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Diversiverse Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

I chose this book to read for Aarti‘s 2015 #Diversiverse Challenge, but it’s one that’s been on my radar for a while. I’d heard Somali-American author Sofia Samatar compared to Ursula LeGuin; I’d heard the book described as one that is, above all else, a love letter to the power of books and reading. These were the things that drew me to request it from my local library, but when I picked it up, I wasn’t without reservations. Most of the reviewers I’d seen mentioned first encountering Samatar through her poetry; a few of them drew comparisons with Gene Wolfe. Both of these elements made me worry that her novel would be too dense and fanciful for my taste. But when I cracked the book open, the first paragraph was enough to tell me that the LeGuin comparison was accurate.

Because I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors 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. 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 blossoms. 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.

The amount of world-building that’s evident from this one paragraph almost literally took my breath away. I know from the author bio that Samatar wrote the book while teaching English in South Sudan, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know enough about East African cultures to recognize whether any of the cultures in the novel are influenced by them (in the way, for example, that most traditional fantasy is heavily influenced by medieval Europe). There are things that “felt” African to me, like the fact that the protagonist’s father has two wives, but there are also vast swaths of the culture that I was pretty sure are at least halfway invented. Mythical figures like the Ghost with No Liver are thrown in casually, mentioned once and then never again. The fact that each member of a wealthy family has an external soul — a jut, a small statue unique to that individual — is explained on Page 5 and then forgotten for a hundred pages, until it suddenly becomes a very important marker of the difference between the haves and have-nots. From a craft perspective, the richness of the setting was far and away the thing that impressed me most.

The other thing that’s probably evident from that sample paragraph is the care with which Samatar crafts her prose. If I hadn’t known she was a poet before I began, I would have guessed before I got very far into the novel. Not only is the narrator’s first-person text beautifully composed, but there are other types of prose embedded within the book: folk tales, prayers, songs, and snippets of other voices. Not since Watership Down have I read a book that includes aspects of its world’s mythology that are both long enough to disrupt the story and not disruptive at all.

Of course, I think this is in large part because A Stranger in Olondria is not a plot-driven book. In a single sentence, the plot goes more or less like this. Jevick is a young pepper merchant, on his way to the big city for the first time, when he meets a girl with a terminal illness and enchants her with a demonstration of his literacy (uncommon in both their cultures); shortly after he gets to the city, he begins to be haunted by her ghost, begging him to write her story down, which he eventually does. There are, of course, complications having to do with what needs to be done for her to find peace, and what it means to be someone who sees ghosts, and along the way Jevick meets a number of interesting people on their own journeys — but really, this book is only half about its central plot.

The back cover blurb puts it this way: “As civil war looms, Jevick must face his ghost and learn her story: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.” I would focus on something slightly different — this is the first book I have seen that tells the classic genre story of the farm boy seeking adventure while actually taking the time to demonstrate the learning curve that goes along with that. Jevick learns the Olondrian language from a tutor on his father’s estate: that doesn’t mean he can speak fluently when he gets to the city. His home language doesn’t have a written form. His worldview and experiences aren’t mirrored in any way by those of the larger world he falls into, and that’s disorienting — and Samatar takes the time to show us that.

Honestly, I think I might enjoy this book more on a second reading. On my first readthrough, I kept almost putting it down, feeling as though the plot were moving too slowly, but then I would hit something that’d draw me back in, like a short story embedded in the larger text that covers the backstory of one of Jevick’s friends, or a song about a girl who’s tricked into marrying a demon and then escapes to go back to her family. This book is dense and layered and not the sort of thing that’s meant to be read quickly (which, honestly, was probably my other problem: I fully confess that I’m a skimmer on first reads). It’s not always immediately clear who’s narrating; the order of events is sometimes not what you’re expecting. Reading it, I felt a bit like I have on the occasions when Husband has tried to get me to watch anime with him, like I’m having to twist my brain around to a new way of looking at the world.

This isn’t a book for everyone. The negative reviews I found on Goodreads tended to be from people complaining that nothing happened (mostly true, in comparison with more traditional fantasy novels) or that the protagonist was flat and uninteresting (again, I’d probably say guilty as charged); I think that, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, it is much more “literary” than it is “fantasy,” even if it takes place in a world that doesn’t exist. But I’m glad I read it, and I will be recommending it to my more poetic and anthropologically-inclined friends.

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Book Review: Ash, by Malinda Lo

[Ash] had just begun washing the dishes that were stacked in the sink when there was a knock on the back door… Once again, there was a satchel sitting on the doorstep. This time, it was made of blue velvet tied shut with a fine silver chain; on the ends of the chain dangled sapphire baubles. She picked it up and brought it into her room, where she poured the contents out onto her bed. An ice-blue silk dress flooded out over her patchwork coverlet like a rush of cool water. The bodice was embroidered with hundreds of tiny crystal beads in a complex pattern of flowers, and in the dusky light that came through the window, the bodice shimmered like the scales of a fish. — p. 208

When I heard about Aarti’s Diversiverse Challenge (to read and review a book by an author of color between 9/14 and 9/27), my first thought was “oh, this should be easy. Sure, I’ve read everything that NK Jemisin has put out recently, but I can read something by Nalo Hopkinson, or Nnedi Okorafor, or — didn’t they just put out that new pair of Octavia Butler stories? I’m really anxious to read that!” At that point, I realized that every author who’d sprung to my mind was a black woman, and I decided that for my second review (see my review of Hopkinson’s Sister Mine here), I wanted to challenge myself to read 1) an author from another different ethnic background 2) whose work I was completely unfamiliar with. And so, after nosing around a bit on the We Need Diverse Books Tumblr, I ran across Malinda Lo.

Lo writes young adult fiction, and the “buzz” I could find around her work, both supportive and critical, seemed to center on its positive depiction of lesbian relationships. Ash is framed as “a queer reframing of Cinderella,” and I would agree with that assessment, but I also think that leaving it there sells the book short by a not-insignificant amount.

We meet the title character (Ash is short for Aislinn) at her mother’s graveside. Fairly quickly thereafter, Ash’s father remarries and then dies, and Ash is spirited away to the big city and forced to work as a servant to her stepmother and two stepsisters. There are balls and dresses spun from magic, a fairy benefactor and a highborn love. But this story’s so much more than that, and it’s apparent from the first pages where Ash is watching the local greenwitch do the rites to keep the Fairy Hunt away on her mother’s vulnerable first night in the ground.

Lo does a superb job in this book of weaving the elements of Cinderella into the broader European fairy mythology. From the beginning, we’re immersed in a world of fairy stories, tales of changelings and the dancers who spirit mortals away into the night. There’s also tension between the “country” beliefs of fairies and magic and the “modern” beliefs of the city-dwellers, which include things like bloodletting and other aspects of European medieval science. Ash is caught between the two in a very concrete way, as she finds herself drawn to both the handsome, mysterious fairy Sidhean and the capable King’s Huntress, Kaisa. As the plot winds along and Ash’s life with her stepmother and stepsisters becomes more miserable, she needs to decide where her loyalties should lie.

I liked many things about this book. Lo doesn’t problematize same-sex desires or relationships; it’s taken as a matter of course that Ash is in love with the Huntress, just as her stepsister wants to marry the prince. I found this refreshing, especially in a quasi-medieval-European setting. The fact that the leader of the King’s Hunt is a woman also isn’t a plot point, and although many of the female characters are preoccupied with marrying well so that they won’t have to worry about money, there are also many women who are independent and self-supporting.

I was embarrassed to catch myself feeling surprised that Lo, as a Chinese-American author, had chosen to adapt a European fairy tale and keep it in a basically-European setting; it goes to show that even when I’m making a conscious effort to read more diversely I still have to work to get out from under my own preconceptions about what different types of authors write. Lo does a beautiful job laying out the setting in the early chapters, and it feels very well-developed; I particularly enjoyed the many fairy tales threaded through the narrative, some of which seem based on traditional tales I was familiar with while others seemed likely to have been invented for the story.

I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, and this book did include some of the elements that tend to make me shy away from the genre (characters’ motivations being telegraphed from very early on, for instance), but the supporting characters in particular are more complex than I’ve seen in other YA books. Other reviewers seemed to approach this book with expectations that there’d be more romantic/sexual interactions between characters appearing on the page, but I thought the level we saw (a few chaste kisses, some descriptions of Ash’s physical reactions and then a cutaway) worked well and fit with the style of the writing. I was also a little surprised when reading other reviews to see that many readers didn’t know that Ash and Kaisa were supposed to be love interests until the very end of the book: to me, this was clear from early on, but I also went in with the framing of the book as “a lesbian Cinderella story.” I can’t say how I would have read the relationship without that information.

I found this book a very quick read — I literally read it in about an evening. I would recommend it to fans of YA, fairy tale adaptations and romance.

Book Review: Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

The exterior paint job [of the apartment building] was something else, in a weird wacky way that I loved. Probably years before, somebody had slopped teal green paint onto the raw brick. They’d used a dark, muddle purple for the exterior window rims and sills and the edging around the roof. Then, for good measure, they’d lined the inner surfaces of the windows’ rims with dark yellow, kind of a mango colour. Made the windows look like the insides of baby birds’ beaks when they gaped them wide and demanded food from their exhausted parents. — from Chapter 1 of Sister Mine

Nalo Hopkinson is a new author to me, and this book is (I hope) the first of two I will review in the next two weeks as part of Aarti’s Diversiverse challenge (also the reason for my out-of-character back-to-back weekend posts).

The book is definitely a bit outside my usual fantasy comfort zone, primarily because it’s set firmly in an alternate version of the real world rather than the epic-fantasy secondary worlds that tend to draw my eye. The main characters are first-person narrator Makeda and her twin sister Abby, who were born conjoined. The surgery that separated them left Abby with limited use of one of her legs, but as the book jacket puts it, “[it also] left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo.” Abby and Makeda are the half-human children of a wilderness demigod and one of the servants from the human family who have long served the demigod capital-F-Family. Their other relatives include Uncle Jack (the god of life and death) and Granny Ocean (the goddess of guess-what), along with gender-ambiguous twins Beji and Beji. Because I know that Hopkinson is Caribbean-Canadian by background, I found myself looking for parallels between the divine system she sets up here and the Yoruba-influenced Caribbean orisha traditions, but was quickly forced to admit that I don’t know nearly enough about the religion to recognize possible homages to it here.

The central conflict of the book is the relationship between the two sisters. Abby has a touch of her divine family’s mojo (magic), a spectacular singing voice; Makeda has no mojo, and struggles with feeling left out of the only family she’s ever really had (the girls’ mother was punished by the divine Family for her relationship with their father and hasn’t been a part of their lives since their birth). I enjoyed the family dynamics in this book a whole lot: I think Hopkinson does a phenomenal job of demonstrating that a big, raucous divine family really has quite a bit in common with a big, raucous mundane family (speaking as someone who grew up in possession of one of the latter). I was also a big fan of Hopkinson’s prose; as the paragraph at the top of my review suggests, she has a real gift for description. The interactions between the divine and mundane worlds reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but unlike Gaiman’s Shadow, Hopkinson’s protagonists inhabit both worlds fully (like any code-switching young woman might be expected to) and struggle to find a place in each.

All in all, there were many things I liked about this book. The language and world-building are beautifully done, and give the setting a very distinctive feel. Mundane humans are “claypickens”; magic is “mojo” or “shine”; one of the supporting characters is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in human form.

For all that, I didn’t get drawn into the book as deeply as I expected to. Other reviewers have suggested, and I agree, that the text feels in places like Hopkinson’s trying to weave together too many subplots — what’s going on in Makeda’s new apartment building? what will happen to Makeda and Abby’s father now that his mortal body is failing? how could Makeda have made such a fabulous piece of art with no mojo? — and losing track of her central thread. I also felt as though the book could have done with maybe one less reversal of its central storyline: the question of what really happened when the twins were born and whose mojo is really where gets turned on its head at least three times in the course of three hundred pages.

I would recommend the book on the strength of its worldbuilding and characters, but I would say that it’s not a book for those (like me) who like their plot neatly tied together. I’ve seen several other reviewers note that Hopkinson’s books generally tend to be more tightly plotted, and so I am planning to try another to get a chance to enjoy her worldbuilding and prose against a more unified backdrop.