The Unbalancing: A Birdverse Novel
by R. B. Lemberg
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Send NetGalley books directly to your Kindle or Kindle app
To read on a Kindle or Kindle app, please add firstname.lastname@example.org as an approved email address to receive files in your Amazon account. Click here for step-by-step instructions.
Also find your Kindle email address within your Amazon account, and enter it here.
Pub Date 20 Sep 2022 | Archive Date 21 Oct 2022
In this first full-length novel from the acclaimed Birdverse, new love blossoms between an impatient starkeeper and a reclusive poet as they try together to save their island home. Nebula, Locus, and Ignyte finalist R. B. Lemberg (The Four Profound Weaves) has crafted a gorgeous tale of the inevitable transformations of communities and their worlds. The Unbalancing is rooted in the mystical cosmology, neurodiversity, and queerness that infuses Lemberg’s lyrical prose, which has invited glowing comparisons to N. K. Jemisin, Patricia A. McKillip, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
“A poetic and magical Atlantis-esque novel and a perfect introduction to the Birdverse.”
[STARRED REVIEW] “Lovingly crafted with a deep and rewarding world full of complex characters who are often LGBTQIA+ and/or neurodiverse, this is an outstanding novel from a rising star in fantasy fiction.”
Beneath the waters by the islands of Gelle-Geu, a star sleeps restlessly. The celebrated new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri, who is preoccupied by the increasing tremors, confronts the problems left behind by her predecessor. Meanwhile, the poet Erígra Lilún, who merely wants to be left alone, is repeatedly asked by their ancestor Semberi to take over the starkeeping helm. Semberi insists upon telling Lilún mysterious tales of the deliverance of the stars by the goddess Bird.
When Ranra and Lilún meet, sparks begin to fly. An unforeseen configuration of their magical deepnames illuminates the trouble under the tides. For Ranra and Lilún, their story is just beginning; for the people of Gelle-Geu, it may well be too late to save their home.
About the Birdverse: The Birdverse is the creation of fantasy author R. B. Lemberg. It is a complex, culturally diverse world, with a range of LGBTQIA characters and different family configurations. Named after its deity, Bird, Birdverse shorter works have been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, Tiptree award, and Rhysling awards. The Unbalancing is the first novel set in the Birdverse.
A Note From the Publisher
Book Riot Notable Nonbinary Books You Should Check Out
Lit Hub’s 8 Great SF & Fantasy Books for September
Autostraddle Queer and Feminist Books Coming Your Way in Fall 2022
[STARRED REVIEW] “This first full-length novel in Lemberg’s acclaimed Birdverse (The Four Profound Weaves, 2020) shines with the author’s signature lush, dreamlike prose and nuanced explorations of trans and queer identity. The islands of Gelle-Geu are disturbed by a star that sleeps fitfully beneath the waves, its nightmares rocking the land with earthquakes increasing in frequency and severity. New starkeeper Ranra is determined to do whatever it takes to learn what is wrong and fix it to save her home from destruction. Poet and gardener Erígra Lilún is descended from the first starkeeper, Semberí. Semberí insists that Erígra is the only one who can wake the star and end its devastating nightmares, but Erígra has no interest in being starkeeper. Ranra and Erígra are instantly drawn to one another and fall into a romantic relationship even as the danger to Gelle-Geu increases. Both Ranra and Erígra have challenging and gratifying personal growth arcs, approached with the same thoughtfulness and determination the characters bring to bear on the threat facing their community. Lovingly crafted with a deep and rewarding world full of complex characters who are often LGBTQIA+ and/or neurodiverse, this is an outstanding novel from a rising star in fantasy fiction.”
“An enchanting world of star lore, magic and gender identity with a roster of heartfelt characters told with such rich prose that kept me rooting for Ranra.”
—Tlotlo Tsamaase, The Silence of the Wilting Skin
“In all their fiction from the fascinating Birdverse world, Lemberg centers marginalized identities: queer, trans, neurodiverse, elderly, and more The Unbalancing is Lemberg’s first novel-length book to take place in the Birdverse. It’s a poetic and magical Atlantis-esque novel and a perfect introduction to the Birdverse.”
“Set in Lemberg’s Birdverse, this lyrical fantasy novel is a queer, nonbinary Atlantis . . . a wonderful balance of thoughtful world-building with intense character work.”
“The intricate world of magical names and variations of gender identity provide nuance and character growth while still providing enough action to build to its climactic end. VERDICT Lemberg’s first full-length novel in their lauded ‘Birdverse’ (following the novella The Four Profound Weaves) showcases elegant and lyrical prose to create an immersive romantic fantasy.”
“The finely wrought first full-length outing into Lemberg’s inclusive and lushly folkloric Birdverse universe (after the novella The Four Profound Weaves) begins centuries after the goddess Bird carried 12 stars into the world.... Brisk action balances the meditations on gender and glimpses of the complex magic system as this unpredictable tale wends to an intense and deeply moving climax. It’s bittersweet and lovely.”
“Readers of Lemberg’s poetry and fiction will delight in The Unbalancing, which expands the geography of the Birdverse beyond the city of Iyar and the Great Burri Desert, the backdrops for events in Lemberg’s Nebula-award finalist, The Four Profound Weaves (2020).”
“Despair, love, survival, death, identity, and community are intimately intertwined in the Birdverse. This is one of the most beautiful and important books I’ve read this year.”
—Nibidita Sen, Hugo, Nebula, and Ignyte Award-nominated author
“In a narrative by turns gentle and implacable, Lemberg writes movingly and magnificently about disaster, survival, and hope.”
—Kate Elliott, author of the Crown of Stars series
“[The Unbalancing] impacted me greatly, yes, you should read this book. [It] is a respite and a consolation. It made me cry, and gave me strength.”
“Beautiful and queer and challenging and tender.”
—Ada Hoffmann, Philip K. Dick Award finalist and author of The Outside
“R. B Lemberg’s Birdverse is one of my favorite places to visit, full of queer possibilities and deep emotional and philosophical musings. In The Unbalancing they give us wonder, devastation, resilience, and love.”
—Julia Rios, Hugo Award-winning editor of Uncanny Magazine
“Lemberg’s prose is soaked in magic, magic that’s full of space and light and sound. The Unbalancing manages to be both ethereal and earthy.”
—Craig Laurance Gidney, author of A Spectral Hue
“The first full-length novel in the expansive Birdverse series, The Unbalancing is an LGBTQ+ fantasy overflowing with heart. . . . No prior knowledge of the Birdverse is necessary to appreciate the worldbuilding of this novel.””
“A novel at times raging, at times romantic, but through everything beautiful and powerfully human.”
—Charles Payseur, author of The Burning Day
“A beautiful and nuanced work about love, power, and magic.”
—Quick Sip Reviews
“The Unbalancing is a story of people and their power, in nature and society, in interactions and relationships, and of consent and belonging, and of failure and hope.”
—Scott H. Andrews, World Fantasy Award-winning Editor/Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Magazine
“Reading this book is like diving into the most beautiful language exploring various aspects of human possibility. Everything in this book is so fluid from the words, the setting itself, but also the characters—the way they think, the way they feel, and the way they present.”
5/5 stars. “A beautiful read, and its ending is as beautiful as it is tragic. This novel is rich, with many layers that you can just sink your teeth into. I love this diverse world with queer characters and all kinds of families.”
“Beautiful and queer and challenging and tender. And it’s a story that could not have been told without Erígra’s autistic point of view, without a deep respect for needs like Erígra’s, which comes from lived, thoughtful experience. I love all of R. B. Lemberg’s work, but I might love this book most out of any of them.”
—Autistic Book Party
“An exquisite marriage of imaginative world-building, insightful relationships, and a compelling story. . . . As with Lemberg’s previous novella, The Four Profound Weaves, The Unbalancing is a tale of emotional power and superbly handled prose that often approaches poetry in its nuance and poise. Highly recommended.”
“Some of the best nonbinary rep I’ve seen in SFF fiction, and two people who find deep connection when they least expect it. . . . The Unbalancing is a beautiful novel.”
—M. Crane Hana, author of Moro’s Price
5/5 stars. “This novel is rich, with many layers that you can just sink your teeth into. I love this diverse world with queer characters and all kinds of families.”
—Cloud Reads Books
“The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg was one of my favorite reads in the first half of the year, and now The Unbalancing has taken up its space beside it for this half of the year.”
“The Unbalancing is amazing. R. B. Lemberg is a skilled worldbuilder, and the Birdverse is a perfect and rich example of what speculative fiction is meant to do.”
“Intimacy and magic collide to move the story along, both interpersonally and externally. It’s sexy and unexpectedly intense, with a deep focus on consent and mutual respect.”
—Jo Writes Fantasy
“This is my first introduction to Lemberg’s Birdverse and I look forward to spending more time in the gorgeous world they have created.”
—Just Geeking By
“Queer and, well, wholly wonderful, you’d get this book”
—Llama Reads Books
“Full of love, and connection, and hope; and a sense that destruction is worth struggling against even when the odds are overwhelming.”
—Nerds of a Feather
“In The Unbalancing, one protagonist begins at the center of her society’s power structure, but her desire for the novel’s other lead opens her up to understanding a positive self-abnegation in relationships—even at the cost of her home . . . a character at the center of her society’s hierarchy finding a new sensitivity and humility.”
• Cover reveal and launch feature on The Fantasy Hive
• Prepublication reviews and endorsements from leading mainstream, genre, and LBGTQIA+ authors, reviewers, and media outlets
• Print and digital ARC distribution via NetGalley, Edelweiss+, and publisher; Featured at ABA Snow Days
• Online and print features, author tour/events, and book launch TBD
• Instagram and blog tour, Reddit AMA, and social media campaign
Average rating from 32 members
Huge thanks to the author, R. B. Lemberg, the publisher, Tachyon, and NetGalley for the advance reader copy of this book.
The short version of what may be a behemoth of a review: If you’re looking for lyrical prose, an action-packed magical fantasy reminiscent of the legend of Atlantis, protagonists that focus on the facets of trans identity and neurodivergence, found family, queer romance, emotive worldbuilding, an original magic system, ghosts, and a wholly unique voice in the speculative fiction landscape- this is THE book you need. If you’re looking for a traditional fantasy story that won’t rock the boat or make you think a lot- this might not be the book for you, but still try it just in case.
“The Unbalancing” impacted me in such a strong way that I feel nearly incapable of doing it justice in a review, but trust me when I say that this will be one of my most recommended novels of the year, and perhaps my favorite novel of 2022. I want to yell about it from the rooftops. I want to re-read it. I want my book club to read it, I want my pastor to read it, and I want every librarian in my state to read it and put it in their collections.
Lemberg dumps the reader into the universe of Birdverse with relatively little introduction, but I appreciate how some of the mythology and history of the culture is explained via oral history sharing between the characters in the novel. Although some reviewers have complained about the lack of visual descriptions of the setting or straightforward explanations for the universe the story is set in, I think Lemberg does an excellent job of providing us just enough information to follow the plot while keeping the novel moderately cerebral. If you’ve never read any of Lemberg’s Birdverse works, you should have no problem still following the plot of “The Unbalancing.” Personally, I think that the Birdverse setting is more approachable and easier to conceptualize in “The Unbalancing,” compared to another Birdverse novel, “The Four Profound Weaves,” especially for those of us who have not read Lemberg’s extensive number of other Birdverse works.
What stands out to me about “The Unbalancing” is the descriptions of the protagonists’ internal experiences throughout the novel. Rather than focusing all of their energy on the plot, Lemberg delves deep into the narrators’ identities, and you can truly see Lemberg’s own life experience shine through in the lyrical expositions of each protagonist’s story and the way their identities intersect. This is an Own Voices novel of genuinely astounding quality. I’m not sure if I’ve ever before felt such an intimate connection with a narrator.
The overall plot of “The Unbalancing,” of two people figuring out how to love and how to save their home and culture at the same time, was exciting and kept me seriously engaged. The couple of twists at the end- when we learn more about the star’s magic and creation, and how the protagonists act during what is effectively the apocalypse- answered many of the questions I had from earlier in the book.
In conclusion: Read this, as soon as possible, and then read it again.
The Unbalancing is a book about survival and being realistic (even in a world of magic) and consent and neurodivergent life, all set in Lemberg's fantastical Birdverse. There's a lot here that is philosophical and intellectual, but Lemberg always manages to keep the storyline moving forward. The book nods to the traditional Western shape for storytelling--intro, conflict, crisis, resolution--but also avoids this form, making the book somewhat circular and focused on personal decisions, sharing, attraction, and action. It's also a different way of approaching climate fiction, and is meditative and full of beautiful language even when describing catastrophe. I love the pace of the novel, the way the characters become involved and care for one another, and the introspection of the narrator. I'd love to read this with other people who know Lemberg's other BIrdverse work; having said that, though, I think it can stand on its own with newcomers to the author's writing.
An immensely enjoyable read that wears its Le Guin influence on its sleeve. With thanks to R. B. Lemberg, the publisher and NetGalley for this ARC.
There is a rich world here to be immersed in, painted poetically with a light touch and free from heavy-handed description. There are compelling characters that I was keen to know and spend time with and a plot that builds energy into a dramatic third act that resists being put down. My only complaint is that we don't get to spend enough time in this world and with the characters - there are issues with pacing and the character development in particular feels very rushed. This is a story that deserves to have been longer.
I particularly enjoyed the notes of Ursula K. Le Guin's work that are woven into the tapestry of the world and characters. Erígra embodies some of Le Guin's taoist philosophy and her character feels like a natural continuation of Le Guin's later exploration of feminism and the different types of power. I'd highly recommend this to fans of Le Guin.
I will be pre-ordering a physical copy of this for my shelf and paying attention to future work from R. B. Lemberg and their Birdverse. There is so much potential here and I'm excited to see what comes next!
This novel explores what it means to come together as a group for the common good, and what to do in the aftermath despite the outcome. It was beautiful! My favorite aspect was that the ichidi, or as we would call them nonbinary people, were so normalized and accepted in their society, it’s amazing to see such positive nb rep!
There's no entry into the Birdverse, You just open the book and you're there. The way the Birdverse unfolds before and around me is part of what is so rich and magical about it.
I was hooked on R.B. Lemberg's work after reading The Four Profound Weaves,. Both books drop you right into the Birdverse and leave you to sort out the details as you go. There's no time to decide whether this is a world you WANT or not. It's a world you're in, and now you have to see how it works. There's something very, very good about this (I do feel as if the Unbalancing is a bit smoother with this process, but that's what happens when authors keep writing books - they get even better).
R.B. Lemberg is a skilled worldbuilder, and the Birdverse is a perfect and rich example of what speculative fiction is meant to do. The world they've created is one in which "they" is a given: there's room for all kinds of fluidity, neurodivergence, sexual preference (or not) and gender expression. Chances are that if any of these things are especially important in your life, you'll feel seen here in a way that is joyous, powerful and necessary.
Anyone with the power to distribute literature to people who need it should have R.B. Lemberg's work in their library.
An exquisitely crafted story about love and deep magic, about people coming to terms with the past and their own powers, set in a community and a landscape that faces total destruction. I've been a fan of Lemberg's Birdverse stories for years, and this book delves deep into the magic that helped create the world and create the magic woven into that world. There's a love story here, twined together with the story of a place and a people shaped by, and tied to, the star that once fell into the sea near their island. Lemberg's prose is a thing of beauty as always, and there's a quiet fierceness to this story that I found absolutely mesmerizing.
I've read short stories from this author and I was so excited to see this novel offering! The worldbuilding in this is fantastic. I can't adequately say how excited I am by the OwnVoices representation and hope to continue seeing more of it! I love the way this is character-focused and I loved the style of the writing.
In some ways, The Unbalancing is a fast journey. The story moves quickly. The characters feel, and act, and face an apocalyptic danger, and all that drew me through the pages.
In others, The Unbalancing is very deep. R.B. Lemberg's words gave me a path to follow, so I never felt lost, yet these characters and world have some very different assumptions and ways of living than we do.
Reading The Unbalancing is like walking a rope bridge over a waterfall. It's a short span, and yet, there are glorious discoveries if you want to slow down and look. I'm very much looking forward to reading this again, to immerse myself more in the magic system, social system, ways of communicating and processing the world, and the loveliness of the sentences.
I recommend The Unbalancing highly. Whether you want a good story, a many-faceted consideration of other ways of being, or to observe the author's skill at solving unusual writing challenges, you'll find treasure here.
The Unbalancing is billed as the first full length novel in author R.B. Lemberg's acclaimed "Birdverse" fantasy universe, which previously featured the critically acclaimed novella The Four Profound Weaves. Now the Unbalancing is not much longer than that novella (I'm guessing the ad press refers to it crossing the word count for the Hugo/Nebula definition of "Novel"), but honestly - that's fine, as The Four Profound Weaves (Review Here) was an incredible queer fantasy novella that was one of my favorite works in 2020, dealing with queerness and the right to choose one's own identity and path in a world filled with authoritarians and others fighting against change. So I was exceedingly thrilled to hear that this longer story (one that apparently was a full story adaptation of an earlier poem by Lemberg) was coming in the same universe.
And the Unbalancing is really interesting and really good, even as its very different from The Four Profound Weaves, featuring not a battle for one's right to assert queerness in an anti-queer world, but rather a queer-friendly world in which one queer main character isn't quite sure how they should identify themselves amidst all the options open to them. The story features a romance between an autistic protagonist, whose ancestor constantly urges to take steps towards power and leadership for the good of all despite their lack of comfort in it, and a woman who does take that power and leadership and tries to use it, sometimes impatiently, to remedy and save a land she sees her predecessor as having failed...and to prove herself despite the abuse she suffered emotionally from a parent growing up. It's a story that really surprises in how it unfolds, without really any true villains, as it deals with issues of consent, of power, of how people act in different speeds and have different wants, and about mistakes of the past and ways forward in the future. It is naturally well worth your time, in what little time it takes to finish.
Nearly a Thousand Years Ago, the starkeeper Semberí was gifted into their keeping the Star of the Tides, a being it tethered to the islands of Gelle-Geu in hopes of peace and prosperity. But the Star has always been asleep, somewhat difficultly, and the Star's nightmares have shaken the islands....and are only getting worse and worse.
Unbeknownst to the almost anyone on the island, Semberí's spirit has remained on the island, searching for someone who can take their role as starkeeper and calm the Star. They believe that person to be their descendant, the poet Erígra Lilún, who possesses the capability to hold three deepnames, offering them the strongest possible magic.
But Lilún has no interest in this role - they do not feel comfortable with power or leadership or even masses of people, and prefer to enjoy the quiet of Semberí's hill and to stop at two deepnames, rather than take three. Lilún finds themself needing to take things slowly, and doesn't even understand what kind of Ichidi they are, other than the fact that they aren't only male or female. But when Lilún takes Semberí's advice to go visit and see the newly appointed starkeeper, they find a surprise: Ranra Kekeri, an often brash and impulsive young woman desperate to solve the problem and to fix the Star...and whose assertions of leadership Lilún can't help but be drawn to.
Ranra's speed is often too much for Lilún, but even so the two of them find themselves drawn together, even as Ranra gets more and more frantic (to Lilún's discomfort) as the Island's safety becomes more and more in jeopardy. Will their combination be able to save Gelle-Geu? Or even themselves?
While set in the same "Birdverse" world as Lemberg's last novella, The Unbalancing is a very different story. Here the islands of Gelle-Geu are a generally good place to live, with a people that are utterly accepting of those who are queer, with multiple forms of being non-binary (known here as being "Ichidi") accepted and having their own distinct names based upon how one relates to the M-F spectrum. Everyone involved in the story is trying to do their best to save their land and/or their people, and even the people who would traditionally be the villain in this type of story, like the Trader who opts to use their trade fleet to evacuate the Island as best as possible rather than to stay and place hopes in the protagonists to save it, aren't actually treated as villains, but instead as reasonable people each trying to do the best for themselves and their people. This is a story really of two characters, Lilún and Ranra, as they try to find their place in society and in trying to lead their people to avert disaster, rather than of any enemy or villain to overcome...and of course of the romance that grows between them.
And well, except in potential for power, Lilún and Ranra couldn't be more different which makes this dynamic really really work. Lilún is very clearly on the autism spectrum - they aren't quite fully comfortable in large groups, aren't comfortable with (if not downright scared of) the idea of grabbing power or trying to take a leadership role, and often needs to take time, slow things down and to breathe on their lonesome when things get difficult...even if the timing isn't there for doing that. They care intensely for their people and their land, and especially care for the idea of consent: whether the Star consented to its current situation 999 years ago (since the Star is sentient), whether their ancestors had consent to plant the Star here when they came to an inhabited island populated by welcoming native peoples, and whether the current plan to save the land and heal the star is one that everyone involved is okay with and understands. They could have in theory had the power to save the islands and heal the star, but their mentality prevents them from wanting to grab that power, and requires them to have far more time than available...if any amount of time could be enough at all. This is of course immensely frustrating to Semberí, who is desperate for someone to fix their own mistakes with the Star and sees only Lilún as being close to themselves and with the ability to understand their story to fix it, and is sometimes frustrating for Ranra, who is much more impulsive and aggressive.
Ranra is someone who dealt with an emotionally abusive mother - a mother who was declared mentally ill essentially as a result, but whom she can't quite sever herself from and stop herself from wanting to prove herself. She stopped herself from taking the most powerful deepname combination - the Warlord's Triangle - which is one known for solitude and dictatorial behavior, but still has tendencies in that direction. And yet her need to do something, to fix things and to save the land is based upon her caring, and her desperation to both prove herself and in her belief that she has no other choice. It's an attitude that both pushes her away from Lilún....and draws her in, as she sees in them someone who equally cares even if they can't quite understand Lilún's need to slow down. And it's an attitude that also at times estranges her from her closest other friend and former lover, and when the solution she devises requires people to cooperate together and become closer, it causes her problems.
Lilún and Ranra's dynamic is fascinating, and Lemberg takes it all in directions you wouldn't expect (well if you haven't read the poem first), as Lemberg doesn't provide her characters with easy or necessarily happy answers...because there aren't ones. In the end, the story suggests that people will each have their own ways of trying to do their best for themselves and each other, may find their own identities at their own pace, and that sometimes the mistakes of the past can't simply be healed and may require the possibility of starting over. I'm really glossing over a lot of interesting stuff that happens here, as this story is honestly perhaps a bit overstuffed, but it works really really well and I do recommend it quite a bit.
Readers who liked this book also liked:
We Are Bookish
V. V. Ganeshananthan
Tracey Rose Peyton
Jordan Dann, LP
Dr. Blythe Grossberg, Psy.D
Ashley Herring Blake