the Little Red Reviewer

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

Posted on: July 22, 2014

stranger in olondriaA Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

published in 2013

Where I got it: purchased new

Sofia Samatar is nominated for the Campbell Award in this year’s Hugo Awards.

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So I’ve got good news and bad news about A Stranger In Olondria. The good news is that this is some of the most beautifully poetic writing I’ve ever come across. Open the book to any random page, choose any random paragraph, and you’ll be floored by the writing.  The bad news is that the story had absolutely zero hook for me. It took far too long for me to feel pulled into to what was happening.  It was a strange combination of dazzling poetry skillfully disguised as paragraphs, and a muddled plot where the scenes sluggishly melted into each other.  I imagine if Guy Gavriel Kay and Catherynne Valente teamed up to rewrite one year of The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, it might read something like A Stranger in Olondria.

 

Jevick’s family is from the southern island of Tinimavet. His father wants him to grow up to be a merchant of a new generation, so ensures the boy has an Olondrian tutor, someone to teach him the language and customs of that massive country to the north. Lunre teaches Jevick more than just writing and reading, he shares his immense collection of books, and is suspiciously silent about his past.  Tinimavet does not have a written language, which makes the learning of a different one even more magical for Jevick. Before taking ship to Olondria, he has already experienced the fountains in the squares, the bustling ports, the languorous rivers, the women who pull in admirers with a flick of the scarf on their wrists.  Jevick knows all of this through the books of prose and poetry that Lunre reads to him.

 

When the time comes for Jevick to go to Olondria, Lunre refuses to go with him. What broke that man’s heart so completely? His love for his homeland the people who reside there is obvious, why does he refuse to return?  On the ship, Jevick meets a sickly girl, Jissavet, who is from a neighboring island. They share a common language and religion. Her family has spent everything they have in hopes that healers in Olondria can cure her disease.

Jevick is something of an oddity in Olondria – a foreign gentleman who doesn’t need a translator because he already speaks the language! A man who already knows his way around the city, having never been there before! unheard of! shocking! The scene where Jevick, a man born away from books and the written word, steps into a bookstore for the first time, that scene was absolutely precious.

 

And still, no hook.  The prose was gloriously beautiful, but the book itself suffered from put-down-able-ness.  Was this going to be 300 pages of nothing but Jevick comparing the current Olondria to the plazas, doorways, and shadows of the books he’s read? To frustrate me ever further, Jevick gives everything that happens to him the same amount of emotional import – as in, very little.  I was getting very impatient. Diminishing returns on beautiful yet overwhelming prose only proved to me further that when it comes to literature, I am a cretin. Because that’s what this book is: Literature.

 

And finally, finally, two things happen that got an emotional reaction out of Jevick and out of me. warning: plot spoilers ahead.

 

The first interesting thing that happens is that Jissavet’s ghost attaches herself to Jevick. In the older religion of Olondria, speaking to ghosts is seen as saintly, an honor. However, the faith that currently rules sees speaking with ghosts as mental condition, the person is obviously hallucinating, maybe starved for attention. Jevick researches his condition as much as he can, and realizes the people Lunre revered are now seen as crazed heretics.  His research doesn’t go unnoticed, and the second interesting thing that happens is that he is arrested, found guilty of talking to ghosts, and thrown into an asylum of sorts.

 

The asylum is on a beautiful if inescapable island, and who else should reside there but the leader of the heretical religion, who vows to help Jevick speak with his ghost and learn how he can help put her to rest.  Jissavet does want something from Jevick, and even though it sounds a little cheesy, he truly is the only person in the world who can give her what she wants.

 

And finally, about two thirds of way in, the story got interesting. It was as if I’d been sitting in a winter garden admiring the potential of everything around me, and in a split second the entire garden bloomed into fragrant lushness around me. Without spoiling what happens, I’ll tell you this: Jissavet is a much better story teller than Jevick. The slow pace still had me itching, but at least now a large part of me was invested in what was going on.  What she asks him to do and the doing of the thing was by far the best part of the book, and to tell you anything about it would spoil something beautiful. I will tell you one though, because I can’t help myself: prepare yourself for the most gorgeous creation-of-the-world story you have ever come across.

 

On the small scale, this is a story of the silence at the end of every story that’s ever been told. The inevitable end that every reader and story teller who has ever turned a page or written a word knows is coming in a finite number of moments, with that moment getting closer as each page is turned, or as each word is put to paper.

 

On the larger scale, Jevick skirts the edge of a huge cultural war taking place in Olondria. Libraries full of the written word (with many words, themes, and histories labeled as “forbidden”), versus the huge swath of the population who can’t read.  It’s the fleetingness of the spoken word against the dangerous immortality of the written. I wish the politics had been fleshed out more, because there was something really fascinating going on there.
Ultimately, I never connected with Jevick, and as I progressed with A Stranger In Olondria I found it to be more work than reward. If you are more into literature and poetry than well paced fantasy, you will probably like this novel more than I did.

11 Responses to "A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar"

I skipped over most of this review because I really want to finish this book. However, it’s been on ‘indefinite pause’ now for about two months. I keep finishing one book, picking this up again, reading half a dozen pages, then finding myself drawn to something else far more strongly and back onto the shelf it goes.

So basically I sympathise entirely with your summary in the first paragraph: the writing is wonderful (oh god is it wonderful), but there’s just NO narrative tension thus far. Jevik’s just arrived in Olondria, and he’s been just arrived in Olondria for weeks now. I’m not against a slow-build, but aside from that sick girl he met on the boat, there’s not much sense of anything building at all. I loved Samatar’s short story in We See a Different Frontier, so I’m starting to wonder if she might be another writer who works better for me in small doses (see also: Cat M. Valente).

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And I really liked her short story in Long Hidden and I enjoyed her “Selkie Stories are for Losers”. I’ll continue to seek out her short fiction, but novels maybe not so much. Yeah, i had to force myself to keep reading and not pick something else up. Whatever book I’m in the middle of, I’ll usually leave it around the house wherever I was last reading it – sofa, kitchen table, etc. This one just kinda lived on the coffee table, I had to keep reminding myself it was there. That’s *bad*.

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Similar feelings here. I really tried because writing was so beautiful, but I could not get into it at all.

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it did get better at the end. Still very dense and over ornamented, but somewhat more compelling.

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The problem is getting to the end…

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Uh-oh. When three people I generally agree with say the same thing…. Especially in my current reading predicament, this sounds like the kiss of death for a book.

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eh, you might want to lower this one on your priority list, or skip it all together. 😦

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I would have forgiven the book everything if Jissavet had just not been a complete and total jerk. It was incomprehensible to me that the narrator didn’t notice and react to that. OTOH, none of the reviews I have read have noticed that either, so maybe it’s understandable that he didn’t.

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interesting. I didn’t think she was a jerk. what made you not like her so much? and of course Jevick didn’t react to her jerktitute, the dude doesn’t react to *anything*.

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I finally finished this one and have now come to comment on your review! I really enjoyed the Jissavet part, and kind of wished she could have been the main character (I just… didn’t really connect with Jevick. His decision-making process was extremely frustrating). On the other hand, I think the two of them showed the different sides of the Olondrian cultural war, except it was the analogous situation in their homeland, so that was neat.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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