R.B. Lemberg, The Unbalancing, Tachyon Publications, 2022.
With sublime prose, The Unbalancing is a fantasy novel telling magnificently a story of love, exile, and persistance.
Lilún is a magic user living on the island of Geu. They live a simple life, writing poetry and tending to quince trees. The ghost of their ancestor, Semberí, keeps telling them they should become the next starkeeper, but Lilún cannot because of who they are. The situation becomes pressing though. The star beneath the sea has always had an unquiet sleep, but it's worse now. When Ranra is named starkeeper, Lilún will need to disregard their own needs to help her save the island.
The Unbalancing is set in the wider Bird universe, in which The Four Profound Weaves is also set, although anyone could start from here. Lemberg explains with ease the world, the beliefs and the magic systems. They are at the heart of the novel, yet at the same time, The Unbalancing remains an intimate story about loss and love.
It is amazing how much Lemberg manages to fit in such a short story. The theme of emigration and exile is woven throughout and will certainly move anyone whose family has had to emigrate--the story can be read as a long, living metaphor in which anyone could see their family circumstances. The theme of depression is also there, as seen from those who try to help but cannot reach the unquiet sleeper as they feel alone and isolated in their own nightmares. Finally, the novel asks some hard questions about the line between persistance and force, strength and foolishness, and how we could fall from one to the other without ever noticing.
The characters have been a delight to me and Lilún moved me a lot for personal reasons. Ranra, as their polar opposite, was the perfect counterpart. In their interactions, the themes of the novel soared and took life. Their romance, as unlikely as it may seem, was so well done I found myself rooting for them.
The secondary characters are more quickly drawn but they have a life of their own. Dorod, the shipbuilder, in particular, was fascinating, and so was Ranra's mother--albeit for very different reasons.
Lemberg explores in the novel so many ways to be a human being--not only regarding sexual orientation, gender or neurodiversity, but also our failures and our graces, our pettiness and every single time we strive to be better.
The prose is a delight. Lemberg is a poet and every sentence is a remarkable example of balance and rhythm. It's fair to say I took more time to read The Unbalancing than I should have simply because I wanted to prolong the magic.
By alternating between Lilún and Ranra's points of view, the novel goes at a steady pace without ever sacrificing the inner life of the characters as they face the choices they have to make.
The Unabalancing is a magnificent example of Lemberg's talent. Every emotion is sublimed through their words, with all its nuances. Every character shines with their own life, their own struggle, their own hopes or despair.
This review is only a pale reflection of the beauty of this novel. I cannot recommend it enough.
Disclaimer: a free copy was received but with no obligation attached to review it.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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