Sunday, 11 May 2014

Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Title: A Stranger in Olondria
Author: Sofia Samatar
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Date Published: April 2013
Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads): 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 a skillful and immersive debut fantasy novel that pulls the reader in deeper and deeper with twists and turns reminiscent of George R. R. Martin and Joe Hill.

Why I read it:  

I picked it up in a bookstore when I was on holiday in New Zealand and was entranced by the writing. I later saw it had been nominated for a Nebula, so I bought it.

My thoughts:

The blurb for A Stranger of Olondria outlines (or possibly, spoils) the plot of the entire novel. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not, as this book seems much more about the writing and personal growth the characters than anything as prosaic as the plot.

It starts off almost like a travelogue, describing Jevick’s privileged childhood in the scorching village of Tyom. As the heir of his father’s wealth, Jevick is tutored not by a local, but an Olondrian. His father has two reasons for hiring a foreigner: he hopes his son will never be cheated by merchants over the sea, and revels in the status hiring an Olondrian brings. However, Jevick gets something different out of the lessons – he learns how to read.

Yes, this is another book about the pleasures of reading, featuring a protagonist who is more than a bibliophile than I am. But underlying that is the knowledge that Jevick comes from The Tea Islands, where almost everyone is illiterate because stories are passed on orally. For him, reading is akin to magic… but it’s also (maybe?) a colonial act. In any case, it rapidly entrances Jevick; he becomes fascinated by Olondrian culture and alienated from his own, creating a tension that drives a lot of the novel.

Yet after Jevick finally reaches Bain, Olondria’s capital – “the Harbour City, whose lights and colours spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses” – the story takes a startling turn, for Jevick becomes haunted by an angel. This was so unexpected I had trouble believing it at first, for it dramatically alters both the tone of the novel and Jevick’s life. It is also the only real mention of magic in the entire book. Unfortunately, Olondria has forbidden the worship of angels, placing Jevick in an awkward position: outlawed by the society he idolises, but with little hope of escape. What happens afterwards is incredibly interesting, although I won’t spoil it more than the blurb already has.

I actually loved the world Samatar created here. Throughout the novel, we get drip-fed snippets of history and literature, along with beautiful descriptions which I plan to quote later. It’s clear that Olondria is a complex place with myriad cultures and fraught religious systems, for all the story steers away from the many of the underlying issues it raises. This is largely due to the protagonists – one a scholar and dreamer; the other, dead – who only explore the world through their (rather limited) viewpoints. I’m not sure if this is a flaw or not. It was definitely a deliberate choice, and results in a powerful story. I did want to see more of Olondria though.

When I first started reading, I spent quite a while trying to link The Tea Islands & Olondria to their earthly inspirations. I later gave up. There are plenty of descriptions to tide you along; quantifying Samatar’s main influences isn’t that important.  I admit I’m still curious about the world (mostly in regards to the brewing religious strife) but this is probably because tempted to run a short RPG set in Olondria. I think my gaming group would enjoy it.

Also - the writing in this book was amazing. Here we have a nautical morning:
The air was cold, the sea restless; the boat danced at the end of her tether like a foal.
Here a palace:
We passed the famous palace of Feilinhu, standing in nacreous grandeur against the dark lace of its woods… 
Here a girl:
I thought of her playing with her friends, and I could see her so clearly: satin-eyed, dictatorial.
And here I will stop quoting despite the masses of underlined passages I have on my Kindle. But rest assured: pretty much all the prose is like this.

What else can I say? This was a great book. It’s also one of those absorbing, time-destroying novels. I almost gave up on it because the plot moves at a very deliberate (aka slow!) pace, but I’m incredibly glad I didn’t. There are some interesting themes and stunning sentences, but more importantly, a very satisfying ending… resulting in a cohesive and worthwhile read overall. 


  1. You know I love reading about characters that love to read as much if not more than I do - it just immediately gives me an instant connection with them.

    1. I know, right?! It's like getting that warm book glow twice over.