R. B. Lemberg’s 2020 The Four Profound Weaves: a Birdverse Book is their debut novel. It is set in their Birdverse world, where individual gender can be fluid, but socially sanctioned gender roles are narrowly defined.
Two companions set out into the Great Burri Desert, which is not too distant from the city of Iyar. Uiziya craves knowledge. Nen-sasaïr — the nameless — wants a name.
Uiziya’s aunt, Benesret, has the knowledge that Uiziya craves: how to weave with bone. This arcane skill makes Benesret useful to the assassins who wear her white cloth. The unsavoury source of her art has made Benesret an exile; her people do not care to live near someone who consumes the living for her art.
Benesret’s bargains are costly. The immediate cost: Uiziya is dreadfully maimed, beyond anything physicians can heal. The delayed cost: unpleasantness after the return to the city of Iyar.
The Collector rules the city, his vicious cruelty enforcing a sullen stability. The Collector craves the treasures to which he believes the returnees hold the key. There is little the pair can do to elude him.
Unlike a lot of fictional worlds, this is one where an older person not only can but does rebuild their life from the foundations on up, rather than consigning change to the young.
This is Lemberg’s debut book, but their setting is not new. They have been publishing short works set in the Birdverse for years. Either the author believes most of their readers will have sought them out after reading the short works or they have a John M. Ford level of confidence in the reader’s ability to deduce the world from clues here and there. Well, it’s a nice change from books where the author endlessly explains setting and backstories.
It’s a curious thing that cultures can use techniques that at first glance appear to offer freedom but in actuality constrain. People in the Birdverse can alter their gender, but because gender roles are narrowly defined, this simply gives folks a choice of pigeon hole — a small pigeon hole with hard edges.
Along much the same lines, Iyar is not long on civil liberties, preferring to focus on its core competence in treading on necks with heavy boots. While certain aspects of the government are addressed in the course of the novel, one does not foresee fundamental reform coming any time soon. The Collector is likely less a cause and more a symptom.
Effectively written, although no doubt playing to themes to which I am blind, This was an intriguing introduction to Lemberg’s work.