I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of R.B. Lemberg’s gorgeous novella, The Four Profound Weaves, which will be published by Tachyon Publications in August, and is currently available for pre-order. The story takes place in Lemberg’s Birdverse, featuring familiar characters who have previously appeared in stories such as “Grandmother-Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, which was a finalist for the 2015 Nebula Awards.
The same beautiful and poetic prose found in Lemberg’s other Birdverse stories is on full display here. The world is vibrant, rich, and Lemberg does a wonderful job bringing it to life and fully immersing the reader. Many of the themes touched on in other Birdverse stories are explored here as well – transformation, hope, the role culture and context play in self-perception, and the idea that self-discovery is an ongoing process and that people are constantly in a state of evolving and becoming.
The story centers on Uiziya and nen-sasair, both of whom feel something missing in their lives, leading them to set off across the desert together on a journey of self-discovery. Despite transforming in body to the man he always knew he was, nen-sasair still isn’t sure where he fits in life. There are those who persist in seeing him as an eccentric woman who dresses in men’s clothing and builds mechanical wonders as men do. He longs to go into the men’s quarter of the city, and lift his voice in song with other men, but fear holds him back. Will he be accepted, or will he always be an outsider?
Uiziya’s aunt was a great weaver who long ago promised to teach Uiziya her art, including the secret of the Four Profound Weaves, but she vanished, and now Uiziya has been waiting over half her life for her return. Like nen-sasair, she is a grandparent, but life with her family is not enough for her. She is restless and tired of waiting, determined to find her aunt and demand answers. At the same time, Uiziya is afraid as well, uncertain whether she is willing to fully embrace the cost that comes with learning to weave from death itself as her aunt does.
A story floated like stars in the darkness that pulsed with the insistence of pain. I would catch them one by one, all the diamondflies my aunt had made, and I would know again the truth of the wide-open skies where the ancient wind meanders from sandwave to sandwave, revealing and hiding its secrets.
The theme of transformation at the heart of the novella is reflected in the imagery Lemberg uses – ever-shifting things like wind and sand and song, and even death, which is a transition from one state to the next. In their acknowledgements at the end of the book, Lemberg reveals that the novella is the first book written after their father’s passing. Thus, the book itself is an act of transformation, an act of becoming, and moving from a state of grief to one of hope, which death is often paired with over the course of the novella.
The meditations on death throughout the novella, and the different characters’ perspectives on death are deep, nuanced, and thoughtful. Uiziya’s aunt feeds on death and teaches her that true art can only come from sacrificing those you love. The Collector, who seeks to gather the four cloths that represent the Four Profound Weaves, sees death as an element of power, a power he can use to stop things from ever changing – a state that is worse than death.
“I want things to remain, sacred and sovereign and unchanging. I want to preserve what is best. It is a noble purpose… The landmass’s truest and brightest, its art, its desire, its will, stripped of the perversions and impurities of flesh and stored away to be treasured forever.”
Uiziya ultimately comes to a new understanding of death through her journey. It is not an end point, or a means to an end. It is a form of change, and the true power of it lies in bringing new life to the dead by giving them a voice and reconnecting them to the living. Giving them hope, and giving their loved ones hope that they haven’t truly lost those they care about.
Faith and belief are also a central themes in the book – both in the sense of structured, shared beliefs that shape a culture, and a more personal, interior kind of faith. Nen-sasari and Uiziya both have faith that their journey will be rewarded, and that their transformation will be complete one day. They both feel something missing in their lives, but ultimately it doesn’t bring a sense of hopelessness, only a realization that they are partway through their journeys, again circling back to the idea of transformation and life being a constant state of motion and discovery.
The Four Profound Weaves is a beautiful novella. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that as a physical object, the book is beautiful too. The interior illustrations by Elizabeth Story (who also designed the cover) are absolutely gorgeous, and the whole book just has a lovely, well laid out feel. Pre-order now, and be assured you will have something lovely to read come August.