Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards nominee, Best Fantasy Novel
Locus Award finalist, Best First Novel
In this first full-length novel from the acclaimed Birdverse, new love blossoms between an impatient starkeeper and a reclusive poet as they try together to save their island home. Nebula, Locus, and Ignyte finalist R. B. Lemberg (The Four Profound Weaves) has crafted a gorgeous tale of the inevitable transformations of communities and their worlds. The Unbalancing is rooted in the mystical cosmology, neurodiversity, and queerness that infuses Lemberg's lyrical prose, which has invited glowing comparisons to N. K. Jemisin, Patricia A. McKillip, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Beneath the waters by the islands of Gelle-Geu, a star sleeps restlessly. The celebrated new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri, who is preoccupied by the increasing tremors, confronts the problems left behind by her predecessor.
Meanwhile, the poet Erígra Lilún, who merely wants to be left alone, is repeatedly asked by their ancestor Semberí to take over the starkeeping helm. Semberí insists upon telling Lilún mysterious tales of the deliverance of the stars by the goddess Bird.
When Ranra and Lilún meet, sparks begin to fly. An unforeseen configuration of their magical deepnames illuminates the trouble under the tides. For Ranra and Lilún, their story is just beginning; for the people of Gelle-Geu, it may well be too late to save their home.
About the Birdverse: The Birdverse is the creation of fantasy author R. B. Lemberg. It is a complex, culturally diverse world, with a range of LGBTQIA characters and different family configurations. Named after its deity, Bird, Birdverse shorter works have been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, Tiptree award, and Rhysling awards. The Unbalancing is the first novel set in the Birdverse.
[STARRED REVIEW] "Lovingly crafted with a deep and rewarding world full of complex characters who are often LGBTQIA+ and/or neurodiverse, this is an outstanding novel from a rising star in fantasy fiction."– Booklist
"There's so much to cherish in The Unbalancing, a stand-alone novel in Lemberg's Birdverse series. The relationship between Lilún and Ranra beautifully captures the spikiness and tenderness of a new connection that could turn into something beautiful. The world-building is full of deep lore and casual queerness, and Lemberg's magic system is appropriately wild and poetic."– Washington Post
"In all their fiction from the fascinating Birdverse world, Lemberg centers marginalized identities: queer, trans, neurodiverse, elderly, and more. The Unbalancing is Lemberg's first novel-length book to take place in the Birdverse. It's a poetic and magical Atlantis-esque novel and a perfect introduction to the Birdverse."– Buzzfeed
"In a narrative by turns gentle and implacable, Lemberg writes movingly and magnificently about disaster, survival, and hope."– Kate Elliott, author of the Crown of Stars series
I expected Keeper's House to be guarded against uninvited visitors. Once the large, squat-looking, gray marble building was in my sight, I began rehearsing what I would say to try to gain my admittance. I stopped just shy of the ornate iron gates of the outer garden. The air was perfumed with lilac, out of season but blooming exuberantly. This was supported, I saw, by the subtle but incessant flow of tiny deepnames draped in garlands around the wrought iron fencing.
I leaned closer, as if to look; but I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. It was hard through the strong scent of lilac, and the afterimages of tiny deepname lights. I thought I would see if I could be admitted. No. Would it be possible for me to—No. I should have rehearsed this earlier. I shouldn't have come here.
Words kept piling in my mind. A friend suggested—Was Semberí a friend? A relative suggested—
Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I startled. One of the gate guards. They smiled. "Were you going to come in?"
"I, um, do not have an invitation." This wasn't at all what I had planned to say.
The guard took me gently under the arm and led me to the gate, where they let me go. "No invitation is needed for you."
"Not for beautiful people, let alone beautiful people of considerable deepname power," said a different guard. They waved me through, and both smiled in unison. I felt uneasy, as if I'd tricked them somehow. Erígra Lilún was nobody's beautiful person, let alone of considerable deepname power. Would they admit me if I had not bleached and braided my hair? I didn't mean to trick anyone, and it wasn't like I would show up to Keeper's House in my earth-tending garments, or worse, pajamas . . .
Still, I didn't want to linger at the gate, so I made my way into the large inner courtyard, and joined the revelers within. With my magical senses—shaken, but if anything, more attuned than before—I felt a veritable vibration of power arising from the crowd. Many people with three-deepname and two-deepname configurations—the strongest of the named strong—mingled here, wine glasses in their hands. I saw people as young as their early twenties and as old as their eighties, and all were good-looking—proud of bearing, bright of eye, and splendidly dressed. There were no children here.
My stomach knotted. Any time now, somebody would want to talk to me. This was a mistake. I should get out of here. Semberí wanted me to take a look at the new starkeeper, ostensibly to make me feel bad that it wasn't me, but oh Bird, how could Semberí think I could rule anything? At thirty-five, I was perfectly content with a life of a recluse whose only social outings were poetry readings. At those, I just had to climb on some dais or a chair and read, then try to slip away before anybody could express their opinions to me directly. I couldn't imagine throwing even a much smaller party, let alone the rest of the people-wrangling that being a starkeeper would require. This had been enough of a look.
I had been about to turn back toward the gate when I spotted a group of ichidar by a small fountain. They all had their hair done five ways, and the oldest, a large and proud person in their sixties, had brass tokens strung into their five long, thin gray braids. This person's face was round and pleasant, their olive islander skin tanned with weather and wind. They waved at me, and then, unexpectedly, yelled my name. "Erígra Lilún!"
I startled, but surprisingly not bolted. This person exuded a kind of gravity, a warm centeredness—and without much thought I came closer. One of the younger ichidar thrust a glass goblet into my hands, and many people welcomed me at once.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Don't be sorry," said the person with the brass tokens. "I'm an admirer of your poetry—I'm Dorod Laagar, shipwright—and this is my crew . . ." As Dorod introduced their fellows, I became again distracted by the tokens in Dorod's braids. The tokens told a story of their life and their journeys through at least three different ichidi variations. First was the deer for ichar—I leap sideways—to signal that one was neither a man or a woman, but traveling sideways on one's own path. It was the first ichidi variation, one many ichidar chose for themselves. But it wasn't Dorod's current variation. The deer token they wore was small, followed by a fish for arír, and finally, prominently displayed, a bear for rugár. Animal tokens were out of fashion at the moment, I was given to understand, but I loved looking at these.
"You can have one of mine, if you'd like," Dorod said, amused.
I shook my head. "I don't know my ichidi variation. Sometimes I think I am ichar, but I am never sure. And anyway, I should be going. No offense meant—I wanted to see the new Keeper, but I have no idea how to find them." I cursed my bluntness. "I'm sorry. I'm not used to being in the crowds." I put the goblet down on the striated stone rim of the fountain. I had not drunk anything, but the colors of the courtyard were blending in my eyes.
Dorod nodded sagely, and soon I found myself being escorted somewhere by one of their fellows whose name I entirely missed. We left the courtyard and entered one of the outer rooms of Keeper's House, a dim and spacious chamber with floors of white and black marble and pillars of malachite chiseled to resemble trees. Here was a heavy table strewn with charts, and around it a small gathering of people in animated conversation. I had no time to take it all in, to process, no time to feel anything except for some dark wave, a longing, apprehension, as if I was dreaming about the star, but I was awake. There was a person in her thirties—I knew her to be a woman by her single braid in the custom of those who were not ichidar. She wasn't overly tall, but sturdily built. She was, I suddenly thought, the center of all this—the room, and the conversations.
"Starkeeper." My guide spoke up, next to me, and I felt that movement as air rearranging itself around us. Every tiny sensation was either sharp, or blurred into nothingness. "I bring a guest."
The commanding woman whirled around to face me. Her face went through a series of expressions—a startled joy, disappointment, surprise. Finally, her face smoothed out. She couldn't be called pretty, but she had a striking, commanding presence, and a kind of roar filled my mind. She walked over toward us.