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The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

Novella, Tachyon Publications, 2020

Image from Tachyon Publications

Read:1/1/2022, print, first read

The Surun’ do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay. Among the Khana, 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 the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.

Description from Storygraph

This is the first full length work in Lemberg’s Birdverse universe, after a number of short stories set in the world. I came to this book without any background knowledge of the earlier works, but didn’t feel that my reading experience suffered. 

On the contrary, I found a world that felt complex and natural, sprawling out beyond this singular story. I suspect that this is partly because Lemberg has been writing in this world for so long that it has acquired a sort of lived-in quality. (I was reminded a bit of Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate books in this respect, since the world appears in some earlier short stories in Conservation of Shadows.)

Not to make an awful joke, but The Four Profound Weaves did indeed feel profound. The descriptions of magic are lovely, and the system wasn’t overly complicated or overly smoothed out. This is in large part a story about living within tension and complexity, and I very much liked how the magic itself echoed that. 

Moreover, we see magic and its possibilities and limitations through the development of the characters, very much within their perspective and experiences–which is to say that sometimes the story and the world surprise them, and so we are surprised as well.

On the surface, the writing style seems straightforward, but there are bursts of richness and even deep lyricism. Here’s one of my favorite moments:

To weave from death, you had to listen to the dead. To know them deeply, to attend to what had been silenced, to care enough to help the dead speak again through every thread that made up the great work. 

Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are characters who have lived full lives before the story begins, which I loved. Their experiences echo each other, but they’re not the same. Lemberg explores the way identity is formed, bounded, transmuted, and celebrated in a complex interweaving of stories. I think the impression I’m left with is a sense that in the face of either/or questions, this story’s answer is: yes. 

Other reviews:
New York Journal of Books
Strange Horizons
SFRA Reviews

More information
R.B. Lemberg’s site
Tachyon Publications page

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The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein (2015)