Yoke of Stars: A Birdverse Book
by R. B. Lemberg
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Pub Date 16 Jul 2024 | Archive Date Not set
In this newest novella from the queer, mystical Birdverse, an apprentice assassin and an inquisitive linguist share their tales in order to make a fateful decision. Lush and lyrical, R. B. Lemberg’s cross-cultural tale of the beauty of language is a paean to the transformative power of storytelling.
“In all their fiction from the fascinating Birdverse world, Lemberg centers marginalized identities: queer, trans, neurodiverse, elderly, and more.” —Buzzfeed
In the School of Assassins, Stone Orphan waits for a first assignment. After their first kill, they will graduate and attain the coveted cloth of bone. But instead of a commission, Stone Orphan gets an inquisitive linguist, Ulín. Ulín has heard the Orphan Star’s song of despair, mirroring her own, and drawing her to the School of Assassins. But Ulín is far more interested in learning Stone Orphan’s language than deciding whom she wishes to kill.
Unable to contain their curiosity, Stone Orphan offers to exchange stories with Ulín to help her decide the fate of three men. By turns, Stone Orphan and Ulín narrate tales of love, suffering, exile, and self-determination, and two hurt souls find hope in each other through the radical act of listening.
A Note From the Publisher
Praise for R. B. Lemberg’s Birdverse
“Lush lyricism of the mythology, culture and history . . . an enchanting world of star lore, magic and gender identity.”
—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.
[STARRED REVIEW] “Lush, dreamlike prose and nuanced explorations of trans and queer identity.”
[STARRED REVIEW] “A beautiful, heartfelt story of change, family, identity, and courage.”
“The world-building is full of deep lore and casual queerness, and Lemberg’s magic system is appropriately wild and poetic.”
“Lemberg writes movingly and magnificently about disaster, survival, and hope.”
—Kate Elliott, author of the Crown of Stars series
“Beautiful and queer and challenging and tender.”
—Autistic Book Party
“It made me cry, and gave me strength.”
“Imagery that glows on the page.”
—Patricia A. McKillip, author of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
“The anti-authoritarian, queer-mystical fairy tale we need right now.”
—Annalee Newitz, author of Terraformers
[STARRED REVIEW] “This diverse, folkloric fantasy world is a delight to visit.”
“R.B. Lemberg writes with a luminous pen, spraying light all around their words and ideas.”
—Jewelle Gomez, author of The Gilda Stories
- Endorsements from leading LBGTQIA+ authors, reviewers, and media outlets
- U.S. and Ukrainian/Eastern European promotion and virtual events
- Author appearances to include bookstores, trade shows, and academic events
- Print and digital ARC distribution via NetGalley, and Edelweiss
- Online promotion to include Instagram, Goodreads, Storygraph, TikTok, and author/publisher social media
Average rating from 6 members
Yoke of Stars by R.B. Lemberg is a novella in the Birdsong universe, but it reads as a standalone. With its beautiful, evocative prose, it is an ode to languages, a dialogue about otherness and gender, an uplifting story of overcoming and fighting and finding support.
The story starts with the Bird and stars myth, which gives us a glimpse at how some of the peoples in that universe appeared and sets the path for understanding the yoke of stars. Brought by the Bird God, the stars were scattered around and they had to tend to the souls within them. As R.B. Lemberg mentioned in the afterword, she drew some inspiration for the stars from the communist history of the USSR. As a result, the stars are a combination of ancient power and big fear; in some ways they behave like political leaders, but they are also destinies and old ways.
Later we find ourselves in the company of two people – Stone Orphan, an assassin to graduate from the School of Assassins, and Ulín, her first client. Throughout the novella, the two of them sit in Orphan’s room in the School, share their difficult stories and drink tea, while Ulín tries to make up her mind who exactly she wants killed. With such a static decoration, the story is nothing but dynamic.
Ulín had a very high position in the society, but she had no freedom over her life. People have harmed her, her deepnames and magic have been taken away, and that’s what brought her to the School of Assassins. Yet among all those who hurt her, she cannot choose the one to be killed. Stone Orphan is of the siltway people. She is different from Ulín in so many ways, beginning with her fish-like appearance and ending with her worldview, influenced by her native language that has no verbs in it. Though always driven by curiosity and a call to explore, she is now bitter for having been exiled, for having to learn a different language, which seems to be erasing her personality by making her think differently. She craves to complete her first task and be out of school, so Ulín’s indecision grates at her. And yet the more Stone Orphan listens to Ulín’s story, the more she feels compassion and bond, the more of the bigger plan transpires.
At first glance, Stone Orphan and Ulín are so different. While Ulín adores languages and sees their beauty, learns them for the sole purpose of knowing them, Stone Orphan despises her new language and how it alters her. But on the deeper level, they are the same – they both suffered and were rejected, misunderstood and used. They were both bound by their designated roles and unseen for who they were. Their difference only highlights their similarities and it is through that they can find a way out for both of them.
The narrative alternates between Stone Orphan and Ulín, their stories abruptly cut as they have to deal with their emotions – so while one recuperates, the other continues. Listening to each other, helps them both to understand themselves more and get a wider perspective. As I mentioned earlier, Yoke of Stars is a dialogue about otherness and gender. Stone Orphan’s language and society denies individuality to the point that it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, they don’t have the language to designate trans or binary people. Stone Orphan’s old bond had to travel to other tribe to be able to associate themselves with a woman. Ulín, on the other hand, comes from a more progressive society, where people can have multiple relationships, yet she still confronts limitations and criticism when she wants to choose her destiny.
As the book title suggest, the main characters have to stand against something very authoritative and powerful – the yoke of stars, a symbol of society’s rigidity, narrowmindedness, fear of otherness. Yet even in the situation which looks like a stalemate, they manage to find some trust between themselves and a way out.
From the style of prose to the vivid worldbuilding and the dramatic narrative, I loved everything about this novella. I loved how it shows us through language and action, how it is an appeal and a comfort, a search and an understanding.
An exchange of stories between people from very different cultures, yet bound together by chance and desire, “Yoke Of Stars” engulfs you in its universe of strange magic. It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to delve into R. B. Lembergs’ Birdvirse, so I jumped at the opportunity to review their upcoming novella when I saw it up on NetGalley. With stylish, small illustrations that separate each section, we are invited into the worlds of Stone Orphan from the School of Assassins and Ulín, the linguist.
From the beginning, there is myth in the air - this world unfolds as the stuff of legends with Bird who brought “the stars”. We learn there are three peoples in the world: nameway, dreamway and siltway, all having their magic, speaking different languages with diverse understandings of what is right/wrong, how relationships develop and how gender works. From the “present”, the tales are spun forwards as Ulín visits Stone Orphan and, in the quest to learn their language, chooses to exchange her own stories.
“I had to twist my whole being into a new shape to learn to speak like the nameway do, and now I cannot become untwisted.” thinks Stone Orphan, trying to explain their language, which lacks verbs, to Ulín. The siltway language is tied to their culture, their Shoal, the way they live and act collectively, always floating and bonded. Translation, Ulín describes, is “a departure. A pushing-away-from. One is trying to leave. And arrival is always uncertain.” As a person interested in translation myself - or at least fascinated by it, without having actually studied it - Ulín’s words change what I thought I knew about it. Imagining translation as a departure, it almost means: a distance. Which makes sense, when you really do it, it is the act of leaving one language for another. But to me, translation is not the distance between languages, but the closeness between meanings - the capacity to tell what was first thought and born in other wor(l)ds. This novella, if you let it, forces you to deal with your own ideas on the concepts it fabulates with.
“Carrying two languages at the same time (...) is a strangeness that makes you aware, but does not let you simply be.” Stone Orphan explains later, accurately describing the feeling of many bilingual speakers, especially those that live in a country where the majority language is different from their mother tongue (as is the case of the character and, I believe, the writer). The two of them continue to exchange stories, getting closer to each other in waves, closer and then further, and closer still. At times I did not feel entirely convinced of the authenticity of their relationship, nor did I really understand why Ulín's brother was doing any of the things he was doing, but I enjoyed reading nonetheless.
The novella is reminiscent of Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills cycle because of its fairytale-ish quality and centerfold on story-telling, but its heart is in its exploration of language/translation and cultural imperatives. It is a fascinatingly magical meditation on gender, revenge and at times, (dis)ability (nameloss/powerlessness being almost seen as a sort of disability). A really great read for language geeks and queers!
I'm going to start with my usual preface that Lemberg feels like the perfect author for me yet with every book of theirs something hasn't clicked-- the writing not working for me, or I can't decipher the story, or I feel disconnected from the characters.
But I'm glad to say I've finally loved a Birdverse story with YOKE OF STARS! This is a treat for any fans of literary fantasy fans. You've got the usual Lemberg craziness here, toying with gender and deepnames and politics in very delightful ways, but this time mixed with a really interesting storytelling device that reminded me at times of ALWAYS COMING HOME.
You've got two people who are meeting up just for a job telling their stories to each other- seemingly unrelated at first, but as the story progresses you get more and more of the big picture. A great concept executed quite well. I particularly liked the way it played with language. For example, Lemberg explores a language in here that doesn't use verbs. They also explore bilingualists in a pretty cool way, as well as migration and diaspora.
It's a fantastic novella and I'm so glad a Lemberg finally worked for me. The problem is me, not them!