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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.