Today’s Book: “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power”, a novella by Rose Lemberg
The Plot: A stranger arrives in the court of the Old Royal of the Burri Desert.
Autistic Character(s): The author.
“Portrait” is set in the intricate fantasy world of Birdverse, in the same series as many other stories and poems I’ve reviewed here, but it stands well on its own. Its plot is a romance, although a romance of a very atypical type.
The Old Royal, an ancient and powerful person who rules a desert city and teaches at a magical school, is our protagonist. The Old Royal is effectively immortal, thanks to their connection to a magical star which prolongs their life and reincarnates them, with most of their memories, when they die. A young person, the Raker, arrives in the Old Royal’s court – but the Raker is not like the other people who flock to the Old Royal’s school. Extremely powerful and with a force of personality that utterly dominates most people, the Raker leaves a wake that confuses and concerns the Old Royal’s court. Perhaps it’s only the Old Royal themselves who can tame him – if the assassins that are rumored to be in the area, or the mysterious ghost who appears when the Raker sleeps, don’t get to them first.
(Readers familiar with Birdverse may recognize the Raker as a younger version of Tajar Kekeri from “Geometries of Belonging.”)
The Old Royal and the Raker have a sizzling attraction to each other that I can only describe as sexual, and they act on that attraction. But there’s no sex in the story, in the sense of anything involving genitals. Instead, the scenes between the Old Royal and the Raker are properly described as BDSM – except that BDSM practitioners in real life don’t have the kind of magic that can pierce someone’s skin with magic deepnames or turn you into a giant bird that flies around. These scenes manage to be wildly imaginative while also conveying intense desire and intense pleasure.
There’s also surprising depth to the kink in this story. Many nuanced issues around consent and negotiation are portrayed, including the question of whether and how someone as powerful as the Raker can ethically pursue relationships. Both characters make mistakes with each other, and then are quick to talk out those mistakes and fix them, which is basically my favorite romance trope ever.
Two other aspects of the romance provide refreshing representation. The kink in the story isn’t held to a perscriptive idea of what dominant and submissive partners should do: the Old Royal and the Raker are both tops, who negotiate complex and fulfilling interactions without either one psychologically submitting to the other. I also liked the way the Old Royal’s gender is handled. They’re gender fluid and undergo a magical gender transition every few years. They also preside over a festival where they help other trans denizens of Birdverse to do the same. In a very nice touch, Lemberg manages to make this aspect of the Old Royal’s gender clear without ever having to specify the anatomy of their current body.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I should mention something about it. I described the story as a romance, but romance as a genre contains some pretty strict expectations about endings. “Portrait” doesn’t have a traditional romance ending, but it also is not a tragic ending – this is not at all a queer tragedy story.
There is no autism anywhere in this story, but it’s another solid Birdverse installment with its detailed mythic setting, nuanced characters, and lyrical prose. If you’re into what it’s offering, don’t miss it.
The Verdict: Recommended-2
Ethics Statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a personal friend. I volunteered when they asked who wanted an ARC, and received an ebook copy for free in advance of the novella’s publication date. All opinions expressed here are my own.
This novella was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.