Review of A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power

A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power by RB Lemberg. Beneath Ceaseless Skies. 2017.

5 stars

portrait coverThis non-binary centered novella has supermages and spies and ghosts and I adore the ways those things are interwoven into a narrative that is so much about consent and kink and trauma.

This is my favorite book that has come out in 2017, the one closest to my heart. I love it dearly. It means the world to me.

I love how intensely enby centered it is. How it offers a vision of a world where non-binary folks can be celebrated and powerful and honored for who they are. How it is told from an enby perspective and feels like it’s written for enby readers.

I needed this book very much. Especially for the way it engages so deeply with consent and sadism. My heart was in my throat as I was reading the first half particularly, watching the Raker get accused of harm, watching him be defensive and angry, watching the OR sort through the pieces, from a place of deep acceptance of sadism. It was painfully resonant, and deeply healing, to read this story, as a sadist, particularly as a sadist who has struggled with internalized shame around my sadism. It made me cry, and it made me feel so much, and it felt like being seen.

The kink itself is glorious, some of the best and most gorgeous descriptions of magical SM I have ever read. I love that the kink is power neutral and that it’s not about sex. (There is no sex in the story.) It’s not about sex, and very much feels like romance. Not a classic romantic arc of a standalone piece, more the beginning of a long polyamorous fantasy romance series, where the Raker and the Old Royal continue on throughout, as kinky lovers and as friends. The kink itself, and the dance around it, feels like some of the most romantic kink I’ve read. It’s beautiful.

I loved the way consent was a constant question and discussion in the entire story. Not just around kink, but about magic and disclosure and touch, woven into everything. The way the story grappled with the complexities of consent, and wasn’t interested in simplifying it. Instead wanted to hold the places where it was hard and nuanced and there was less clarity. The way that both the Raker and the OR care so deeply about consent.

One of the things I most appreciated was the representation of trauma in this story, especially around the depiction of the Raker, who got to be a trauma survivor that wasn’t especially sympathetic, on the face of things. He’s angry and defensive, and prickly and lashes out instinctively to protect himself. He isn’t wanting protection or rescue. He is suspected by many characters to be a criminal. He is openly a sadist. And he is also deeply traumatized, by what has happened to him, and by the ways people treat him. I especially appreciated that the Old Royal doesn’t pressure him to tell about the trauma, and makes it clear that its not ok for others to demand that he do so. And that we never hear the details. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the way this challenges common narratives about trauma, that it resists presenting his trauma story in ways that are exploitative. It makes the story safer for me as a trauma survivor. (So does the way the story engages with consent.) It feels like one of the most radical things this novella does, resisting those common narratives.

The story travels back and forth between lore and reality, interweaves them beautifully, shows the history of magical geometry, and shows both the study and practice of it as well. I loved the university setting; if there is any place in Birdverse I’d like to be, it’s there. Loved the relationships in the story, especially the ORs relationship with Marvushi and with Nihitu.

There are deeply compelling plotlines aside from the central relationship between the OR and the Raker. I enjoyed all the intrigue in the story, quite a bit. I also really liked the complexities of plot circling Ranra, a ghost that is trying to resolve a problem she helped create.

I love Birdverse deeply, and this novella has become my new favorite Birdverse story. The language, as always with Birdverse, is just gorgeous. The story beautiful and important and resonant and radical and there is so much wonderful in it.



  • Queer non-binary bigender MC
  • Queer immigrant trauma survivor non-binary MC
  • Multiple non-binary secondary characters
  • Queer Jewish immigrant, autistic disabled trauma survivor, bigender non-binary trans author

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Sadist MC is accused of non-consensual kink, presumed to be a criminal. Story is very much about complexities and messiness around consent. Attempted assassinations. Physical violence. Murder. Magical harm in the past is described. Non-consensual behavior in the past is described.

Consensual kink: pain play, magical needle play, magical fire play, edge play, blade play, blood sports.


  • Source of the book: ARC from the author
  • I am close friends with the author.

Get this book

Get this ebook free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies Part 1; Part 2

Get the audiobook for free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Buy this book on Amazon Part 1; Part 2

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9 thoughts on “Review of A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power

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