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The Four Profound Weaves
by R. B. Lemberg
Tachyon Publications, $14.95, 192pp
Published: September 2020

I can't say that I didn't enjoy 'The Four Profound Weaves' because I did, but it ended up being a little too abstract for my tastes. I don't mind poetic prose at all, and this is definitely an epic poem in prose, but I prefer my poetic prose to be more grounded in reality. This novella isn't interested in grounding at all and simply wants to fly as free from convention as it can as a sort of eastern fairy tale. If you like that approach, you'll probably adore this. I surely admire it but I didn't adore it.

It's certainly a beautifully designed book from Tachyon Publications, the design courtesy of Elizabeth Story, who couldn't have conjured up a better front cover if she'd have tried. It fits what's inside well, because this isn't told either in black and white or colour but in a strange palette of desert shades: a cream here and a brown there, with darkness surrounding everything, ready to close in.

The novella is part of the author's Birdverse, though I don't know if it introduces it. Certainly there's a prior book called ‘Marginalia to Stone Bird,’ that was released in 2016, but that looks like a collection of poetry. The Birdverse series isn't told in novels but in poems, short stories and novelettes, with this perhaps the longest entry yet.

My first problem is that, even having read this, I have no idea what the Birdverse is because Lemberg isn't that interested in defining it. Bird is a goddess, so perhaps the Birdverse is the realm over which she governs, a realm which seems rich in worldbuilding but is detailed only in fleeting impressionistic glimpses. This is about characters more than it is a world and they feel like a set of archetypes, even if they don't all seem that way to our western thinking. Lemberg is from both Eastern Europe and Israel, which makes sense because this feels middle eastern in setting but eastern European in its fairy tale approach.

The prose alternates between the two primary characters—a man with no name and a woman called Uiziya e Lali—both of whom are seeking the same person, Besneret by name.

The latter is a weaver, which in this world has a double meaning: she weaves carpets, which is roughly what we expect, but they're not just works of art but of magic, because the two processes are allied in this world. She's mastered three of the four profound weaves of the title—wind, sand and song—but has waited for decades for her missing Aunt Besnaret to teach her the fourth, a weave of bone, and is easily talked into proactively seeking her out soon into this book.

The former has no name because he's transitioned to male from female, late in life—he's sixty-four in this novella—after the death of his lover. He's seeking Besnaret e Nand e Divyát because he wants to receive a name from her and it's his desire that prompts most of what happens in this novella. It's he who talks Uiziya into joining him on his quest. The fact that she has a carpet woven from sand that can fly is a bonus. Yes, I mean fly like the magic carpets we remember from the 'Arabian Nights'.

It's no spoiler to point out that they find Besnaret easily enough, but things don't go quite how either of them expect and that leads them into the rest of the story, where they face off against a villainous archetype called the Collector, albeit one who doesn't see himself as a villain at all, even though he's as obviously a villain as anyone I've seen in a Disney movie.

I love all the ideas here. I love the middle-eastern setting that feels somewhere completely other in place and time. I love the fact that the lead character—I have to give the nameless man an edge over the weaver because of where the story goes—is trans and the culture that he's part of both sees that as completely acceptable to society but also imposes rules and restrictions on him that he isn't at all comfortable in acknowledging. I also love the central idea of magic as something to weave with, not as a vague metaphor but as a literal truth.

However, I had questions, lots of questions and Lemberg didn't want to answer any of them. All of the iconic imagery here is inherently unreachable, just like every fairy tale explanation that was never in a month of Sundays meant to be an actual explanation. When any princess asks where she can find her prince and the answer is seven gusts of wind past the other side of evening, that's not meant to be at all literal, just a way to answer without answering because nobody frickin' knows, even the court mage or vizier or wizard or whatever it has.

And that's what Lemberg does throughout this novella. So the Khana women can weave their carpets with magic. That's cool. But how do you weave with sand or wind or song? Apparently, you reach deep into your mind and craft deepnames in different configurations like the Builder's Triangle and none of it makes the slightest shred of sense because it's Lemberg taking the role of those court viziers with answers that aren't remotely answers. I can deal with that in a fairy tale but, in a fantasy, it's nothing if not frustrating.

Fortunately, while being frustrated by Lemberg's refusal to quantify anything, I could enjoy the prose that they wove onto the page with something close to magic. This isn't a book to read so much as it's a book to have flow over you, like scent or emotion, and it works all the better if we don't follow instinct and treat it as a tangible object. It's really a manifestation of a new legend, something that will shift and change over time and telling to become something entirely different that merely shares a point. I almost don't want to re-open the book and read again because, like smoke, it'll have changed.

That's why I admire this. As a writer, I'm jealous of how Lemberg can shape letters into myths with an abiding grace and an effortless will. But that's also why I didn't adore this. I wanted this story to have its feet in a world that I could explore and understand and revisit, but it's a wild yarn told in the dark over a campfire and it shouldn't ever have the same shape twice. The people and places and customs and beliefs are made of wind and sand and song and bone and they've already flown away on a magic carpet. I miss them already but I don't even know if I really met them. ~ Hal C F Astell

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