Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Unbalancing, by R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

The star in the ocean off the city of Gelle-Geu has slumbered for almost a thousand years, but now it is beginning to have nightmares. And because that star is tethered to the Mother Mountain, a nearby volcano, the twenty thousand inhabitants of Gelle-Geu are in no small amount of danger. Unfortunately, the previous keeper of the Star of the Tides decided that nothing could be done to stop the disaster, and so kept it secret.

When new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri takes over, and discovers how little time remains, Ranra takes a very different view. If there’s a way to calm the star, Ranra will find it, but before that can be done the new starkeeper may have to figure out what the star actually is – all while dealing with the worries caused by an aggressive former partner, Veruma, a cruel and delusional mother, Adira, and a potential new partner, the poet Erígra Lilún.

Erígra the poet is also a point of view character. As with the previous book I read by this author (The Four Profound Weaves), I didn’t really enjoy the story being split between two first-person narrators, especially at first when it was harder to remember which was which, but Erígra was an interestingly unusual protagonist for a book like this. Most fantasy novels feature heroes who run towards danger, but Erígra sits down, upset, waits for the danger to pass, and would much rather be writing a poem.

The way that magic works in this book is also interesting, though it took me a little while to get a handle on it. One’s magic depends on one’s deepnames, and the fewer syllables in those names, the more powerful they are. There’s an element of choice, but names can also be taken from others during fights: Ranra’s first came when defending Adira, and the second from fighting Adira. Ranra’s magic is powerful enough to mend ships and houses even before the book begins.

Like a few books I’ve read recently (e.g. The Flame and the Flood, reviewed in TQF70), The Unbalancing is reluctant to tell readers the sex of its characters. We learn about their gender identities and sexualities (mostly either orgy-loving pansexuals or asexuals – gay men live on their own island), but not their sex. Some readers may appreciate this: it makes multiple readings possible. But not telling readers how to imagine its characters in such a fundamental respect does adds to the reader’s mental load, as one tries to hold all possibilities in one’s head at once.

That may be why I originally set the book aside a third of the way in. But for my second bash at it I plumped for a particular reading (a female Ranra, a male Erígra), and while that may not be justified by the text and other readings may be possible, it did make the book much less of a chore to read. Between that, coming to understand the magic a bit better, and the impressive unfurling of the plot, it was a book I enjoyed more with each passing page. I’ve read few books with better conclusions. Stephen Theaker ****

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