R. B. Lemberg’s 2022 The Unbalancing is a secondary universe fantasy, set in Lemberg’s Bird universe.
Erígra Lilún isn’t at ease in social situations. They would rather engage in solitary artistic pursuits. This doesn’t sit well with their ancestor Semberí, long a ghost, who has a strong conviction that Lilún should be the new keeper of the Unquiet Sleeper. “What is that?” you ask. Let me explain.
Almost a thousand years ago, the Bird gave the world twelve stars. These are not enormous balls of plasma vastly outmassing the planet to which they were delivered. Which was probably for the best. Rather, they are bundles of magical energy animated by travellers from other worlds. Each star was given to a different clan, there to be guarded by designated starkeepers.
The star placed in the care of Lilún’s people is the Unquiet Sleeper. They have guarded it for nearly a millennium. Communication with it is sporadic, but sufficient to reveal that it is deeply unhappy. Its keepers have done what they could for it over the centuries, but nothing seems to soothe it.
Now Semberí believes fervently that Lilún should be this generation’s keeper. Lilún disagrees. After all, the Unquiet Sleeper already has a starkeeper, Ranra Kekeri. Whereas Lilún is more or less a recluse, Ranra is exuberantly social. Does this make her a better keeper? Unclear.
Pestered by the ghost into meeting with Ranra, Lilún finds themself unexpectedly attracted to the keeper. Not that this matters in the face of untoward omens and ominous forebodings of impending doom. Unless Lilún, Ranra and their allies can cure the Unquiet Sleeper, the Sleeper and the islands to which it is mystically bound are doomed.
As are all the people who call the islands home.
This is a kissing book but it is also the sort of book where volcanic island nations can die in fire if people don’t line their dominoes up correctly. It is also very much a fantasy, because faced with a good chance of a local apocalypse, the local authorities take constructive action without trying to enrich their friends or vilify minorities and political opponents. Books can be more than one thing.
Lemberg’s prose and characterization are, as ever, quite enjoyable.
Spoiler: the cat whose existence I have only now revealed survives.
You know, the Bird really should have given the keepers a maintenance manual when she bestowed the stars. The keepers are winging it, blindly; if they fail, their islands could be destroyed by Krakatoa-scale eruptions. Is it too much to ask divine beings for clear instructions? Why are so few gods subject to performance reviews?
Lilún is an ichidar, a person who is neither male nor female. There are many kinds of ichidar. Lilún has yet to decide which kind they are. It’s even possible that they are a new kind of ichidar, one which there is no established term. Things change, language changes. There is also the matter that Lilún is what we’d call “on the spectrum,” which adds a whole extra layer of difficulty to dealings with those around them. This is particularly true of Lilún’s relationship with Ranra; romance is not facilitated by inarticulate frustration. I note that while this culture is more open-minded about gender than is ours, it is not all that much better at accommodating the neurodivergent.
It is pure coincidence that Unbalancing is, like recently reviewed Kaiju Girl Caramelise, a story driven in large part by problems with communication. I encounter such thematic coincidences frequently. Fate? Or pareidolia?
However, Lemberg isn’t writing a comedy and the problems their characters encounter are not all of the sort that can be resolved with a quick conversation; the Unquiet Sleeper is too traumatized to be articulate and since Lilún is not sure what to make of themself, it’s no surprise other people can be perplexed as well.
If there’s a moral here, it’s that good intentions and hard work won’t necessarily pay off. At least by the beginning of the book, results have been frustratingly meagre.
As far as the little matter of the end of the world, buy the book to see how that all works out.
Yes, The Unbalancing is not due out until the fall. I am reviewing an ARC, an advance reader’s copy. I’ll eat my marshmallow NOW until such time as I am convinced that there is a second marshmallow to be had if I defer gratification.
The Unbalancing can be pre-ordered here.