January 29, 2020

Book review - THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES by R.B. Lemberg


R.B. Lemberg’s novella The Four Profound Weaves is a lyrical and gripping journey that begins in a sunlit desert full of sand and bones, continues into a city haunted by memories and ghosts, and eventually takes the reader into the the light-less depths beneath the earth. It’s a story that delves deep into themes like resistance, courage, and endurance. With both gentleness and sharp precision, Lemberg explores the importance of our connections to the world around us and to other people, and how powerful those connections can be in shaping us and our lives. One of the things I love about this novella, is how it emphasizes that change is a vital part of life: both in the sense that we can change ourselves, and in the sense that the world, and the passage of time, will inexorably change us, too. 

If you haven’t visited Lemberg’s Birdverse before, here is a quick introduction, courtesy of Tachyon:

The Birdverse is the creation of fantasy author R. B. Lemberg. It is a complex, culturally diverse world, with a range of LGBTQIA+ characters and different family configurations. Named after its deity, Bird, Birdverse works have been nominated for the Nebula award, longlisted for the Hugo award and the Tiptree award, placed in the Rhysling award, won the Strange Horizons readers’ poll, and more.

The Four Profound Weaves is Lemberg’s first novella-length work set in this secondary world, and the author describes it as,

…a story of two trans elders who must learn to weave from death to defeat a sinister ruler who murders rebellious women and hoards their bones and souls.

And here's the slightly longer official blurb from Tachyon:

The Surun’ nomads do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But aged Uiziya must find her aunt in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.

Among the Khana in the springflower city of Iyar, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter, as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother. As his past catches up, the man must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya – while Uiziya must discover how to challenge the evil Ruler of Iyar, and to weave from deaths that matter.

If the plot is the warp of a story, then the weft of this novella is Lemberg’s exquisitely crafted, luminescent prose. I delight in reading Lemberg’s work just for the sheer beauty of the words and the gorgeous melody of the prose, and The Four Profound Weaves showcases their mastery in every paragraph.

Much like the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, Lemberg’s writing brings out the magic of everyday life, of relationships, of people. And one of the things I love about Birdverse is how magic infuses everything here: names and words, places and bones, memories and dreams. The craft of weaving is also infused with magic here, but these are weaves that do not use regular thread and yarn. Instead, the weaver must use elements of the world around them to craft the cloth:

Wind: To match one’s body with one’s heart
Sand: To take the bearer where they wish
Song: In praise of the goddess Bird
Bone: To move unheard in the night

There is significant power in these weaves, but to weave from bones, from death, in order to make the final weave as Uiziya wants to do in the novella, comes with a cost, as they find out when they locate Benesret in the desert. And that cost is no mere trifle.

Do you know what it means to weave from the people you care for, from sisters, from lovers, from kin? What it means to weave out of your body, your flesh, to weave your own death as if you saw it for the first time?

Lemberg’s novella is a rich and compelling read all the way through, but the writing in the last third of the book, and the final chapters, is powerful in a way that is both devastating and uplifting.

Uiziya and the nameless man, who calls himself Nen-Sasaïr, find themselves in a dark and terrible place, in the clutches of the Ruler of Iyar. The ending that Uiziya and Nen-Sasaïr find (an ending they craft through their own actions and sacrifices), in that dark place, is both harrowing and beautiful, sad and joyful, and it feels right in that satisfying way that signifies a great ending.

Ultimately, the characters in The Four Profound Weaves must confront their own pain, their own doubts and ghosts, while also confronting a corrupting and evil force that intends to warp the world, to imprison and use people and magic for its own selfish and destructive ends.

For me, Lemberg’s novella emphasizes that resistance is important even when victory is not guaranteed, and even when achieving victory will not solve all the world’s problems. Resistance is an important act in and of itself, because it determines how we live, and how we treat and care for those around us. Finding courage for our friends, for other people; confronting evil in order to help others and ourselves, is important even if we do not win, and even if the victory is short-lived.

The Four Profound Weaves is woven of beauty and words, pain and hope. It is a story to treasure and share.

Find out more about R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse on their website.

Get your copy of The Four Profound Weaves.

Cover art for The Four Profound Weaves is by Tachyon designer Elizabeth Story.



January 1, 2020

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - December 2019


Welcome to my final SFF short fiction roundup of 2019. Instead of waxing poetic about how awesome a year it's been for speculative short fiction (and it has been awesome), let's just get right into it, because I have 16 awesome stories to share with you.

"I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married", by Fonda Lee in MIT Technology Review 

Written by the marvellous Fonda Lee (author of Jade City and Jade War, as well as Exo and Cross Fire), this story is an absolute gosh-darn delight. It's near-future scifi that feels near enough that it might almost be here already, and it is sharp and smart with a sly sense of humour. It's written in the style of a Reddit post (and even includes the poster's reactions to various comments and suggestions from readers as the story progresses). As Fonda commented on Twitter:  "I will not tell you how much I spent on Reddit r/relationships to research this piece." The premise of the story is right there in the title: it's about the shenanigans and complications that follow one man's decision to create a fake girlfriend, and how that decision ultimately (no surprise) backfires. A must-read.

"The Kingdom of the Butterflies", by Isabel Cañas in Luna Station Quarterly 

Elvira and Rosa live their lives in le Valle, "one of those gods-touched places that was neither here nor there", and every day they turn "damned mortal souls into aguamiel, the ambrosia of the gods". Whispering the spells taught to them by the goddess Mayahuel, they spin the souls into golden thread, before weaving those magical threads into the golden cloth of aguamiel. Then, Mayahuel takes the golden cloth to the gods, who turn it into liquid and drink it. The lives of the girls are strictly controlled, hemmed in by the rules of the goddess, and they are kept in check by their fear of her rage and punishment. but Rosa remembers a time before they came to le Valle, and she is determined to win their freedom. A beautiful, evocative story that blends mythology and fairytale with the lives and lore of the butterflies.

"Go On, Lick Me" by Luna Corbden in Zooscape 

Zooscape is a a speculative fiction zine "of fantastic furry fiction" where "the animals can talk, magic flows, and the stars are in reach", and it has been a wonderful addition to my reading diet in 2019. This story, about a very intelligent toad, is wickedly funny, and hides a sharp twist beneath its toady exterior.

"Fossilized" by Jessica Yang in Anathema 

Anathema's brand-new issue is packed with great fiction, including this story by Jessica Yang about what happens when Huayin's amah dies, and Huaying, eventually, hikes up the Tianran mountain where a god is said to dwell. "Fossilized" is a poignant, quietly powerful story about grief and family and language, and about the sometimes complicated bond between older and younger generations. It also ought to come with a warning: "this story will make you HUNGRY!" because the way food is described here (especially pork buns), is absolutely delectable.

"The Thing About Heisenball", by Stewart C Baker in Flash Fiction Online 

Heisenball is not your usual kind of game. As Paulie, who is in a somewhat troubled relationship with the story's narrator, explains: “The thing about Heisenball...is that you can’t win. But you can’t lose, either. Not really. It’s not about the game.” And once they start playing, we soon realize just how different, and how transformative the game can be. A lovely and piercing story about the vagaries of love and affection and how we don't always see ourselves and others as clearly as we think we do.

"Methods of Ascension" by Dan Stintzi in Nightmare 

Lately it seems, I'm reading all the scary stories in my to-read pile in the middle of the night, including this deeply creepy and unnerving tale by Dan Stintzi. It's a story starts out dark, and then moves deeper and deeper into the shadows of a life, of a family, and into what lurks beneath the shadows, until reality itself seems to bend and collapse in on itself. There's an isolated cabin, there is a brother who has been distant for many years, there are dreams and nightmares that bleed into reality, and there is a family history that is ever-present but not spoken of. Together, it makes for a fantastic, haunting horror story that lingered in my mind long after I finished reading.

"Dead Worms, Dangling" by Joanna Parypinski in Nightmare 

There's dread lurking underneath the surface of every word and paragraph in this darkly brilliant story by Parypinski. Two boys are fishing, they are friends, but they are also very different. Milo, with his over-protective mother waiting at home; Buck, with a father who leaves marks on his body and maybe his soul as well. Then, Milo catches something on his baited hook, and maybe, just maybe, it might be the infamous Backwater Beast. Heavy with menace and fear, and ominous shadows, this masterful horror story is worth both a read and a re-read.

"The Time Invariance of Snow" by E. Lily Yu in TOR.com 

Yu gives us a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" that is like no other retelling I have read, or imagined, before. Here, physics and fairytales and mythology, and our own reality, merge and splinter, shatter and branch off in new and unexpected directions. Yu masterfully shapes a story that cuts deep, telling us truths about love and power and the world as it is, and as it might be. It's the kind of story that is hard to describe, because it is so uniquely its own thing. Rarely have I read a story that blends strands of science fiction and fantasy in such an exquisite way. One of the best short stories I've read this year.

"Deep Water" by Daniel Delgado in Lamplight 8.1 

In Delgado's story, set in LA, we meet a man who calls himself Enrique. Enrique is a "listener". He hears vibrations of emotion, he hears them everywhere, all the time, and the stronger and more heightened the emotion, the louder and more unbearable is the noise he hears. When people disappear, he can find them by getting clues from the noise and the visions hidden in that noise. But when he sets out to find a young boy named David, the residue of despair and grief and pain he encounters is overpowering. Delgado expertly ratchets up the tension as Enrique follows the leads all the way to the riverside.

"Wonderland" by Aysha U. Farah in Foreshadow 

This is fantastical, harrowing, and unique take on the story of Alice in Wonderland, and I loved every raw and fierce bit of it. Farah tells the story of Alexi, who grows up knowing he is different than most of the people around him. He longs for something else -- some place else -- or at least another way of living and another kind of life than what others are trying to make him conform to. Rabbit appears when Alexi is a child, and her appearance signals the start of something new in his life, but big changes don't happen easily or quickly... not in life and not in Farah's story. There is a lot of pain and doubt and struggle involved, but in the end, Wonderland, Rabbit, and Alexi's own determination bring about both necessary change and hard-won hope.

"Such Thoughts Are Unproductive" by Rebecca Campbell in Clarkesworld 

I am an unabashed fan of Campbell's work (for example, "Lares Familiares 1981" in Liminal Stories), and this story is another subtle, exquisitely crafted piece of fiction from her. In a dystopic future marked by climate change, government oppression, and the constant intrusion in, and surveillance of, people's private lives, a woman tries to navigate her everyday existence without attracting the attention of the authorities. Her mother has already been imprisoned, her father is under threat of imprisonment, and so is she. There are shades of Orwell's 1984 in this story, with a government that tries to insert new memories and delete inconvenient truths from the news and the history books, and even from people's lives. As so often in Campbell's fiction, the speculative element of the story is firmly anchored in the Canadian landscape, in the towns and roads of small-town British Columbia. And, as always, Campbell writes with striking clarity, depth, and insight.

"Katabasis" by Catherine George in Augur Magazine 2.3 

Dave and Hannah have moved around a lot, all the time heading west through Canada, never able to settle down for long anywhere, always driven onwards by loss and grief and longing for somewhere to start anew. Now, they're as far west as they can go, living on an island off the coast of British Columbia. In the sea and fog, Hannah is finding a sense of home and belonging, but she also seems to be drifting farther from Dave. One day, they find a foot on the beach, inside a leather boot with silver buckles. This find comes to haunt both Hannah and Dave, but in very different ways. I love this gorgeous and melancholy story for the how well it captures the grey, rainy-day, foggy magic of coastal B.C. and for the delicate yet incisive way it also captures the shades of grey in a relationship.

"No Mercy to the Rest" by Bennett North in Podcastle 

When Sadie is brought to Castle Inferno to bring someone back from the dead, it is the beginning of a strange, fabulous, and suspenseful story full of unexpected twists and turns. North's tale is a darkly humorous and hugely entertaining read that blends some common genre literature ingredients in a wholly new way. There's a fierce supervillain rivalry, the difficult art of necromancy, the menace of giant robots, and the unexpected loyalty of an abomination.

"Notes from the Laocoön Program" by Phoenix Alexander in Metaphorosis 

A space capsule with two astronauts inside crash-lands on an alien planet. Huxley, our narrator, breaks his back and is badly burned in the crash. Outside the porthole, a strange world waits Huxley and Mikhail, his fellow astronaut--a world that is nothing like the place they thought they were going to. In the harrowing aftermath of the crash, Huxley is stuck in the capsule, haunted by his past, drifting in and out of consciousness, while Mikhail heads out to explore. They soon realize the planet is quite unlike anything humans have ever encountered before. This story is unnerving on several levels: there's the strangeness of the planet; and there is the harsh, hostile mind of Huxley, a man who is bitter and full of anger after a lifetime of denying his own feelings while trying control what he sees as the undesirable parts of himself. An unsettling and memorable read.

"Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North" by Genevieve Sinha in Beneath Ceaseless Skies 

In this weird western / steampunk story, we meet a headstrong and determined teenage girl named Claudette Dulac. Claudette might be only a teenager, but when her father disappears in the snowy wilderness while trying to slay a mysterious beast stalking the woods, she heads out to look for him, hoping to slay the monster herself. Sinha's story is a rollicking, riveting ride through the snow and ice and cold, full of fantastical weapons and unexpected discoveries (and friendships). It's a wonderful read that hooked me from the first word to the very last, and that also made me want to follow Claudette on new adventures. Fabulous prose and storytelling.

"Save, Salve, Shelter" by Essa Hansen in F&SF January/February 2020

Hansen's story is set in a future where Earth has been ravaged by environmental change and disease to the point that most of the humans, and most of the animals have died or are dying. What's left of humanity is leaving the planet in a fleet of Exodus shuttles, looking to make a home elsewhere in the solar system. However, they are bringing samples of the flora and fauna with them, hoping to eventually recreate them. Pasha is one of the people tasked with gathering genetic samples, but while she is fulfilling that mission, she is also gathering the surviving animals she finds: birds, a snake, predators and prey. She carries them with her, hoping to save them and bring them aboard one of the shuttles, but again and again they are turned away. While Pasha is wandering, both she and the animals she has brought with her, are changing, transforming, in unexpected ways. A deeply unsettling vision of the future, and a ferocious, visceral, deeply moving story.

Listen to the audio version.

(First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of Clarkesworld cover art "Halo" by DEREK STENNING.)