A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Reviewed by Nic Clarke

A Stranger in Olondria cover

To write a review of A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar's sparkling debut fantasy of travel, books, and self-discovery, is to go to war with oneself. Specifically, it is to battle the desire to simply quote huge chunks of the text, and point to it, exclaiming, "This! This is why you should read it!"

I'll start at the very beginning:

As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendour of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbour City, whose lights and colours spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents, I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea. (p. 1)

As you might expect (or hope) from a novel that is in part about the painting of worlds with words, the prose in Stranger is glorious. Whether through imaginative individual word choices—my favourite here being the merchants rendered "delirious" by their own spices, which turns what could have been a well-worn travelers' cliché into something marvelously human and emotive, something felt rather than just observed—or the sound and rhythm of her sentences—the sense of dizzying, spiraling movement offered by the repetition of l and s sounds in "whose lights and colours spill into the ocean," followed by the clatter (splash?) of short syllables in "cataract" and the spreading calm of the flat vowel in "roses"—Samatar is adept at evoking place, mood, and the impact of what is seen on the one describing it for us.

It goes on:

Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart: it is the light the local people call 'the breath of angels', and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs. Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom. But of all this I knew nothing. I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards. (p. 1)

The novel brims with such apparently offhand details about Samatar's imagined world—the narrator's way of showing off his immersion in the culture to which he was once a stranger—opening up vistas of story in their wake. These details delight and puzzle in equal measure, offering glimpses of cultural insight and raising questions that may or may not be answered: why a ghost with no liver? Samatar thus gestures at an even wider, richer, stranger, and more endlessly varied world than any one person's life can possibly encompass, while also hinting at the narrator's earnest pomposity. The language just discussed, likewise, is both beautiful in its own right and—as is later acknowledged—in some senses an expression of the narrator's limitations: his mannered, self-conscious romanticisation of the land in which he traveled as a stranger.

Caveats notwithstanding, it is undoubtedly a rich and strange tale. Educated by an exile from distant Olondria, at the behest of his ambitious pepper merchant father, Jevick occupies a sometimes uneasy space between two worlds. His roots lie in "blue and hazy" Tyom ("the loneliest village in the world," we're told, "when it rains, and all the light is drowned in heavy clouds" [p. 1]) on the tiny, punishingly hot island of Tinimavet, a home made at once warm and comforting by his mother's stories, and tense and constricting by his father's expectations. But as he grows up under the exile's tutelage, Jevick dreams of—and is increasingly trained for, he believes—the elegant, learned salons and mystic-inhabited mountains of Olondria, with its "language of raindrops" (p. 15) and reverence for "that tool of enchantment and art" (p. 16), the book. Jevick's encounters with Olondria on the page have made him long to see it for himself. He doesn't stop to wonder why his tutor might have left.

In the face of such glamorous new horizons, the idea of following in the footsteps of his father—who has "the studied and ponderous rage of a bull elephant," and leaves Jevick's beloved elder brother Jom "bruised and bloody" (p. 4) when the latter fails to meet his impossible standards—can hardly compete. That Jevick's teacher is kind to Jom when he first arrives, where their father offers only harsh words and violence, opens the door, persuading both Jevick and (more reluctantly) his mother to trust the odd outsider. It is in this context that the Olondrian goes from being called "the stranger" by the narrative, gaining a name—Lunre—in the same paragraph in which he shares with Jom the Olondrian words for the island's flora and fauna, using language to build a bridge of cultural contact between the very separate worlds of Olondria and Tyom.

Even as Lunre leaves behind the mantle of stranger, however, he settles it on the shoulders of Jevick, who gradually finds himself a stranger both at home and abroad. Shortly before Jevick seizes the chance to visit Olondria, Jevick's father expresses misgiving at the way his son has become a cuckoo in the nest ("Education, younger son, is your whole trouble" [p. 25]); the dressing-down is typically sneering, as much petty assertion of authority as true insight, but he is not entirely wrong, whatever his motives for saying so: Jevick's time spent immersed in foreign books has left him out of step with his homeland, convinced that the place to which Lunre's books have given him access is superior to the one around him.

Nor does Jevick entirely belong in Olondria, either. His early days there are ones of delirious—that word again—infatuation:

though I thrust myself against the rails and gulped the air, though I looked wildly about me, staring as if to devour the harbor, my first few hours in Bain—and indeed, the whole of that first day—I dwelt in a cloud pierced now and then by images like sunbeams. (p. 48)

Jevick's delight in the sights, sounds, and bookshops ("I collected stack after stack of books, seizing, rejecting, replacing, giddy with that sweet exhalation: the breath of parchments" [p. 55]) is offset only a little by the discovery—familiar to anyone who's learned a new language primarily in a classroom setting—that memorizing conjugations and poring over translations with a dictionary is one thing, but actually communicating with someone other than your painstakingly enunciating teacher is quite another. Jevick recognises, looking back, that his education was a partial, "erratic" one, shaped by the texts Lunre chose to focus on ("What I knew, what I learned, was the map of a heart, of the longings of Lunre of Bain: I walked in the forests of his desire and bathed in the sea of his dreams" [p. 21]). All this left him utterly unprepared for a darker side of Olondria.

But however difficult and partial Jevick's successes are, what is offered by them—access, contact, understanding—is nonetheless dazzling to him:

In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire. Master Lunre had taught me his sorcery: I embraced it and swooned in its arms. The drudgery of the schoolroom, the endless copying of letters, the conjugation of verbs—"ayein, kayein, bayeinan, bayeinun"—all of this led me at last through a curtain of flame into a world which was a new way of speaking and thinking, a new way of moving, a means of escape. (p. 19)

These last three phrases are crucial. In Stranger, Samatar is keenly interested in the connections between language, culture, knowledge, and the self: how language functions as a marker and shaper of self- and communal identity; how facility with language, both oral and written, confers confidence, status and power; how words turned into text can convey emotion and meaning across time and cultural boundaries; and the possibilities of cultural contact that language opens up, or (when misunderstood or misused) closes down. Whether that contact is constructive or destructive, and for whom, is another matter, of course, and one with which Stranger also deals.

This last theme is something that Samatar, in an interview here at Strange Horizons, identified as a central aspect of epic fantasy: it is a sub-genre of cultures coming into contact, and usually conflict. Stranger may not seem an obvious candidate for the label of epic, particular in its delightfully meandering—or, if we are feeling less charitable towards Jevick, self-absorbed—first seventy pages or so. And yet: one day, Jevick awakes, half-naked and hungover, to find Olondria suddenly lacking the soft-focus sheen of his earliest days there; correspondingly, his own prose, too, is abruptly stripped of ornament and imagery:

I woke to glare and silence.  And then, beyond the silence, sound—the sounds from the street which I realized had awakened me, sounds of talk and footsteps, a burst of laughter, the whine of a door, the scrape of a wooden table across the pavement. (p. 66)

With one turn of the page we, too, have been deposited in a new world, or rather a new way of seeing the one we thought we were in: Jevick is in the midst of a struggle for the soul of Olondria. The scope is continental, the events are larger-than-life, the consequences will be immense; and still Samatar keeps contact in view as much as she does conflict. At the heart of the conflict, moreover, is language.

Jevick's travels, both before and after this episode, confront him with multiple configurations of language and power, of oral and written knowledge. He listens to extravagant poetry performances in bourgeois urban taverns, and sits at rural campfires with rebels and outcasts telling songs and folktales that are bawdy and symbolic by turns, binding the group together in the shared experience of storying the past; here Samatar explores the importance of structure and perspective, showing us different bits of different stories, and perhaps altering their meanings accordingly. He turns the pages of historical chronicles, and reflects that books will never quite capture what it felt like to be in the middle of a battle's bloody chaos. He reads letters intended for others, spying on their deepest feelings, and during a period in captivity he keeps up a one-sided correspondence of his own, even though he knows it is futile—because the act of expressing himself, of putting his thoughts into words even for an audience that refuses to listen, keeps him just the right side of despair:

Neither the priest nor his daughter answered my letters, but I went on writing them, for the act kept my mind from veering toward wild thoughts: a pencil pushed into a wrist. (p. 104)

In the realm of religion, he reads the memoirs of mystics and encounters clerics who want to burn books deemed dangerous (in order to clear the way for the correct language, that of scripture: "I will not have my people duped," a priest tells Jevick, "I will have them clean, and honest, and able to read the Vanathul. Words are sublime, and in books we may commune with the dead" [p. 92]); he meets mediums, and becomes a vessel—both orally and, at length, in writing—for the words of a ghost girl, named Jissavet.

It is in this last area where the novel gets closest to the bone in its exploration of what language, and in particular books, can and cannot achieve. As Abigail Nussbaum noted in her review, for the first half of the story, books are positioned both as belonging to Olondria and possessed of an almost magical power. Even before Jevick arrives in Olondria, Samatar strikes a note of caution amid his starry-eyed imaginings; there is a whisper of cultural imperialism underlying the fact that, as Jevick notes, the Olondrian term for book (vallon, "chamber of words") has been adopted "in all the known languages of the earth" (p. 16). Reading is not a transparent, value-neutral lens; it is a view of the world mediated through norms and expectations that may or may not be explicit in the text, just as Jevick's education was filtered by what Lunre chose to teach him.

So Jissavet, a terminally ill girl whom Jevick meets on the voyage from the Tea Islands to Olondria, and who dies shortly after arriving, returns to haunt Jevick and demand memorialization in writing ("Write me a vallon. Put my voice inside it. Let me live" [p. 121]), she both shares Jevick's near-superstitious reverence for the power of books and challenges it. Initially, Jevick reacts with horror and ridicule to the idea that an "interloper" (p. 124) like her could merit a book when she doesn't even speak Olondrian; but at length he sees that her language, which is also his, can be a vehicle for written knowledge:

Come, angel, I said. I called her Visible, the Ninth Wonder, Empress of Sighs. Come, I said, and I will show you magic from the north, your own words conjured into a vallon. A book, angel, a garden of spears. I will hold the pen for you, and I will weave a net to catch your voice. I will do what no one has done, I will write in Kideti, a language like you and me, a ghost hesitating between worlds. . . . Between the far south, the land of elephants and amber, and this: the land of cypresses and snow. (p. 212)

Like any book, what Jevick and Jissavet create together does nothing so simple as preserve an inviolate past or immortalize an individual. Both of them are flawed, neither understands the other as well as they might, and this (mis)shapes the text they produce: it is spiky, and difficult, and open to interpretation. Jevick, who has spent the story blundering through an environment he doesn't understand and unwittingly bringing trouble on those who shelter him, has spent a long time thinking literacy makes him better than most people, and Jissavet in particular; even when he does agree to help her, he fetishizes her weakness rather more than he empathizes with her suffering:

[H]ad I been one of her friends . . . I would have clasped that hair, that waist, and inhaled her frightened breath in the hope that the curse would swell to make room for me, that we might be together, safe, removed from everyone else in the honor and preference which death had shown for us. (p. 265)

Jissavet, meanwhile, is frankly unrepentant about her spitefulness; when she is accused of witchcraft after the death of someone she dislikes, she is not alarmed but "exultant" that the person is dead (p. 217), reflecting that she couldn't be responsible only because "had I been a witch, so many would have died in Kiem, the smoke from the funerals would have extinguished the sun" (p. 218). Towards her mother, a victim of rape, she is openly, brutally contemptuous ("To the end, yes, she was still the same, incompetent, clumsy, bewildered. She babbled and wept . . . a fool to the end, enough to make you weep" (p. 256)), paralleling—but inverting—Jevick's fractious relationship with his father, and contrasting sharply with the voluntary, adopted ties developed by Lunre.

They are not an unambiguously appealing pair; but what they create together is both product and mirror of their flaws and something bigger than either of them. It is an act of translation: of life into narrative, of spoken language into marks on a page, of one culture's invention adopted and adapted and subverted to serve another's needs ("This alphabet was developed in Olondria, I tell them, but it is our own; it was used to pen the first work of written Kideti literature" [p. 298]). It is notable that, while we're told the book is considered to be authored by Jissavet, that it was in fact a collaboration named for her; a woman's voice mediated by a man's writing. A book alone cannot make Jissavet (or Jevick) immortal, as Samatar noted in her interview; nor can a stranger's narrative, like Jevick's paean to Olondria, encompass a place in all its complexity and, for want of a better term, authenticity. But a book can allow glimpses of people—their fears, their dreams, their desires—and places to come to life in the imaginations of readers, nonetheless.

Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle University. (All the Oxford-resident books have now migrated northwards, along with about half of the books in the stacks, aka her parents' place. She has a lot of bookshelves, and still not enough space.) She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.