Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

12814333Reading A Stranger in Olondria makes me feel a little bit drunk.  This gorgeous book by Sofia Samatar is a love letter to the power of reading to transport, to wound, to heal, to oppress, and to liberate.

A Stranger in Olondria takes place in a fantasy world.  Jevick, the son of a rural pepper merchant, is tutored by a man from Olondria.  This man teaches Jevick how to read.  When Jevick’s father dies, Jevick must make the yearly trading trip into Olondria, to the trading city of Bain.  This vast city is full of books, and Jevick is almost crazed with the freedom he experiences as a teen away from home for the first time, and as a reader with sudden access to all the books he could possibly want.

This is great until Jevick attends a festival called The Feast of Birds.  After the festival, he finds himself haunted by the ghost of an illiterate but ferociously articulate girl who demands that he write down her story. He refuses, because there is no alphabet in her language and because reading and writing are barred to her people.  Their battle of wills and occasional truces embroil Javick in a devastating conflict between two political and religious factions.

This is the time of year when I try to read as many books as I can that have been nominated for either The Nebula Award for Best Novel or The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It’s a great time for me, because it causes me to read a much broader range of material than I normally do, and much of the material is more challenging than my day-to-day fare.  That’s not to disparage the quality or content of the books I turn to most often.  It’s just that I find that many of the Nebula nominees has particularly dense and rich language and or complex plots.  I average approximately three books per week, and it took me well over a week to finish A Stranger in Olondria even though the book is only three hundred pages long.  To be honest, even that seemed much too fast.  I’d like to read this book as a meditative practice, one page a day.  It’s that beautiful in its use of words.

There are so many things we could focus on with this book – the plot, the relationships between people, particularly between Javick and the ghost and between children and parents, and the work-building, which is particularly wonderful because this fantasy does not feel based in the mythology and landscape of Western Europe.  People are described as having dark skin and hair,  and much of the world feels African or East Asian.  I was so distracted by the poetry of the words that I barely grasped the plot, so I’m just going to focus on language.

This is a book about language, both spoken and written, and as such the language is gorgeous and sensual.  I could pick any paragraph as an example.  Here’s one I found by opening the book to a random page:

The house stood on the eastern side of the Yeidas.  It was the last estate, shipwrecked between the farms and the eternity of the desert.  It stood in the sparse embrace of its orchard of plum and almond trees and turned its shuttered eyes on the contours of the plateau.  There was the library, there the terrace with its stone balustrades, there the balconies caged in iron flowers.  I remember even the creak of the gate and the shadow of my hand as I reached for it, in the argentine light of the snow.

That paragraph is an English Lit paper waiting to happen.  In the nostalgia of memory, the house, which was the home of a nurturing mother and terrifying father , is both beautiful and confining, and memory is both concrete and nebulous – I love “the shadow of my hand” and the “caged” iron flowers.

I’m going to close with an excerpt from a really long paragraph about reading.  If this doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what will.

“A book”, says Vandos of Ur-Amakir, “is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.”  Fanlewas the Wise, a great theologian of Avalei, writes that Kuidva, the God of Words, is “a taskmaster with a lead whip”.  Tala of Yenith is said to have kept her books in an iron chest that could not be opened in her presence, else she would lie on the floor, shrieking.  She wrote, “Within the pages there are fires, which can rise up, singe the hair, and make the eyelids sting”.  Ravhathos called the life of the poet “the fair and fatal road, of which even the dust and stones are dear to my heart,” and cautioned that those who spend long hours reading or writing hold not be spoken to for seven hours afterward. “For they have gone into the Pit, into which they descend on Slopes of Fire, but when they rise they climb on a Ladder of Stone”.  Hothra of Ur-Btome said that his books were “dearer than father or mother”, a sentiment echoed by thousands of other Olondrians through the ages, such as Elathuid the Voyager, who explored the Nissian coast and wrote, “I sat down in the wilderness with my books, and wept for joy”.