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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

Winged Histories.jpgLet me start of by recommending that you read Abigail Nussbaum's review of this novel at Strange Horizons, because I think she understands what Samatar is up to far better than I do. In particular, I can't do any better than her concluding comments: "There is too much here to sum up, and the book contains its own contradictions. Almost every statement that it makes—about fantasy, about gender, about identity, about language—is contradicted elsewhere. This is, perhaps, to be expected from a story about the insufficiency of stories, whose characters find their freedom by refusing to be characters anymore. So it’s perhaps inevitable that one would finish this novel feeling both thoroughly satisfied and eager for more, desperate to talk about it and convinced that it can’t be properly discussed. It is—and this, again, comes as no surprise—a major and important work of modern fantasy, and also a meditation on how fantasy is, perhaps, insufficient for all that we want to say."

With this as preface, let me back up a moment and say that I reread Samatar's first novel, A Stranger in Olondriaa, in preparation for reading The Winged Histories, which is not a sequel or prequel but is set in the same secondary world. I loved A Stranger in Olondria just as much the second time as I did the first time; it instantly became one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. I found The Winged Histories much more difficult, even as I enjoyed very much re-immersing myself in this invented world, with its ornate history full of surprising nooks and crannies, and also in Samatar's sensuous, poetic prose, full of taste, smell, and tactility. Her characters also remain sharply drawn and complicated in very human ways. A Stanger in Olondria is a more focused story, with a single central narrator, although his narrative does come to include the narratives of two other important characters, both women, one of whom is also a narrator in The Winged Histories.

At the end of A Stranger in Olondria, a religious war breaks out between the followers of the orgiastic cult of Avalei and what I described in my review as the more penitential cult of the Stone. The Winged Histories is more or less about that war, but it complicates it by connecting it to a history of political empire-building in Olondria which is essentially a struggle for power between three different ethnic groups whose main point of commonality is that they all speak the Olondrian language. There are four narrators of The Winged Histories, all of whom get their own chapter. Part of what I found difficult about the novel is that I couldn't keep the history straight, and beyond the three cousins at the center of the power struggle in the current war, I couldn't follow the references to members of older generations and their relationships with each other, despite the family tree provided at the front.

It also doesn't help that within each chapter, the narrative seems to be constantly shifting forward and backward in time and breaking into fragments of language (often Oldondrian or other invented languages of the secondary world) that echo and recur in a lyrical way but weren't clearly linked otherwise in my mind, leaving me feeling lost much of the time unless the stories being related in the fragments were about the three cousins. Fortunately three of the chapters are narrated either by one of the cousins or by a lover of one of the cousins (all four narrators, by the way, are women), so other than the one orphan chapter from the point of view the forlorn priestess of the Stone, Tialon, whom we also meet in A Stranger in Olondria, most of the book was actually more focused than I sometimes felt it was. It does build to a climax as well, where the story of the three cousins comes to a kind of resolution, albeit and ambiguous one.

Anyway, Abigail Nussbaum was obviously able to follow the story better than I was, so my problems with it may be a reflection of my current state of mental disability. One thing Samatar does here that I found fascinating is to create a mythology of monsters in the prehistory of Olondria, which appear to be a typically rationalizing Just-So story for a conquering people who want to claim that they brought civilization to a world of uncontrollable barbarity in legendary times. Samatar is doing something more similar to Tolkien in creating her own mythology and languages, but whereas Tolkien is ultimately pretty clear that the stories in the Middle Earth mythology are true, Samatar is more coy and only at the end reveals that the mythology refers to something real. It's quite a spectacular transformation when it happens, in more ways than one. As Nussbaum indicates, however, there's an overarching sense in the book that words don't suffice, so the apocalyptic finale felt strangely unsatisfactory, unlike the perhaps more romantic ending of A Stranger in Olondria. Actually, both novels end with a tragic realization that love, like words, doesn't suffice, although we can't help but try to express ourselves through them anyway, so maybe the two books are less different than I thought.

Whatever the case, Samatar remains a fascinating writer who uses words in ways unlike any other contemporary writer I can think of. She's a unique voice in the modern fantasy field, challenging herself, the genre, and her readers with a complex literary sensibility that resists genre conventions. The Winged Histories didn't seem quite as successful as her first novel to me, but there was plenty of pleasure in the reading of it and exploring more of Olondria.

I admit to feeling a special kinship with Samatar, because her mother was Mennonite (her father was a Somali Muslim), she grew up in Indiana, where I was born because my dad was attending Goshen Mennonite College, which is where Samatar got her own undergraduate degree. (My sister attended Goshen College as well.) Her next book is said to be about Mennonites who immigrated from Russia to Uzbekistan in the 17th century. Sounds fascinating to me, and I really hope I get a chance to read it.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
holyoutlaw
Jun. 12th, 2016 12:07 am (UTC)
This is on my reading stack.
randy_byers
Jun. 12th, 2016 02:06 pm (UTC)
I know you liked Stranger. I'll be curious to hear what you think of this one.
holyoutlaw
Jun. 12th, 2016 04:24 pm (UTC)
I remember liking Stranger as well, but none of the quotes you gave rang a bell with me.

I'm enjoying The Stone Boatmen, but I think I need something a little more active (ie, "page-turner," "thriller," etc) for my mental state after a work day.

I know, I shouldn't complain, but then again, here I am. ;>
randy_byers
Jun. 12th, 2016 04:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah, The Stone Boatman isn't much of an adventure story. Neither is The Winged Histories, so you might want to seek thrills elsewhere first. I would say both of those novels are very, very literary.
voidampersand
Jun. 12th, 2016 11:17 pm (UTC)
I'm getting the impression I will like A Stranger in Olondria. I have a copy but haven't read it yet because too many books.
randy_byers
Jun. 13th, 2016 01:39 am (UTC)
By all means, bump it up the pile. After two readings, I'm convinced it's a truly great novel.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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