Autistic Book Party, Episode 68: The Unbalancing

[Note: This review contains ending spoilers.]

Today’s Book: “The Unbalancing” by RB Lemberg

The Plot: The Star of the Tides by the island of Gelle-Geu is restless, and the earth is becoming unstable. The impatient, decisive starkeeper Ranra Kekeri and the shy, reclusive poet Erígra Lilún come together in an attempt to heal the star and save their island before it’s too late.

Autistic Character(s): Erígra (and the author)

We’ve been reviewing Birdverse books here at Autistic Book Party for quite some time, but “The Unbalancing” is the first full-length Birdverse novel (and I’ve been very excited for it). It tells the story of a disaster that took place centuries before many other stories, and it should be accessible to a newcomer who hasn’t read any Birdverse before.

To get it out of the way – this is a disaster book, perhaps even a tragedy. The disaster eventually happens despite everyone’s best efforts. (The parallels to real-world climate change are obvious, though Lemberg doesn’t belabor them.) Nevertheless it’s a story told with tenderness and respect for the character’s efforts, and even with hope.

The tenderness and respect come through most strongly in how Lemberg writes Erígra Lilún. Erígra is autistic and easily overwhelmed, needing a lot of time and space to process what they experience. The poems they write are popular, and their magical power is significant, but at the beginning of the story these things barely register with Erígra; they’re not strongly embedded in the social groups that would give context and meaning to that kind of power, preferring instead to spend time on their own, write, and tend to growing things. The word “autism” isn’t used, but the concept comes across clearly:

I had always known I was different from others, and people had known this, too. As a child, I would curl upon myself sometimes, and rock on the floor until the buzzing grew softer. The healer-keepers came, and told my fathers not to worry so much. “They just need the world to be quieter, and less bright. Can you make them a comfortable place to relax?” What I wanted was a pool, so dads Veseli and Meron had labored for weeks to create my quiet place, and dad Genet planted the first vines, and taught me how to tend them.

 

Gelle-Geu culture is in many ways very accepting – as you can see in the excerpt above. This is also true when it comes to relationships. Queer and polyamorous relationships are the norm on Gelle-Geu, and nonbinary people – called “ichidi” – are firmly embedded in the culture, with their own traditional styles of hair and dress and with five recognized variations. The islands also seem to be a place where everyone is cared for, where social supports are robust, and where the populace is generally very happy.

But no culture is perfect, and Lemberg is careful to show us these nuances too. Asexual characters are recognized – the word for them is “adar” – but some of them feel alienated by the sensual and permissive way the people around them live. Abuse exists, and while there are healer-keepers who can intervene, it doesn’t fully heal or resolve the damage done. Erígra certainly feels alienated – the bustle and crowds of normal people’s activities are not comfortable for them, and they don’t seem to have found a community of others like them, or even to imagine that such a thing might exist.

But Erígra’s slowness and caution is also their strength. It makes them tender and caring and a good keeper of growing things. Their ancestor, the ancient starkeeper Semberí, wants them and not Ranra to be the starkeeper. Semberí senses that Erígra’s gentle patience is exactly what the Star of the Tides needs. But Erígra has no interest in such things. They don’t want the meetings and crowds that come with the job of starkeeper, since Gelle-Geu’s starkeeper is also essentially the head of government; and they have serious concerns about whether the star consents to being kept in the first place.

Semberí’s urgings, lead Erígra into the path of Ranra, who was only recently chosen to be starkeeper. Ranra is in many ways Erígra’s opposite – a determined, impatient, ambitious woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of a mountain. She, too, is aware of a problem with the Star of the Tides, and is determined to use her magical power to fix it. But, as Erígra cautions her, the star is a person – and people are not objects to be fixed.

Despite their differences there is a spark between Erígra and Ranra, a mutual fascination which blossoms into romance. Their first meeting starts off on the wrong foot – with Ranra initially suspicious of Erígra’s motives, then abruptly making a pass at them, which Erígra is too startled to accept. Nevertheless something draws both of them together again and again. There is a magical connection between them as well as a romantic one, with both of them easily combining their deepnames to create powerful effects. And the relationship is at its strongest when they learn to make space for each other’s different needs.

One of the best things about this book is how it honors Erígra’s need for space and slowness. This is a need which is subtler to grasp than “no loud noises” or “no sarcasm,” but for many of us it’s very real. After a challenging event, good or bad, Erígra needs time and space to process – and as the situation with the Star of the Tides worsens, there are many challenging events to choose from. In one memorable scene, both characters survive an earthquake. Ranra is galvanized by the experience and wants to swoop back to the starkeeper’s building to organize things, but Erígra badly needs to stop and sit. Ranra is confused, but slows and lets them sit. Eventually, Erígra is able to explain their needs:

I tucked the stone into my pocket and stood up, not looking at Ranra. “I will follow you, but I cannot look or touch right now.”
“Yes,” she said. “Are you all right?”
I shrugged. “I need to ruminate on things. When something happens, I go home to think about it. I write a poem. I go out to a gathering place to read the poem. People tell me what they think. I come back home and ruminate on that. I write some more, change things. In the mornings, I go to the grove, I tend to the quince trees, who don’t talk to me or tug at me.”

 

Ranra and Erígra’s relationship is strongest when they are able to make space for each other like this. But the worsening situation with the star is going to push both of them to their limit. Ranra isn’t always able to be patient with Erígra under the stress of the islands falling apart, and Erígra isn’t always able to follow where Ranra leads.

What is it that’s unbalanced in the Unbalancing? It’s the physical form and magical ecosystem of the island, and in certain senses it’s Ranra’s mind, but it’s also the tenuous, frequently disrupted connection between the two protagonists and their different approaches. They are at their strongest and healthiest by far when they both work together as two contrasting parts of the same system. They both fail a great deal, but they still come together when it is needed most.

Of course the disaster still does happen and the characters are forced to switch their efforts to surviving, to evacuating and saving as many people as they can. Lemberg handles this ending powerfully and carefully. It would be easy for a more careless author to blame the disaster on Erígra and their unwillingness to act when first asked – or on Ranra and her recklessness and callousness. Or, perhaps, on the ways they fail to work together fully. Throughout the book we see glimpses of what could be – if Erígra’s care and respect joined forces, for a longer time and more completely, with Ranra’s courage and vision. But if there is any single reason why their efforts fail, it’s something older and sadder than what either of them can control. The Star of the Tides carries traumas a thousand years in the making. It could have been saved, but that work would have had to start before either Erígra or Ranra were ever alive. All they can do is their imperfect best, with the imperfect power and information that remain to them. And that work, in the end, is not meaningless. It saves more, salvages more, than if everyone had continued not to try.

The Unbalancing is a heartrending book about power and responsiblity, the courage to act and the wisdom to think before acting; about relationships and collaborations that cross differences; about traumas and attempted healings, large and small; about what we can do and what we can save when it’s too late to avert the worst. It’s beautiful and queer and challenging and tender. And it’s a story that could not have been told without Erígra’s autistic point of view, without a deep respect for needs like Erígra’s, which comes from lived, thoughtful experience. I love all of RB Lemberg’s work, but I might love this book most out of any of them.

The Verdict: Highly Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.