THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES by R. B. Lemberg (Book Review)
Some novellas are like short novels, others feel more like long short stories. Neither is necessarily better, but The Four Profound Weaves struck me as one of the latter – and a very good one, too.
The novella is an interesting length for a story. Long enough for the narrative to stretch its wings a bit, but not long enough to allow any excess baggage. Worldbuilding has to be off-stage, for the most part; plot has to be focused. You have to be careful cramming too many characters in, as they won’t all have time and space to breathe.
And yet, a good novella – like this one – can somehow tell a large story in a small space, projecting beyond its boundaries, creating whole worlds, complex narratives, large casts, all despite showing only a fraction of it on the page. I’ve read some great novellas – Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, or The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson, and of course Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries – but I hadn’t read one quite like The Four Profound Weaves.
This is the story of two people from different societies, both older, both trans, both lost and unfulfilled. One, the desert weaver Uiziya, is waiting for her outcast aunt to return and teach her the last of the titular magical weaves. The other, a man with no name, is looking for the place he belongs as a man, after living so long as a woman. Unwilling to return to his rigid, segregated society in an enclave of the city of Iyar, he also wishes to find Uiziya’s aunt, in hopes of finding a name – and through it, maybe a home.
They come together on the journey, of course, and – of course – it is not as straightforward as they hoped. The last profound weave is death, and the tyrant of Iyar also wants it for his collection. There’s magic, mysteries, and marvels, and hints of a rich underlying mythos (this story is part of the author’s “Birdverse” setting, though it’s the first I’ve read). On the surface, it’s quite a simple and satisfying story – but the surface isn’t the whole story, especially here.
As I said before, The Four Profound Weaves struck me stylistically as a long short story rather than a short novel. The prose is simple but elegant, unafraid to use repetition for emphasis or rhythm, or to leave other things to the reader’s imagination (description is sparse, for example). The story wears its themes on its sleeves, so to speak, tackling head-on the challenges of change vs. stasis, and the danger of being chained to a past, or to people who don’t want what’s best for you. It’s a story about trans characters and trans experiences, but a story that (I hope) anyone can understand, relate to, and enjoy.
In conclusion, The Four Profound Weaves is modern speculative fiction at its best, exploring important issues through compelling characters, fantastic settings, and exciting stories. It’s also a gorgeous book, if the illustrations in my digital ARC were anything to go by (thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon for providing).
(The Four Profound Weaves publishes 1st/4th September 2020 – preorder now!)