I haven’t read anything by R.B. Lemberg before, but had heard their name turn up pretty often, and it got good blurbs from some of my favorite authors, so I had high hopes for the story. I must admit to being somewhat disappointed. There are other stories set in this world, and perhaps I should have read those before opening this book. Though it’s described as a standalone, it’s really not.
The world is an interesting one, with novel deities and intriguing, though vague magics. Much of the magic in this book centers around weaving – change, wanderlust, hope, death; wind, sand, song, and bone – but I found the mechanics of it frustratingly vague. One protagonist can use this magic, and does so seemingly at random. She waits forty years to be taught a particular power, then goes out to find it for herself. That’s all pretty standard fantasy stuff, but there’s never really a moment when she grasps the technique – she can’t do it, and then can. Aside from a few elements of setting, I never understood why.
The second magic system is based on ‘deepnames’ and their properties – apparently visible and known to others, but giving power to the person holding them. Here there’s a little more structure, but much of the time, just drawing on or applying the deepnames makes great stuff happen, for no clear logical reason.
Of course, the mechanics of magic is not really what the story is about – by my reading, it’s about gender, identity, and self-determination. That part comes across somewhat more clearly. However, I found it undermined by the fact that – though the perspective alternates between them in clearly labeled chapters – I found it hard to tell the voices of the two protagonists apart. They’ve had substantially different lives and experiences, yet they sounded very, very similar. Perhaps that was Lemberg’s point, but I found myself constantly having to scan the text to be sure who was talking. Additionally, I found the gender elements, while interesting, fairly heavy-handed. For another audience, perhaps they’re affirming; for my part, I though more subtlety would have been more effective.
There’s a certain vagueness throughout. I didn’t find enough context to understand the protagonists’ backgrounds, though they seemed intriguing, and were clearly different. The actions of one of the book’s villains were also hard to understand – they give away a valuable item for no clear reason, and, although the story initially focuses on them, eventually play a minor part. There’s quite a bit of metaphor in the story, and while I usually appreciate that, I felt that here, the metaphors got away from the author, and often left me unsure of what was actually happening. Some elements of the plot simply didn’t make sense to me – why, when a man is looking for a healer, he doesn’t follow the child who offers to take him to one; why names of victims are conveniently chalked on a floor; why the villain threatens to kill someone, but … later – and I fear authorial convenience is the answer.
All in all, this came across to me as the early draft of a very good story, one that needed several more drafts to reach its potential. It also struck me as one that does not function as a standalone, but that should be read in conjunction with others in the universe; the author’s notes suggest that the answers to some of my questions might be found there. Unfortunately, I’m not really intrigued enough to find out.