathered storms and earthquakes before, but I was terrified. We had always come together and rebuilt. We trusted our magics and our friendships, our warmth and our gardens, our abundance, our scholarship, but that wouldn’t be enough now.”
As always, the world building is phenomenal. The stories about the goddess Bird (and Ranra’s hilarious avian-related swear words) were lovely. The magic system is the same as the one used in The Four Profound Weaves, involving deepnames. A person can have up to three of them, with the shorter the syllables, the more powerful. Ranra, for instance, has the most stable, the Royal House, consisting of two one-syllable and one two-syllable deepnames. Lilún could have that configuration, but instead they stopped at two deepnames, which, frankly, is very Lilún.
My favorite world building bit this time was with gender identity. From the start Lilún is written as nonbinary, what their people call ichidar. Ichidar braid their hair into five parts which stand for the five possible variations of ichidar, and attach tokens in the shape of animals to show their variations. For instance, Dorado, one of the side characters, is rugár, signified by a bear, which means they’re “at once both father and mother, protective and caring and steady in their fierceness.” While Lilún knows they’re ichidar, their journey to figuring out which variation was heartwarming and very revealing of their character.
“We gift all to each other. Unless we perish, every single one of us, nobody and nothing can destroy this.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of difficult themes throughout the book. One of the main ones for both characters is living up to others’ expectations, especially when they’re trying to force you to be someone you’re not. Consent is also a huge one, and how it relates to, well, everything, but especially neurodivergence. There’s also a few beautiful passages about community, about responsibilities to others, about what community really is, whether it’s tied to a place or a people.
Overall, if you took the myth of Atlantis and made it queer and, well, wholly wonderful, you’d get this book. One final note: the author dedicated this book to Corey who is sadly no longer with us, but I could feel echoes of them everywhere in the book, their thoughtfulness, their insight, their kindness and gentle grace when someone made a mistake. And truly, I can’t think of a better recommendation than that. Highly recommended!