Book review: The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
For a number of years now, R.B. Lemberg has been exploring in stories and poems a magical world known as Birdverse. This is a richly textured world where multiple cultures coexist and interact; it’s a world of deserts and traders, of weavers and scholars and magic-workers. There are flying carpets and fallen stars, assassins and tyrants and powerful sorcerers. There are also people without magic, who are no less important. In this complex world, there are a multitude of family structures and customs and beliefs, yet all are united in their belief in a deity known as Bird.
The Four Profound Weaves is Lemberg’s first printed book in the Birdverse universe. It revisits characters that appear in an earlier novelette, the Nebula Award-nominated “Grandmother-Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” and takes place about a month after the events of that story, but a reader does not need knowledge of that previous story to understand and appreciate The Four Profound Weaves. This is a book that can stand on its own.
“The Four Profound Weaves. A carpet of wind, a carpet of sand, a carpet of song, and a carpet of bone. Change, wanderlust, hope, and death.”
The themes mentioned above—change, wanderlust, hope, and death, are woven throughout this beautiful book. The narration alternates between two characters: Uiziya e Lali, a gifted weaver who has waited forty years for her beloved aunt Benesret to return to teach her the secret of the Four Profound Weaves. And an unnamed man who goes by the temporary name of nen-sasaïr, "the son of sandbirds.” A man who for decades was seen as a woman by all around him, and who has only recently claimed his identity as a man and received a male body through the magic of a carpet of wind and the blessing of sandbirds and Bird.
Uiziya and nen-sasaïr travel together to seek out the powerful Benesret—Uiziya in hope that Benesret will finally teach her the last Profound Weave, the weave of bone and death. And nen-sasaïr in hope that Benesret will give him a true name. It’s a journey through a desert of buried bones and danger, and a quest that returns nen-sasaïr to the city and people he left. After waiting for forty years, Uiziya is finally embarking on real change. And nen-sasaïr, having undergone a great change, is still grappling with the aftermath and his new place in the world.
Change—the challenge of it, and the acceptance of it—is the first Profound Weave and one of the strongest themes of this book. And one thing that I greatly appreciated is that this book illustrates how no one is too old for change, or wanderlust or adventure. Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are both in their sixties; they’re elders and grandparents; they both at times refer to the physical weakness that comes with age. But they’re the stars of this story, not their young children or grandchildren. They’re the ones finding hope, love, adventure, and change. And it’s refreshing, for once, to see elders as heroes in a fantasy story, and not dewy-skinned teens or twenty-somethings.
The Four Profound Weaves is both beautiful and profound. It speaks of love in various ways, and of how love can hurt and bind as well as nourish and bring joy. It speaks of various forms of oppression, and the different boundaries (in some cases, literal walls) that people concoct for themselves, the limits that some seek to transcend and the prisons that others willingly accept. There’s a literal prison in this slim book, a dungeon filled with speaking bones and ghosts, a torturer, and a tyrant. There’s darkness and truly creepy, striking imagery. There’s an intimate realism to the characters and their struggles, but there’s also a fable-like quality to the plot. The mix works; this novella is lovely, luminous, and moving. And it breathes with magic. Lemberg’s prose, always rich and gorgeous, is filled with enchantment. Here is a lyrical passage that describes a carpet woven by a child:
“The carpet she offered was small and exquisite, made from the tiniest movements of air that come awake, breath after breath, as the dawn tints the desert pink and silver. The threads that made the carpet were delicate flurries of blue not so much woven but whispered into cloth, convinced to come together by the magic of deepnames and laughter. . . Kimi laughed, and a flurry of pink butterflies shook themselves loose from the carpet of wind.”
There are also sentences that are simple and direct but striking in their wisdom. As in this example, when Uiziya gently reprimands nen-sasaïr, who has been feeling sorry for himself: “You see other lives as easy because you don’t see them. You see your story as complex and hard because you know it best.”
The Four Profound Weaves is about the complexity of human lives and relationships, as well as about magic and change and hope and death. It serves as an excellent introduction to the Birdverse universe if you have not been there before. And if you have, it’s another wonderful, rich story in a world that has been growing and deepening with the years.