Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
Published: Small Beer Press, 2013
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author, World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Jevick, the pepper merchant's son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire's two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.”

A Stranger in Olondria is Sofia Samatar’s debut fantasy novel, and she has also published short fiction,poetry, essays and reviewsThere are some mild spoilers ahead, which I couldn’t avoid while discussing the novel. 

My Thoughts:

A Stranger in Olondria is very beautifully and descriptively written, and seems to carry love for the written word.  Pretty much every sentence in the novel is written with a sense of poetry, which is lovely but can sometimes feel a little overwhelming.  For instance, here is a random sentence describing Jevick rushing to a friend’s aid, with a pretty description that kind of obscures the action:

“I hurried past arched entryways where anxious statues peered out with white eyes, emerging at last into the central hall where the moonlight, flung through the doorway, set illusory crystals in the checkered floor.” ~ p. 208 

In addition to the poetic slant of the prose, there’s also a sense of historical foundation to the world through written fictional documents. Jevick knows most of the world initially through the books his exiled Olondrian tutor had taught him to read, and he constantly references or quotes the classic works of his world throughout his travels. While this combination of description and history makes for some impressive writing, it also seems to remove the sense of immediacy from the story, even in dramatic situations, which makes it feel like the story is advancing very slowly.

The novel is also mostly narrated from the point of view of Jevick, who seems to be detached from the story that is happening to and around him.  Perhaps it is just the style of Jevick’s voice, but even though he sometimes explains his feelings, I never felt like I understood his mind.  Sometimes he would make decisions that seemed baffling to me, like willfully choosing to do or not do something with the full knowledge that it would lead directly to his own suffering.  However, the second major character of the story, the ghost Jissavet, is nearly the opposite.  Her story felt deeply emotional and brutally honest, and was by far the most engaging section of the novel for me.  I think that the contrast between the voices of the two characters may have been intended to illustrate the contrast between their two worlds of literate and oral culture.

Among other things, it is the conflict between these two kinds of culture that the story explores. In both cultures, people use stories as a framework to understand their lives, for better or for worse.  In Jissavet’s culture, people are heavily influenced by superstition, while a Olondrian culture places more value on written histories.  Jevick loves the books through which he has been taught about the world, but he is slowly forced to recognize the privilege and oppressive power of the literate culture he has embraced.  Jissavet, on the other hand, must confront the fact that she is dead and, in her culture, will be forgotten.  Through her insistence that Jevick record her life story, though, she can gain a kind of immortality.  I don’t think the story had a moral, exactly, but was more concerned with showing the happiness and suffering of all sides and how these different cultures interact.  In view of these considerations, I loved the way the story ended.  I felt that the meaning behind Jevick’s final actions provided a resolution that gave a sense of meaning to the examination of the two kinds of culture, but one that still did not judge their relative worth.

My Rating: 4/5

A Stranger in Olondria is an unusual novel, but one that is written beautifully and with a rich sense of history for its fictional world.  The novel is filled with love for the written word, but also explores the troubled interaction between literate and oral cultures.   The plot is extremely slow, and the main character, Jevick, felt a little too detached from his own story for me to be very engaged with his experiences.  My interest picked up with the introduction of the ghost’s story, which felt much more immediate and emotional, and I loved the conclusion of the story.  This is a novel that had a slow start for me, but I enjoyed it quite a lot by the end.

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