A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

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A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Jevick of Tyom has grown up on an isolated island. He is given a tutor from the far-off empire of Olondria, who teaches him to read and fills his head with stories of that distant land. Circumstances lead Jevick to Bain, Olondria's cultured capital, where he fills his days with parties and books, but he is also haunted by an encounter with a dying girl from his own land. Soon civil war threatens the country and Jevick embarks on a journey to rid himself of his spiritual discomfort, unaware of the events that will be set in motion.

First published in 2013, A Stranger in Olondria is the debut novel by the poet Sofia Samatar. An unusual book, the novel is not a traditional epic or secondary world fantasy, despite a vividly composed world with well thought-out histories, customs and geography, but a tone and mood piece hinging on themes such as learning, regret, language and the essence of story.

The novel's writing reminded me in turn of Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula K. Le Guin, but with a unique atmosphere that is the author's own. There are very occasional bursts of action (a brief brawl, a confused flight through the countryside) but the book reveals its story and intentions through dialogue, thoughts and smaller short stories which are inset through the narrative. Jevick's function is sometimes less that of a protagonist than a sounding board or sponge, soaking up other characters' stories. He does have his own character arc though: Jevick's status as an outsider to Olondria gives him a fresh perspective on the empire and its complex royal and religious politics, but also makes him a pawn in the game between the two sides, one of whom imprisons him for insanity and the other liberates him as a symbol of resistance.

The book is also a love letter to the idea of reading stories and collecting books, which will no doubt warm the hearts of almost all book readers. Jevick's early distrust of books, which do not exist on his home island and where people do not read, gives way to almost drowning in the stories and ideas he finds on the pages of his tutor's collection. Later in the book he embarks on teaching his own community to read, and sharing the joy that comes from his experiences with them.

The novel's quiet, thoughtful prose is erudite and at times beautiful. Characterisation is strong, I always had an excellent sense of Jevick's motivations and, through his eyes, those of the characters he meets. I did feel his initial relationship with Jissavet was a bit too slight given their later closeness, and the pacing is sometimes uneven. In particular, much of the last quarter or so of the book is given over to Jissavet's backstory which is intriguing and powerful, but feels almost like a self-contained novella within the book's larger narrative. Jevick's story feels somewhat rushed to a conclusion in the handful of pages left after Jissavet's story concludes. It may also be that Samatar is less successful than the likes of Le Guin and Kay in weaving beautiful prose and thoughtful themes around a central plot and advancing all well simultaneously.

For that, A Stranger in Olondria is (****½) is still an accomplished novel. More of a mood piece than a plot-driven book, it has a haunting quality that will stick with the reader long after it is finished. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The author has a further novel set in the same world, The Winged Histories.
 

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