The Four Profound Weaves, by R. B. Lemberg, is beautiful and painful, often both at once. Lemberg writes with clarity about the harms done in the name of power and in the name of love. They write, too, about hope; an active hope that cannot erase the harms done for power or love, but that can find a life beyond that harm.
The novel tells the story of Uiziya e Lali and nen-sasaïr, who embark on a quest after decades spent waiting for change. Uiziya has waited forty years for Aunt Benesret to return to the snake-Surun’ camp and finish teaching her the Four Profound Weaves of the title. The profound weaves are magical. A weaver who has mastered them can turn wind, sand, song, or bones into thread and weave from them. Aunt Benesret is the only person Uiziya knows to have mastered all four, and she longs to be the second. Her traveling companion, nen-sasaïr, waited forty years to change his body into the man he knew he was—waited, in particular, for his lover to agree to the change. Now that he has changed, he is unsure how to live as a man of his people. Without stories to guide him, he is afraid of being rejected if he claims the place he has dreamed of for so long. The name “nen-sasaïr” represents his uncertainty. It is a use name, a placeholder until he can find his new name. (Since he goes by this name for most of the novel, it is what I use in this review.) Both Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are emotionally raw, rubbing against each other and the world, and against grandchildren who do not understand them. They embark on their quest for simple, private reasons: to finish learning the profound weaves, to find a new name—to finish becoming the people they have wanted to become for years.
The Four Profound Weaves is set in the Birdverse, which Lemberg has previously written about in poetry and fiction. The Birdverse is named for a deity who appears to the people of the Birdverse in the guise of various birds, magical and mundane. The Birdverse is large, full of many cultures and peoples, and Lemberg writes with passion and intricacy about these cultures, including the tensions and beauty at their intersections, and the tensions and beauty within them. Here, these tensions are most obvious with nen-sasaïr. Among his people, the Khana, men live in the inner quarter, and are scholars and engineers (“makers of magical automata”). Women are traders, traveling in groups of lovers known as oregs. Once they have reached adulthood, encounters between the two genders are brief, and there are no stories among the Khana of anyone changing from one gender to the other. At least, there are no stories that nen-sasaïr knows. Before the novel begins, he travels to the snake-Surun’ camp because the Surun’, in contrast, treat changing as an everyday part of life and have a magical ritual of transformation. Lemberg previously wrote about nen-sasaïr’s trip to the camp in “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” which appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2015. That earlier novelette is told from the perspective of nen-sasaïr’s granddaughter, who is resistant to nen-sasaïr changing and does not fully grasp how he has been hurt by years of being misgendered. In The Four Profound Weaves, crucially, nen-sasaïr tells his story for himself, and he highlights the importance of whose stories are told and who does the telling. He transforms with the help of the Surun’, but he is still Khana and does not have stories to show the way. The attempts of his Surun’ hosts to reassure him fall flat.
I did not want to think my noisy, agitated thoughts, but they sat better with me than the matter-of-fact, ‘everything is perfectly commonplace about a swarm of sandbirds cocooning your body and helping you transform, and then you just go sit with the men’ conversation I’d had with so many Surun’ people. (p. 20)
His change is a relief, but the choices that come after are fraught. Since Khana men live separate lives from Khana women, he is unsure how to relate to his grandchildren as a grandfather. He worries that Khana men will not accept him. His “noisy, agitated thoughts” are contrasted with Uiziya, who is Surun’ and changed when she was young. For her, changing was a matter-of-fact relief.
Nen-sasaïr follows this thread of tension throughout the novel. In search of a resolution, he tells and re-tells himself the story of his relationship with his lover, Bashri, and the forty years he spent waiting for Bashri to agree to his change. She never did. “Those who loved you held you in shape, even if the shape was all wrong,” he thinks. Their relationship was marked by limitations and negotiations—what Bashri did not want him to do, who Bashri did not want him to be. She tried to hold him in shape. He followed some of her limitations and did not follow others, and neither was satisfied. Lemberg writes with clarity and empathy about how pain and love become intertwined over a lifetime. Through telling and retelling the story to himself, nen-sasaïr tries to unknot love from pain, but they are too tangled. The pain remains.
Nen-sasaïr’s story grounds the fantasy in the prism of one person’s life. Around his story swirl lives and goals that appear almost as parables, their themes reflecting and refracting his story and each other. There is Aunt Benesret, who, the reader learns, wants to master death and has killed those she loves in pursuit of her ambition. There is the Collector, the ruler of Iyar, who collects marvels and people and locks them up where no one else can see. He wants to stop change in order to stop death, and yet nen-sasaïr and Uiziya sense death throughout his court. There is the Torturer, who works for the Collector and has gained terrible, destructive power by magically encasing his family in an iron rod. Like the stories that held nen-sasaïr in the wrong shape, all three of these powerful figures tell stories that reinforce their own power and destruction. All three devour what and who they claim to love in their pursuits of power and control, and they claim that their way is the only right way.
Uiziya offers a small voice of doubt against the devourers, and her voice grows louder as the story continues. She begins the novel torn between ambition and community. Her ambition was to become a master weaver and inherit her Aunt Benesret’s loom. In particular, she wanted to finish learning the Four Profound Weaves: the first woven from wind, the second from sand, the third from song, and the fourth from bones. The weaves are literal and metaphorical at once: the first is change, the second wanderlust, the third hope, and the fourth is death. Years earlier, Uiziya pleaded for Aunt Benesret to teach her how to weave from death. Benesret told her, “You must weave from death that matters to you,” and when Uiziya didn’t understand, Benesret killed Uiziya’s husband. The other Surun’ rejected Benesret because of what she had done, but Uiziya didn’t know what to believe. For forty years she waited for Benesret to return and teach her: “I was neither theirs nor Benesret’s, nor even mine. I did not want Lali to die. I did not want to learn my craft from his death. But I did not want to stop waiting.” When we meet her, she cannot choose. She exists in a state of inaction, unwilling to give up her ambition and also unwilling to pursue its implications.
Instead of devouring someone else’s life, she first tries to give up her own in order to learn, but nen-sasaïr intervenes. Their quest leads them into the depths of despair—into the catacombs beneath the Rainbow Court, where the Collector has gathered the bones of those he has killed because they agitated for change or simply because of who they were. There, Uiziya makes a discovery. Instead of devouring, she listens. “To weave from death,” she realizes, “you had to listen to the dead. To know them deeply, to attend to what had been silenced, to care enough to help the dead speak again through every thread that made up the great work.” She weaves together the dead who were punished by the Collector for attempting to escape his control. Though they clamor at her too quickly for her to fully hear, still she listens and she weaves. By the end, she has found the hope she could not see at the beginning of the novel, when she sat alone in her tent in the snake-Surun’ camp. She imagined she would sit there until she sat among bones, and so she does eventually sit among bones, though not as she first thought.
While reading The Four Profound Weaves, I thought of the devourers of our world. The devourers we know may not have the magical deepnames of the Birdverse, or the ability to encase their families in iron rods, but still they claim power on the bodies of those they say they love, like the Torturer. They build their power like the Collector does—on the bodies of transgender men and women, and nonbinary people, and ciswomen who act out, and people who cannot fit themselves into the powerful’s vision of how the world should be. In this world, in which the devourers seem to be everywhere, I am grateful for the honesty with which Lemberg writes about hope. They write of a hope for hurts to be redressed, while acknowledging that what was done cannot be undone. Forty years cannot be erased. The dead cannot be brought back to life. Instead, the hope is for the stories to be heard. For the stories of the dead to become a part of the world, not held within the Collector’s cold prisons. For nen-sasaïr to find his name and realize that he can tell a story for others to follow. For Uiziya to believe that she can still learn more, and see more, and live more. To believe that even when rulers rise, so too do those who bring them down: “Over and over we rise.”
For me, the greatest fantasies—the works that I want to reread again and again—both provide a window onto ourselves and our own world and also transcend what we think we know and understand. The works I reread, and want to share, provide moments that open my chest to existence. The Four Profound Weaves does this often. The moment that reverberates for me the most is near the end of the novel. Uiziya and nen-sasaïr take the tapestry woven from the dead into the desert. They offer it to the sky, in the hopes that Bird will send an emissary to carry up the dead. Instead, Bird herself descends, in the form of a swan skeleton, and takes the tapestry in her beak. She dances with it, in a beautiful passage.
Bones, bones, oh how her bones rattled above the swirling sun-domain of the desert, rattling like drums, like the first and last music that ever existed. In her beak, Uiziya’s great weaving shook and dissolved into ash. Floating, swirling over our heads so that even the sun was obscured. Then a strong gust of wind bore ash and Bird away. The heat filled the world once more. (p. 103)
This is what it feels like to read The Four Profound Weaves. The novel dances, shaking stories out into the world, obscuring for a moment the sun. And then—at just the right moment and yet too soon—the story ends, and you are returned to yourself.