“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Art by Jeff Brown

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg.
Novella. Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July 2017 (issues #229 and #230).
Part of Lemberg’s Birdverse series.

Content notes: BDSM; negotiation of consent.

Charles Payseur raves about this one at Quick Sip Reviews. It’s worth reading his entire piece, but I’ll excerpt a few different notes:

I have of late lamented that there was not enough queer smutty stories appearing in pro SFF venues. Here is one that captures the scope and awe and magic of fantasy and builds a world that is both shatteringly real and peopled by characters diverse and raw and hurt and yearning for something they can’t quite give breath to. (…)

The web of characters the story creates is one that, like the Grid of the world, is weakened by absences and a general distrust. And while some of the characters seem to think the only way to counter this decay is to create one person to anchor the web and dominate, Tajer and the Old Royal push for a different way, a more subtle and in many ways more precarious way. They seek to strengthen not by creating a powerful single point but by working on the bonds between each person and strengthening those bonds with affection and trust. (…)

(plus OMG THE CHARACTERS!!! They are all so awesome and if everyone doesn’t want all the Marvushi everything then YOU HAVE NO TASTE! There are just so many great characters all orbiting around each other and I love them all and can’t wait to read more amazing BirdVerse stories!)

On the other hand, Rocket Stack Rank is unenthusiastic:

Pro: The world is very elaborate and well-thought-out. Dialogue and narration are flawless.

Con: The protagonist is so powerful that the plot suffers. For the first ten thousand words, we’re not even sure what it is that they want, and the story really drags. Even then, the only problems that they have seem to be self-inflicted. This makes this very long story a real slog to get through. (…) Finally, I found the graphic S&M scenes at the end seriously disturbing.

Ada Hoffman at Autistic Book Party delves into the story’s treatment of sex, gender, and BDSM:

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.

What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!


6 thoughts on ““A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg”

  1. I loved the mythic feel to this, particularly in the first few pages (although it took me a couple of tries to get into the swing of things, to get deep enough to latch on to where the actually story starts). The story’s core focus is very sexual, and the shift from grand-mythic to personal-intimate-sexual is gradual. It’s an intriguing way to structure a story!

    We discussed a previous Birdverse story here; “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds”. I think both stories center queer characters and nonbinary sexuality, and a lot of their power is in the creation of a setting and a backdrop where those stories can be told — where cisnormativity isn’t the only option.

    “Cloth of Winds” also does the same for neurodivergence. This story, I think, does the same for BDSM kink: dismantles objections and prejudices, and imagines a society — or at least, the pinpoint of one — where consensual pain is enjoyed by those who enjoy it, and not treated as taboo or shameful by others.

    I think it’s an interesting topic. It’s likely to be more controversial and discomfiting, even to a liberal readership — are we being asked to appreciate BDSM ourselves? are we being asked to see the BDSM community as a marginalized group, in the way we do nonbinary or neurodivergant people? — but I’d rather set controversy and message-interpretation aside, and just focus on what the piece is doing, and what my reactions are.

    And so, I feel like a lot of the story’s thrust is to de-claw, at the very least, this one particular instance. To make consent clear, unquestionable, well-informed. To make clear the attraction and significance to both participants (which is nicely done, with the Old Royal scoffing at Nihitu’s assumption to the contrary…). For myself, a relationship that’s portrayed both as hugely significant and also as near-purely sexual is… not one I identify with myself; but I think Lemberg does a great job of portraying why their characters do feel it’s so meaningful — and does so without turning it into a very different, more socially-accepted, type of relationship.

    1. Part of what I love about the story is the way that Lemberg plays with power, something obviously very important in BirdVerse and in kink/BDSM relationships. They (the author uses they pronouns, fyi) have crafted these characters that are both very hesitant about being submissive at all because of the ways they have been abused. And because of the characters’ great power, they don’t really have to worry about being overpowered. But I love works that explore the ways, then, that a very powerful character can consensually give another person power over them. For the Old Royal/Tajer, it seems like part of what they love in each other is that they don’t have to hold back. They can fully let loose and be contained by each other. They can be vulnerable in a way that isn’t fake or forced and so isn’t exactly safe, and yet is safe because of the trust they have in each other. The central conflict in the story is about trust, I think, and the redemption and joy of the work comes for me from the ability of these characters to overcome the doubt and the work of others trying to undermine their trust, to shape something that works for them, that is beautiful and powerful and new.

      1. And because of the characters’ great power, they don’t really have to worry about being overpowered. (…) part of what they love in each other is that they don’t have to hold back.

        I can’t say I felt the Old Royal or the Raker were very safe! I feel a little the opposite: that each one of them was able to find a partner that’s at least somewhat dangerous to them… and the joy is in their trust being borne out. Obviously, for that, you have to have a strong foundation; it’s not a suicide run… but the sense of danger is also crucial.

        I don’t feel like the Old Royal would have been anywhere near as intrigued by a Raker who came in fully cognizant of consent, offering BDSM/kink in a responsible manner… The feeling that this is a “two-sided lesson” is a lot of what, I think, makes this so attractive.

        (the author uses they pronouns, fyi)

        Oi! Thanks; fixed. I don’t think I missed that in more than one place, but please correct me if I did.

      2. When I go to examine character arcs and motivations, I don’t know that I arrive at the same conclusions that you do.

        The Raker seems to me to be a very dark, tragic character. He’s drawn to pain and violence. And while he controls that impulse to some extent (at the beginning) and to a larger extent (by the end), it seems embedded upon the core of his being. Refraining from killing his lovers is an act of great discipline; he finds himself reveling in seeing Bird suffer; he hears the call of Ladder and the assassins’ school.

        So the Raker seems to kind of be making the best of a dire affliction; he feels like a man who could need a muzzle, if he ever slips. Maybe Lemberg’s rehabilitating BDSM a little less than I thought — the safest outlet available for some very dark urges.

        Whereas the Old Royal seems to be coming at this from a very different angle. It’s not clear to me they even had any interest in this form of kink until the Raker says his piece — My offer was only an exercise of the mind. I did not expect him to consider it in truth, in the flesh, in my flesh. But he did. (…) I swallowed, shuddering. Of course they said yes to such vision, such grandeur. (…) Now, yes, I would crave what he had offered.

        It’s as though the Raker is a man who is limited to one, dark form of beauty, and the Old Royal manages to seize on that form in its purest form, free of the darkness. In that way, they grants him some measure of peace, by offering him a kinder version of his own love than he could have managed on his own. While he gives them… hmmm. Thinking out loud here: he gives them passion, and appetite, but most of all, he acknowledges their pain and rawness, sees it as something momentuous rather than something to be hidden away. I’d feast on that old, old pain of yours that nobody hears but the sands.

        That seems to me a more… complicated… dynamic than trust. Maybe I’d describe it along the lines of: The Raker needs to be de-fanged enough to be loved. Part of that is by being able to contain him, yes, but also part is teaching him to contain himself. And the Old Royal… the Old Royal, here I guess I agree with you. There problem isn’t staying contained, because they’re good at containing themselves — they need to be able to cut loose, to let the Raker do some containing for them.

        1. I don’t know that I’d say that the Raker/Tajer needs to be de-fanged exactly. I think a lot of his aggression and his willingness to take the not-really-consent of the lovers he hurts comes from him not being able to trust anyone enough to really open up negotiations surrounding the pain he wants to inflict. He’s hurting, in part because the BDSM stuff is not all that accepted in the setting. He’s shunned and chased away, was kicked out of university before. Every time he seems wanting to trust, he’s betrayed. Every time he’s vulnerable, it’s used against him. I don’t see his appetite as dark necessarily. Nor do I think he’s limited. He obviously appreciates learning, and architecture, and the natural world. It’s that he seems desperate for intimate relationships because he’s so isolated, because he’s turned away from wherever he goes. Because everyone wants to use him as a weapon. And the Old Royal seems to me to see him as a person first, just as Tajer is the first in a long time to see them as a person, not as some near-god or sage or historical figure. Like I said in my review, part of the issues with these people mirrors the issues with the Stars. Namely, that in isolation they burn out, and when the grid between people is damaged, everything suffers. But to form an intimate relationship does require trust, and that’s what they seem to struggle the most with. Both of them, to trust the other, and to trust themselves when so much around them is betrayal and death and secrets.

          I definitely agree that the two-way relationship of their lessons is a great aspect of the story, though.

          1. Every time he seems wanting to trust, he’s betrayed. Every time he’s vulnerable, it’s used against him.

            It’s not quite that I disagree with this, but I didn’t feel this was much in focus in the story. The major point this happens is in the story with his sister, where, yes, he’s vulnerable and and gets burned. And that’s near the climax, his Big Secret, so it’s obviously foundational to him.

            But I don’t feel like it’s expressed elsewhere in the story much, certainly not as something that informs his character and personality. e.g. Ranra takes advantage of him, sure, but he doesn’t even know that. I don’t even quite see the Raker as being a distrustful person; much more “not used to seeing others as equals” than “fearing others will harm or betray him.”

            I don’t see his appetite as dark necessarily.

            Here I’ll disagree with you; I think that’s made very explicit. He hears Ladder’s song to suicides and assassins; it’s something he needs to actively resist. He savors watching Bird struggle and suffer, even though he sees that as blasphemy. He describes himself as “tempted” to kill his lovers.

            I definitely think his BDSM preferences can be teased apart from these dark sides — and The Royal One seems, precisely, to be the one establishing those boundaries, and they don’t seem to be struggling with the kind of darkness that the Raker is. But the Raker’s appetite for pain seems to me a clear arc being developed through the story — it’s being portrayed as something he balances and navigates and copes with, but it’s definitely there.

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