Review: The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg

The cover of The Four Profound Weaves, with a tan woven tapestry section hanging from a bone in front of a black backdrop. Flittering around are a set of orange-colored birds. Below the tapestry section is an orange hand that has threads of the tapestry wrapped around its fingers. Bones are placed to both sides of the hand. At the top of the cover, above the bone holding the tapestry, are the words: "Imagery that glows on the page." --Patricia A. McKillip. On the Tapestry in large black font are the words "The Four Profound Weaves" and "R. B. Lemberg" separated by smaller orange text that reads "a Birdverse book".

Stories are the fiber that is spun and woven by generations and relationships to make culture. While the weavers themselves may become forgotten, the stories remain. But what of the communities that have few familial ties, ones that are often hidden and isolated? How can those groups, like the trans community, build their own sustainable culture, if there is such a difficulty in those stories being passed on? R. B. Lemberg, queer bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel, addresses this very concern in The Four Profound Weaves, the debut fantasy novella in Lemberg’s Birdverse series that I got the chance to read an ARC of through Netgalley. In The Four Profound Weaves, elder trans heroes Uiziya e Lali and nen-sasaïr/the nameless man go in search of Beneseret, the infamous weaver who was known to have mastered three of the Four Profound (magical) Weaves, and always sought the ways of the fourth Profound Weave, the weave of death. Along the way, the two protagonists contend with their own expectations of their long lives, assassins, the literally haunting past, and the change-hating Ruler of Iyar who has mercilessly killed all who stood in his way. Through the course of the tale, R. B. Lemberg simultaneously shows readers the need for trans-inclusive cultural story representation and supplies The Four Profound Weaves as an example.

In The Four Profound Weaves, there are two cultures central to the storyline: the Khana–nen-sasaïr’s people–and the snake-Surun’–Uiziya e Lali’s people. The Khana exist within the city of Iyar as a minority group who migrated from their homelands long ago. In terms of how they view gender, Khana women travel in lover groups known as oregs while they lead trade for their community. They are notable for their powerful (though not precise) magical abilities and act as protectors to the Khana men, who remain separate from the rest of Khana society and act as artificers. Nen-sasaïr grew up standing outside the walls that separated the Khana men–a place he was not allowed to go as he was perceived to be a woman–while they sang what is known as the Dawnsong. As for the snake-Surun’, they are a group of people who live in the desert, who welcome change and do not hold many restricted views when it comes to gender. They also know a Profound Weave that calls magical sandbirds to the person using it in order to initiate what is only ever referred to as “the change”. It is what both Uiziya e Lali and nen-sasaïr used to transform their bodies.

Since The Four Profound Weaves alternates between Uiziya e Lali’s perspective and nen-sasaïr’s, a sort of dissonance between the two characters’ views often comes up. One such instance is how they view gender. For Uiziya e Lali, coming from an accepting society that does not force individuals to conform to a binary, she often sees nen-sasaïr as overthinking things when it comes to his gender and how he relates to his own people. It seems natural to her that nen-sasaïr would simply return to the Khana in Iyar and ask for them to choose his new masculine name, if he would not choose it himself. But to nen-sasaïr, the restrictions (and traumas) of his long life have manifested into a deep anxiety about returning to Khana and to his people. And so he defers and procrastinates. He wishes to have Beneseret give him his new name and starts this quest with Uiziya e Lali for that reason, without considering that perhaps there is a better way. When the two do go to Iyar and to Khana, his discomfort is palpable, particularly when it comes to the Khana men’s Dawnsong–something that he was not allowed to partake in and that he later could not let himself sing.

This difference between Uiziya e Lali and nen-sasaïr I saw as being because of their cultural stories (or lack thereof). The snake’Surun have built in conceptions of gender and sexuality that transcend a binary. In the third section of part one [Adobe Digital Editions seems to have trouble demarcating page numbers well] Uiziya e Lali thinks to herself about nen-sasaïr that “The nameless man’s people, the Khana, did not recognize in-betweeners. The nameless man’s people did not recognize people like him, either; instead, they insisted that the shape of one’s body determined one’s fate” (18?). This moment of dissonance says quite a bit about the two characters, but it also implies that there are no accepted stories within the Khana of “in-betweeners” and people who undergo “the change”. It’s highlighted further when nen-sasaïr does eventually hear a story about someone like him. He thinks in the fifth section of part three, “I had needed his tale desperately, before—and now, too. And yet I’d never heard of such a thing. I’d always felt alone here, where these tales—these tales existed, stories of people like me, but hushed so that we could not learn about each other.” (63?) We see the impact that a lack of culturally-accepted stories with trans representation can do to an individual: isolation, ostracization, anxiety, and an inability to become one’s authentic self in one’s own home.

At the same time R. B. Lemberg uses their book to show why it is so very important for these cultural stories to exist, they also weave tales of their own to supplement our lack of representation. 

In many ways, The Four Profound Weaves mimics the storytelling methods of folk tales and epics–some of the earliest forms of cultural-level stories.

Certain words (like the Four Profound Weaves and their meanings: wind – change; sand – wanderlust; song – hope; bone – death) and their synonyms appear again and again throughout the story. It did not surprise me that references to the wind made a resurgence at the end of the story, to indicate possibly the ongoing change of time. 

As well, the plot of The Four Profound Weaves has a number of internal stories with broader application, particularly to trans people. While nen-sasaïr has very specific reasons for searching for a name, many trans people have to figure out what their new name should be. There are also stories of gender-based oppression that are applicable to our own world, like the use of the fairly gendered magic system to parallel views of physical strength being attached to biological sex in our own world. These similarities are cushioned within the fantastical world of the Birdverse, a place different enough from our own to feel comfortable.

I also want to point out how the Ruler of Iyar is a kind of archetypal villain who is practically a manifestation of (particularly gender-based) oppression from our own world. He is powerful and does not care about other people–particularly not for women and certainly not for trans people. He hates change because it threatens him, and he hoards anything that could be used against him and corrupts it without seeing its beauty. He is capitalistic, tyrannical, colonial, racist, misogynistic, murderous, calculating. He is systemic hatred incarnate. Readers can look at him and see he is bad, and they can look back out to our own world and see the things that he would enjoy and understand that these things, too, are bad. R. B. Lemberg uses him as a foil to create a moral framework within the world of the story–much like villains in folktales and children’s stories.

This is all so important because as I read it, I could imagine talking with other trans people about this story in a book club and reading it to trans kids in future library programs. I could imagine the importance it would have had on me as a teen just sorting out my gender identity. I could imagine a future where this story becomes as commonplace as Hansel and Gretel or Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I could imagine a future where I related more to Uiziya e Lali’s experience of gender than to nen-sasaïr’s. A good story, much like the Four Profound Weaves, acknowledges the past, gives hope for the future, shows what we need to change to get there, and makes you want to find that place no matter what.

Would I recommend that you read it? Most definitely. This is, as some of you may have noticed, the longest review I have written in a while. All I will say in response to that is that The Four Profound Weaves came to me at a perfect time. It was phenomenal and made me cry–sob, really–when nen-sasaïr described the sandbirds coming to him and the final song. I immediately recommended it to some trans friends of mine (with the caveat that this story deals with a great deal of heavy stuff; go check out the content warnings below!) and I would absolutely recommend The Four Profound Weaves to cisgender folks as well. This is a universe that will be sitting within me for some time, so it’s a good thing that there’s much more (short fiction) of the Birdverse out there to read!

But really, go read this story, tell it to your friends, and help us get to that future that we so desperately need.

The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Paperback: $14.95

Scheduled Release Date: September 1, 2020

Number of Pages: 113 pages

ISBN: 978-1-61696-334-7

Content Warnings: mentions of slavery and human trafficking, mentions of murder, gore, brief fatphobia, restrictive gender roles, general violence, gendered violence, deadnaming, dysphoria, misgendering, torture, and transphobia.

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