A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Drenched in equal parts beauty and sorrow, Sofia Samatar's lush first novel makes for compelling reading. I had first journyed to the island of Tinimavet, homeland of Jevick, a pepper merchant's son and subsequent heir, via a chapbook preview given out at WisCon 2012. After reading the first several chapters, I was addicted to Samatar's rich prose, as well as being enamored of the Tea Islands and the titular Olondria, to which Jevick travels after his father dies and he takes over the family trade.
The beauty of the milieu is that, rather than yet another medieval Euro-clone fantasy world, the world of Olondria and the Tea Islands is derived from South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Malaysian or Indonesian frames. Having tangentially studied some of these areas (my Master's Degree is in African History), I was impressed not only by the trappings, but by the cultural honesty and authenticity that informed the characters' actions and attitudes. This is no simplistic rendering of quaint folk-tales, either, though there is a fairy-tale quality to some of the sub-stories that are told within the greater narrative. It is a rich and varied web, a real relief from Eurocentric works and the tired glut of urban fantasy. Sick of Tolkien clones? Give this a try. Love Tolkien clones? Try this.
I must admit that the opiate prose of the chapbook set me up for an emotional fall where the chapbook left off and the rest of the book picked up. I had no idea that I was standing on the edge of an abyss. You see, I waited a full year for the full book to be published and had been lulled into a sense of warmth and security by the beauty of the settings and of Samatar's writing. That warmth and security was soon shattered as I read about Jevick finding himself thrust into a series of mishaps, through no fault of his own, which affect him and those around him, shattering the envelope of innocence and optimism that might have surrounded him in his childhood. Worst of all, he is haunted, literally, by the soul of a young girl, Jissavet, whom he met on his way to Olondria and who subsequently died from the disease kyitna. Her ghost invades his life, ordering him to immortalize her by writing a Vallon, or book. When he reveals to others that Jissavet's ghost has come to visit him, some are convinced that he is insane and in need of confinement and healing, others see him as a saint, an Avneanyi, blessed with the gift to speak with angels. Through all the intervening intrigue, he searches for her body so that he can burn her remains and give her a proper send-off into the afterlife, releasing her from entrapment between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Ultimately, A Stranger in Olondria is about the power of books, both redemptive and destructive. By being taught to read and write in his youth by an Olondrian tutor, Jevick is eventually thrust into his harrowing journey by the books he reads. He is tormented into writing a book and, (view spoiler)[when he does so, finds himself falling in love with the girl who dictates her life's story to him, a love that can never be requited, because the object of his love is dead and he is required to release her from her ghostly existence between the worlds of the living and the dead. (hide spoiler)]
This is a deeply moving book, intellectually stimulating and emotionally poignant. The story, the characters, the overwhelming sense of sweetness, sadness, and nostalgia will stick with me for some time. It is a multi-layered work, with stories within stories like Russian dolls, and this structure works, for the most part. Even the one structural hiccup, the mechanical transition from Jevick's story to Jissavet's, is smoothed out by the overall excellence of the writing, the beauty of the setting and cultures, and the heart-breaking feeling of yearning that tears at the reader's soul. This is clearly the best book I've read thus far this year.
It was worth the wait.
Don't wait. Read it!
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