The Unbalancing: Review with Spoilers By R.M. Harper
A World Unbalanced
In R.B. Lemberg’s debut fantasy novel, The Unbalancing, a world is on the verge of destruction. Why should we care? Because it is a far better one than ours, and the ways in which Lemberg’s characters confront failure, disaster, and recovery offer vital insights into how we might do the same as we grapple with our own duty to our peoples, our planet, and our future in the face of successive calamities.
Gelle-Geu is home to a prosperous people. Long ago, the Goddess Bird dropped twelve stars upon the land; twelve people heeded the Goddess’ call and caught the stars, bearing them off across the world. These twelve became the first Starkeepers. One, named Semberi, cast their star into the waves near the Geu archipelago. There it became known as “The Star of the Tides, the Sputtering Star, the Unquiet Sleeper” (6). For nearly a thousand years she slept, tethered to the land, tended by generations of Starkeepers—yet none of them could end the star’s suffering.
The star’s magic has helped the islands thrive, and their people are free, cooperative, and content. One of Lemberg’s most interesting imaginings in the Birdverse is the concept of ichidi: a nonbinary social construct in which people choose one of several ichidi variations to proclaim their identity, often by weaving tokens into their five braids (women wear one braid, men wear none). These expressions are fluid, and the tokens tell the story of a person’s journey through the variations. For example, the dear for ichar: “I leap sideways— to signal that one was neither a man or woman, but traveling sideways on one’s own path” (24). Parentage is not restricted to birth, and children with unfit parents are given their own housing and support. Most islanders are “multiple in [their] loves” (195), and the streets are filled with revelers and lovers who clean up after themselves—after sleeping off the quince wine hangovers. Gelle-Geu would seem an utopia, were it not for the threat stirring beneath the waves. The star’s restless sleep causes earthquakes, and they are getting worse.
Erígra Lilún leads a simple, quiet life: they tend the ancient quince trees and they write poems. This is all they desire. Yet their ancestor Semberi knows the star is growing more restless, knows in fact that the island has less than a year before an impending disaster, and they believe that Erígra can finally heal the Sputtering Star: “‘You are not yet a Starkeeper, but this is your destiny’”, the spirit tells Erígra. “‘Ambition is irrelevant’” (10). Yet Erígra can not, will not take on the burden. They want to help, but will not do so without the star’s consent. Semberi warns that if Erígra does not, another will, and they may be far less suited to the task. This introduces one of the crucial themes of the book: each person has work they are capable of, that they are called to do. In the Birdverse, there is no destiny, no prophecy—only the work that one consents to undertake.
I’ve heard some label Erígra “neurodivergent”. It’s a term Lemberg never uses. Rather, Erígra and Lemberg’s other characters simply have diverse ways of being—and those who care to be a part of each other’s lives work to support them. Erígra finds social gatherings, noise, and stimuli overwhelming: when they cannot focus, they need calm and quiet to recover inner peace. The healer-keepers tell Erígra’s fathers that “they just need the world to be quieter, and less bright” (27). As someone with generalized anxiety, this resonates strongly with me. But what happens when the world cannot be quieted, when action is needed?
Ranra Kekeri steps in as the leader in this time of crisis. Magical deepnames are what grant people magical power in the Birdverse, and Ranra has three—the most a named strong can take. She is bold, dynamic, and stubborn, traits fueled in part by an upbringing under a mentally unstable mother who convinced her of her inadequacies. When Ranra becomes Starkeeper, she intends to “fix” the star, no matter the cost. Erígra and Ranra meet, and the Starkeeper is instantly taken with Erígra. Yet she moves too fast for Erígra, and though they agree to work together to help the star, their first meeting ends in uncertainty. This is the tension that propels the initial portion of the story, along with worsening earthquakes, and Semberi’s story of the star, slowly unfolding. The events of the plot are almost secondary to the characters’ interactions, their attempts to understand and aid each other and their world. As often, it is about their failures.
Conflict, Failure, Lessons
Ranra pushes forward with strength of will alone to protect her people—and it is not enough. Ranra and Erígra create a magical configuration in which hundreds of named strong lend Ranra their power to heal the star. This only agitates the star further, though, by reminding it of the intense trauma that had forced it into slumber in the first place—thus accelerating the archipelago’s self-destruction. After, Ranra reflects, “‘We failed—this is not a peaceful structure…this structure kills…takes and takes from everyone to give it to one person…and it fed me and made me crave more’” (223). Ranra learns the cost of power—and in the end, she prioritizes the free will of her people over her own success.
Perhaps, had Erígra been in control of the magical configuration, they might have coaxed the spirit to restfulness: but this was not work they felt they could do. “The stars are people,” they say, and “you do not fix people” (92). Instead, they return to the quince grove one last time and receive a seed of the dying star from their ancestor—a token that represents the history of their people. Erígra and the islanders flee aboard ships, leaving behind those who would not heed the coming storm. This is diaspora—yet, as Erígra states, “Each one of us is the whole of our people, carrying all our love and our failures and our histories in our bones, and unless we all perish, nobody and nothing can take that away” (223).
Final Thoughts on The Unbalancing: Review
Gelle-Geu is, almost objectively, a kinder place than most modern industrialized nations. But it was built—if unknowingly—on the exploitation and suffering of others. It is a history neither of our characters can remedy, and Lemberg suggests that sometimes it is easier to reach toward a dream of the future than to heal the trauma of the past. And so they turn away from one sinking utopia toward the unknown. The Unbalancing ends with “A promise, a new story”(235); it ends with hope for a better future. That is why we write fantasy, and it is why we read it: to imagine different worlds than ours, and examine the way forward. In that, Lemberg has crafted a a much-needed novel for the inhabitants of a tired world.
About the Guest Reviewer
R.M. Harper is a fantasist writer and MFA candidate at Saint Mary’s College of California. He spends his days working in schools, buzzed on black coffee, dreaming.
@aremharper on social media