The Unbalancing by R. B. Lemberg

The cover of The Unbalancing by R. B. Lemberg, with a black background. At the top is small text with the quote saying, "I was staggered by the richness and intricacy of R. B. Lemberg's imagination." The quote is by Kate Elliott, author of Crown of Stars. Just below this in blue is a mountain with a bird flying in front of it, and the text "A Birdverse Novel" in white. Below this are waves in blue and white. Below this, covering the lower half of the cover, is a large compass-like wheel in blue, with small birds between the spokes. At the center of the wheel is "The Unbalancing" in white, and "R. B. Lemberg" in blue. At the bottom, just covering the lower edge of the wheel, are more waves.

The Unbalancing by R. B. Lemberg unraveled the difficult thoughts I’ve been having recently. I was asked half a year ago if I was interested in reviewing the advanced reader copy (ARC) of this work, and I said yes immediately despite the difficult time I was having because of how much I loved Lemberg’s previous work, The Four Profound Weaves

The concerns that have been tangling together inside my heart over the past few years finally pulled taut earlier this year, and I couldn’t carry on with this blog or with almost all of my other passions and hobbies. The ARC of The Unbalancing sat in my inbox until July, when I managed to find myself some respite, though even then, I could feel the knotted anxieties wheedling away at my energy. In all honesty, one of the reasons why I managed to prioritize reading it was because I had agreed to review it and because The Unbalancing is set to come out in September.

The Unbalancing is a romantic fantasy novel set in R. B. Lemberg’s Birdverse setting. This time, it follows Erígra Lilún (they/them), a young and reserved poet, and Ranra Kekeri (she/her), a promising new leader, as they try to figure out why the Star of Tides is disturbed in its slumber beneath the waves near their island. This is complicated by the fact that Erígra was told by the spirit of their ancestor that they were meant to be the next Star Keeper, despite their own hesitation and despite Ranra taking up that role. As the two try to understand what is causing the Star of Tides so much suffering, they learn about themselves and about one another.

The world falling apart, catastrophe hiding just out of view, individual and social complications. This is a story familiar to many these days. How can Erígra become a Star Keeper–a leader for their people and possible hero who is meant to heal the Star of Tides from its 1000-year-long pains–while also caring for quince grove their ancestor resides in, finishing their next poem, sorting out their complicated feelings toward Ranra, and maintaining their own health? How can they take up that heavy mantle when their ancestor, Semberí (they/them), is unable to tell the full story without dissipating due to their own traumas? How can we get rid of all of the terrible things in the world while also taking care of ourselves and seeking our own happiness?

Part of this is a miscommunication. For Erígra, a Star Keeper is a leader, a decision-maker, and a lofty title-holder. For Semberí, a Star Keeper is someone who can empathize with, care for, and bear the weight of an eons-old Star. We do not have to be heroes who rid the world of transphobia single-handedly. We do not have to be the voice breaking through the miasma. We just need to be patient and healthy and help others when we can.

But there are times when we do need people to push forward. Ranra, determined and powerful, assumes the title of Star Keeper after Erígra lets it pass by. This is not a bad thing, despite what the ancient Semberí might think. Ranra is not a healer, but she is a leader, and she is willing and able to act when others couldn’t, even in spite of the intense burden of magically connecting with the Star of Tides. That is her own resilient strength that protects their people and gives them a better chance at survival without falling into despair, and it is something that the former Star Keeper could not manage.

In a similar way, we need people who have the resilience and power to push back against atrocity and to fight for human rights. These people do not need to fill the role of “healer” or “hero”, but instead take up the role of “protector”. If a person takes on too many roles, they, like Ranra, will suffer for it, and they may worsen the situation.

I have been like Ranra. I took on too much without considering delicate threads that could break amidst the tangles of my life and of the complex difficulties the world has faced till now. I thought I could manage my studies and my work while also maintaining the careful balance between being a megaphone for trans, intersex, and other gender expansive experiences and also being someone who breaks down transphobia. I thought like Ranra did: that I needed to do everything, even if it meant bearing my own vulnerabilities, because few others are willing and able to do it. I pulled two ends of a tangle until the string was taut. The stress and overwork led to procrastination and tendonitis, and I stopped posting.

The Unbalancing helped me understand that I do not have to take up every role, but it also taught me that assuming each one of these roles is not something I have the right to do in the first place. I can contemplate, and I can share my own experiences, and I can help others, but it is not right for me to act as though my voice is authoritative just because I am here and putting in the work. Even if there are those around me who take my thoughts and opinions as fact does not mean that I have the consent from all trans and gender expansive people to be a megaphone for them. I think that I have been careful with how I have worded my pieces so that I would not speak for others’ individual experiences, but I still confidently spoke about trans experiences as though I thoroughly know most of them.

But there is more than this to unravel. Truthfully, I have been concerned about this blog for a year or so now, specifically with the double edged sword of visibility and with how unwilling cisgender people have been to engage with transgender experiences and my own bitterness towards these matters. 

There are times when there may be no other choice to take up a certain role, as was the case both for Ranra becoming a Star Keeper and for Semberí choosing Erígra above all others, but we need to consider, to communicate, and to collaborate so that we do not pass beyond the boundaries of consent.

As the world’s suffering expands, there are those who are more vulnerable than others. Trans people are one of these groups, and though we have seen greater visibility than ever in the last five years, we–though particularly Black and Indigenous trans women–have been lashed out at the most through violence and revoked rights and ostracization. Is it right for me to continue writing with a focus on spotlighting transgender representation and visibility when that very thing could result in more harm? Is it right for me to act as the arbiter of what should be included within transgender representation? (Certainly not.) Is it alright for me to continue talking about transgender media at all? (Yes.)

Beyond this, though, I started this blog with the hope of both making connections for transgender people and also educating cisgender people. How many of those cisgender people have actually taken the time and effort to become better allies? How many of the cisgender people in my own life have even a fraction of the understanding that I do about gender and about existing as a trans person? It is difficult to act when those around you seem disinterested in responding in kind. I have found myself lacking motivation to continue, even if all of the world suddenly improved and my own workload decreased significantly.

I do not have all of the answers, but I do know how Erígra responded. Without spoiling the story, all I will say is that contemplation and action must be carried out in equal measures. Just like a mess of yarn, you need to observe and test, consider and unloop, push and pull. I need time to think, just like Erígra did, but sometimes we think we have more time than we actually do. Delaying action leaves the tangle there, and as the matter gets passed down into the future, more knots may appear. Sometimes, it’s necessary to cut out the part that is tangled and try to move on in order to survive.

I do not know how much time is left for this blog, nor do I know how much time is remaining until the unbalancing of our own world reaches cataclysmic levels (if it ever truly does reach that point). I know that I will not be posting for some time, because I need to tend to my own quince grove and I need to write my own poetry. If and when I return to this blog, I will likely do so with a fresh approach after carefully determining what role suits me the best.

But this is a review, at the end of the day, despite the heavy topics and revelations and announcements, and if you read this for the review, I suppose I owe it to you to say whether I think you should read this book. I should hope that the answer to this is obvious, since it impacted me so greatly, but to state it outright: yes, you should read this book. For those who are drowning in their own tangle of concerns like I have been for the past year and beyond, this story is a respite and a consolation. It will not fix your problems, because if such a thing was possible due to a single book, the publishing industry would be in a much more secure position and authors would get paid more. But it did make me cry, and it helped me to sort through my feelings, and it gave me the strength to write this post, despite being gone for so long without notice.

Finally, because this is something beyond adjust a review at this point, I have a few words for R. B. Lemberg, themself, if they choose to read this. I adore your works, and I love the great detail that you put into them. I hope that you continue to tend to your quince trees, as the fruit you have placed in my pockets has been a blessing to me and undoubtedly has been and will continue to be for many others.

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