Over Sideways and Under, On a Magic Carpet Ride: A Review of R. B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves

The first of the Four Profound Weaves is woven from wind. It signifies change.

I am a little speechless, and I don’t really know how to talk about this book, because The Four Profound Weaves is the sort of book that makes me not want to do anything except stare at nothing for awhile. It is a deceptively small volume weighted down by the density of everything that is left unsaid around it. And even though I don’t quite know those things it did not say—and I can’t even begin to pretend to understand them—I can feel the depth of the personal space this story gestated in.

So I’ll talk around it first. The two protagonists of The Four Profound Weaves are atypical of the fantasy genre: they are sexagenarians with decades of story already invested in their persons. Not only are they elderly, they are also transgender. Uiziya is a weaver who was taught to weave the first two of the Four Profound Weaves—a carpet of wind, and a carpet of sand—and she sought her exiled aunt Benesret to complete her education. The other, known simply as the nameless man or Nen-sasaïr, seeks Benesret to give him his name after she had given him his body. One underwent her change in her youth, and the other in his old age.

Illustrations by Elizabeth Story for The Four Profound Weaves (2020)

As I grow older myself, I find it increasingly difficult to identify with all those farm boys with destinies and disaffected teen girls rebelling against dystopian regimes who seem to overpopulate the fantasy and sci-fi genres these days, all while witnessing my own relevance to society and the size of my future shrink to ever more meagre proportions. And if I, a cisgender straight man in his 30’s can start to feel this way, how do elderly transgender people feel in a world that never made space for them even when they were in their prime? In Four Profound Weaves, R. B. Lemberg carved a little space in this world of theirs for two of them where the old folks aren’t merely wizened mentors doomed to perish to advance the hero’s character development, and the queer folks aren’t simply nonexistent. Because after all—and this should go without saying—trans elders can still change, wander, hope and eventually, master death.

Of the two, I find Nen-sasaïr to be more fascinating if only because he had to live a full life as woman before circumstances permitted him to finally assume the body he always knew belonged to him. They say stories are empathy machines, and through this one, I felt but an echo of the hardship he had experienced. How the love of a lover can stifle and suffocate. How well-meaning neighbours can casually and continuously deny a person’s identity through a hundred thousand little acts of callous disregard. How one’s insecurity can make one doubt one’s own place in the gendered 3-D jigsaw puzzle of society. How a government hellbent on stasis; in keeping things the way they have always been, unchanging, is really antithetical to life itself.

The Birdverse that this story is set in certainly feels lived in. I have no doubt the author themself have invested uncountable years and nights into its upkeep. I am particularly interested in the Khana people that are inspired by Jewish culture who lives in their own ghetto in the city which are protected by automata fashioned by Khana men called Raw Guards (derived from “golem” which carries connotations of being raw or unfinished). I wish I can learn more about how their intensely binary community works; how they have accepted same sex and polyamorous relationships but continue to shun transgender people, and how their men are cloistered in their own quarters to focus on their business of scholarship, religion and artifice (while the women travel, trade and raise children). Nen-sasaïr relationship to this extreme binary division and the men’s quarter is an interesting one. On one hand, he longs to join the other men, to be one of them, yet his identity is bigger and more complex than any regular Khana man, having lived in the domain of the women all his life, playing women’s roles.

I also enjoy the magic system involving a person’s deepnames and geometry. I don’t know exactly how it works and that’s okay. What is important is that they seem to be operating in a coherent and logical fashion in the author’s mind, and I don’t need to know how the plumbing works underneath it all. But the main dish, as advertised by the title, is the art of weaving from intangible things.

The Four Profound Weaves. A carpet of wind, a carpet of sand, a carpet of song, and a carpet of bones. Change, wanderlust, hope, and death.

It reminded me of China Miéville’s Iron Council, particularly the character of Judah Low who is a master at golemcrafting, an art in which a magician channel power into anything non-living (emphasis on anything), and part of the fun of that book is in looking forward to what crazy material Judah uses next to make his golems. Sure, Judah employs fairly mundane stuff like clay and wood, but he also gets creative making golems from corpses, poison, and gunpowder (with embedded shrapnel), and from impossible stuff like light, darkness, and time. Judah Low is of course an undisguised reference to Judah Loew, the rabbi from folklore who supposedly created the golem of Prague, and practically every character from Iron Council is queer though Miéville is, as far as I know, neither queer nor Jewish.

The Four Profound Weaves reads like a fairytale both familiar and fresh, and it is my favourite read this year so far. I look forward to exploring more aspects of this world, if the author would let me. I’m down to read an epic 500-page novel set in Birdverse. Heck I’d read a trilogy of it. If you have never read R. B. Lemberg before, here’s where you start: two trans elders set out on a quest of self discovery on a magic carpet, face monsters and fight injustice, and in the process, find out that life begins at 60 and that they have what they need inside them all along. And what they have inside is enough. It’s always been enough.

P.S. I read this on my Kindle, but those lovely illustrations have convinced me that I absolutely need a print copy for my shelf.

Ratings: 4.5/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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