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.



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