The Unbalancing, by R.B. Lemberg is a novel of textures and layers. It’s the type of book that should be absorbed, rather than read at a break-neck, ‘page-turner’ pulse-pounding pace. It’s a short novel filled with intricate details but it’s never dense and confusing. There’s the stress of suspense, but there’s also a leisurely intimacy here that’s uncommon to fantasy-quest novels. Lemberg has created their own genre, one that challenges the constraints of the form. A cozy apocalypse, or a fantasy-based picaresque novel. (It’s also a love story.)
Told in alternating first-person narratives, Lemberg tells the story of an impending ecological disaster on a small archipelago. Ranra Kekeri is the recently installed Starkeeper, the steward for a traumatized fallen Star that sleeps in the nearby ocean. Erigra Lilún, a poet, also has a bond with the sleeping Star, one that they are ambivalent about. Ranra and Erigra’s connection with the Star sparks a simmering attraction between the two, and they become lovers. Both of them clash and collaborate as the dreaming Star becomes more unstable and chaotic.
Lemberg’s Birdverse is a complex creation, full of mythology and multiple magic systems that draw upon secret names, living Stars, sacred geometry and an all powerful Bird goddess. Additionally, the society of the archipelago recognizes and supports alternative family structures and gender fluidity. The world-building is organic and lived-in, and never confusing.
Lemberg’s prose is soaked in magic, magic that’s full of space and light and sound. The Unbalancing manages to be both ethereal and earthy. Lemberg juxtaposes otherworldly scenes of magic with awkwardness of new relationships. Some of the best scenes in the novel are the clash between Ranra’s Type-A personality with Erigra’s measured introspection. (Lemberg’s portrayal of Erigra’s neuro-divergence is a highlight of the novel). The Unbalancing isn’t a book that can be adequately summarized. It can only be experienced.
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