Novel Review - A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
A Stranger in Olondria
by Sofia Samatar, 2013, 300pp
TLDR: 3 out of 5 for wonderful writing about fantastic places, but rambling storytelling.
This elegant novel won both the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award, and was shortlisted for a Nebula and a Locus as well.
This novel follows the fortunes of a young man named Jevick, the son of a pepper merchant on the island of Tyom. He is raised on stories of far-off Olondria and when his father dies he travels there on his first business trip and ends up staying a while. He mixes with the locals who invite him to the Festival of Birds, an Olondrian bacchanalia, where he meets a ghost. This event puts him into the middle of a conflict between two factions over the very belief in ghosts and...
Well, I'll stop there. Frankly, it feels odd to try and describe what the book is about because it's not really about being about something, if you get my meaning.
OK, if I had to say that A Stanger in Olondria was about something, I'd say it's about the need and desire for writing and story-telling. It's also about the power of language, and the written word in particular, to make things come true. Although the story of Jevick is the frame, there are many stories within stories inside this novel, and it's often hard to discern where one ends and another begins. You will soon lose Jevick and the significance of the struggle in Olondria, and get lost in the world instead.
Stranger In Olondria is one of those books that evokes place and wonder and places them ahead of straight forward storytelling. The writing is wonderfully poetic and very descriptive. The culture of Olondria and surrounding places is nicely realized and painted, impressionist style, with small and carefully placed dabs of description. The writing will, at times, remind you of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea, and perhaps also some of the realms of Guy Gavriel Kay.
In terms of structure, I'm reminded very much of some of what Alberto Manguel has to say in his literary critique, The City of Words, about how language is used to create a sense of place.
If you read fantasy to be transported, if you love it when imaginary places are brought to life through writing, you may well love this book. If, on the other hand, you're annoyed when a story rambles, isn't clearly told, and feels rather secondary to the writing itself, you probably wont. If you also think it's self indulgent for a writer to use a work of fiction as a vehicle to tell you how important writing is, then you may even hate it.
Me, I'm on the fence. On the one hand I'm really in the camp of people who love well realized places, and Olondria and the surrounding lands are so beautifully described. But I'm not so impressed by the wandering method of storytelling. I think it warrants another read, though, so I'm going to re-shelve it and see if it hits me differently the second time around in the near future. I guess for those reasons, I have to give this a fence-sitting type score - 3 out of 5 - with potential to grow to a 4.