R. B. Lemberg's The Four Profound Weaves
Reviewed by Amy Mitchell
R. B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves is a gorgeous, melancholy dreamscape that stands fully on its own and that can also function as an introduction to their larger Birdverse world (a world I highly suggest you visit). Emotional depth and richness permeate The Four Profound Weaves, which takes an unflinching look at the ways in which we hurt and limit ourselves and others, and at the lasting consequences of these hurts. At the same time, it is a work that promotes hope and healing, and it is one of those rare books that can be accurately termed deeply wise.
In this book, the portions of the Birdverse world that we visit are the Great Burri Desert (home of the Surun’ people and frequented by traders from elsewhere, especially Khana traders from Iyar) and the “springflower” city of Iyar, home of the Rainbow-Tiered Court and its nightmare dictator, the Collector. The goddess Bird (who assumes the forms of, well, birds) oversees this world and gathers the souls of its people to her when they die; her brother Kimri assists her and is associated with death. There is also the Orphan Star, a kind of cosmic force that is outside of Bird’s domain and that is located beneath the School of Assassins, where the world’s rejected and unhappy individuals (often orphans themselves) are sometimes lured by the School’s Headmaster’s song. When these assassins die, they are gathered to the Orphan Star, not to Bird.
There is magic in this world, as you would expect in a work of fantasy, but Lemberg doesn’t bog down the narrative by getting too deeply into the details of how exactly the magic system works. Essentially, individuals are gifted with “deepnames,” and the number of these deepnames, combined with each name’s number of syllables, determines the kind and strength of magic that the individual is able to wield. Studying magic consists of studying the “magical geometry” that these deepnames offer in their different configurations. Importantly for The Four Profound Weaves, women in Iyar are forbidden from having and wielding deepnames; the only exception is women belonging to the Khana ethnic group, who live in their own portions of Iyar and who rigidly segregate men and women into scholars/engineers/mystics and traders/child-rearers, respectively.
The two protagonists are Uiziya, a Surun’ woman, and nen-sasaïr, a recently-transitioned Khana man. “Nen-sasaïr” is a placeholder for what the man hopes will eventually be his new, real name, and means “son of sandbirds” (the Sandbird Festival, held at the Old Royal’s court in a different portion of the Birdverse, allows people who are “changers” to physically change their gender—sandbirds descend on them for this change). It is significant that both Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are in their sixties—this is not a book about wide-eyed young adults embarking on their first great adventure or quest. The Four Profound Weaves does contain quest elements, but there is a great deal of melancholy and regret built into the fact that the protagonists have already, in their eyes at least, lived their lives, with all the attendant baggage, bad decisions and regrets that any lifetime brings with it.
The connection between the two is the mysterious character Benesret, an elderly woman who is Uiziya’s aunt and who could have walked straight out of a Grimm fairytale. She is an expert in the “weaves” referenced in the title—the Surun’ people are known weavers, and Uiziya’s modest deepnames support her weaving craft. Benesret and many others, including nen-sasaïr’s grandchildren, are able to craft the first magical weave: from wind, which signifies change, and which can be used to change genders. Benesret teaches Uiziya the second weave: from sand, signifying wanderlust. Benesret herself seems to be the only person who has succeeded in creating the third weave: from song (spun from thread made of Bird’s feathers) and signifying hope. No one, so far, has crafted the fourth Profound Weave: from bones, signifying death, although Uiziya believes Benesret knows how. Both Uiziya and nen-sasaïr have something they want from her, and that they have wanted for approximately the same span of forty years—Uiziya feels rejected by Benesret, who left long ago and never taught her the final Profound Weave, and nen-sasaïr wants her to bestow a new name on him, since four decades ago she gave him the cloth of winds that he finally used to transition once his lover, who opposed the transition, had died. Both characters team up to find Benesret and seek answers. Benesret’s magic knows no moral limits and has vampiric aspects to it; she almost kills Uiziya, and in return for sparing her life, she sends the two protagonists to Iyar, to retrieve her cloth of song from the treasuries of the Collector. Benesret might then teach Uiziya how to make the fourth Profound Weave and might then bestow a name on nen-sasaïr—or she might not. Nen-sasaïr knows all too well, from experience, that quests do not always end the way you were promised they would.
I don’t want to spoil the rest of the plot, which is fantastic and well-executed; it is entirely and satisfyingly consistent with the world, the characters, and the themes of the book as a whole. The most prominent theme is really how we hurt and limit ourselves and others—Uiziya has essentially been in personal and artistic stasis for forty years, blinded by her own misconceptions of what Benesret could or could not be or do for her, while nen-sasaïr has suffered irreparable emotional harm from bowing to the transphobic ideals of his lover (and his people more generally) and putting off his physical transition for decades. Both feel that their lives consist of a lot of bitter, wasted time, and both are resentful. The Four Profound Weaves also contains a number of secondary characters who painfully illustrate just how willing people in general are to use each other in order to satisfy their own desires, and these secondary characters leave many people in their wake who share some similarities to Uiziya and nen-sasaïr. In addition to individual perpetrators, bigoted social systems also wreak emotional carnage—for instance, the stripping of magical deepnames from women in Iyar psychologically destroys some of its victims (nen-sasaïr was only spared because he was a Khana woman before his transition, and thus exempt), and while Iyar supposedly celebrates women who successfully undergo this change, the celebration is similar to how patriarchal aspects of society today would love to “celebrate” women who are willing to subject themselves to the strictures and stereotypes of the submissive housewife.
The real wisdom of The Four Profound Weaves is the clear-eyed recognition that none of these hurts, traumas or lost time can be truly healed, reversed, or compensated for—they are, and there is no way to erase them. Pretending otherwise is harmful and delusional. And yet, life goes on regardless, encompassing in all of our lives the four themes of the Profound Weaves: change, wanderlust, hope and death. This fact is mirrored in the structure of the book itself, which is divided into sections titled after each of these qualities. Importantly, the weaves are strongest when they are all gathered together—just as Bird and her brother Kimri can be conceptualized as hope and death intertwined, which from one perspective might seem pessimistic, but from another emphasizes that even where there is death, there is always hope. Similarly, in the Collector’s horrific Rainbow-Tiered Court, both Uiziya and nen-sasaïr simultaneously undergo a classic katabasis (a descent into hell) and personal and spiritual awakenings.
It is difficult to overstate how gorgeous Lemberg’s Birdverse is. Here is nen-sasaïr, near the beginning of the book, watching his grandchild (an “in-betweener” in terms of gender) trade their first magical carpet, this one woven of wind (for change):