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A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

stranger in olondria coverThis is the first novel by Sofia Samatar -- a new writer who has burst on the scene with some big time award nominations. A Stranger in Olondria has been nominated for the Nebula, and her excellent short story, "Selkie Stories Are for Losers," is up for the Hugo.

Samatar writes poetry as well as prose, and it shows. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) A Stranger in Olondria is full of well-wrought metaphors, one of which can be found in that QOTD I posted here the other day: "Sorrow followed my mother like a lover." The novel is a secondary-world fantasy that's notable for evoking not Northern or Middle Europe but Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The protagonist, Jevick, is the son of a pepper merchant. They live on a backwater island off the coast of Olondria, and Jevick's father hires a tutor to teach his boy the Olondrian language -- the language of civilization. Jevick learns to read, and he falls in love with books. Thus A Stranger in Olondria is full of quotes from Olondrian tales and poetry, and the novel is very much about the joys and perils of stories and reading. It's also, unexpectedly, a portrait of a saint as a young man. That's where the fantasy comes in.

As well as being a story about stories, it's a story about religion. In particular it's a story about a religious battle in Olondria between two cults, one orgiastic and the other (currently the state religion) penitential. When Jevick travels to Olondria as a young man, after the death of his father, he gets caught up in this clash of cults. He is devoted to neither, coming from the islands, which have their own pantheistic-animistic beliefs. However, he is visited (or, you might say, possessed) by a ghost, and thus he is considered a holy person by one of the Olondrian cults.

Samatar's poetic way with words is certainly a great draw, but she's equally adept at characters and their complicated relationships. We follow Jevick on a journey that brings him in contact with many different people, and all of them spring alive on the page. Many have elaborate stories that they tell Jevick. A Stranger in Olondria in some ways feels like a compilation of stories. Again, it's the drama of a reader in that way. The way these stories are woven with Jevick's own adventures and with the books he reads is truly marvelous. Nor is this a bloodless, scholarly exercise, even with all the quotations from other (imaginary) books. The novel builds to an emotional catharsis that I found quite powerful and profound. Sainthood comes from suffering and exile.

That said, there's material left unresolved. For example, the outcome of the battle between the two Olondrian religions, and for another the ultimate fate of the ghost's father. I believe Samatar has said she intends to write a follow-up, although the first one took her ten years, so I don't know if we should hold our breath. Even with the unanswered questions in this one, it's a very satisfying read. It's one of those books that I immediately want to reread, because the pleasures and the richness of the text were so extraordinary. It's an extraordinary debut, and "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" tells me she's not just a one-hit wonder.


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(Deleted comment)
May. 6th, 2014 03:31 am (UTC)
Yes, a library of books. I guess that's why it took her ten years! It was interesting to read an interview with her today in which she talked about growing up a Tolkien fan. Olondria has the same lived in feel as Middle Earth, with that depth of folk tales and songs and history.
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