There are different types of hype. One is clearly pushed by clever marketing on the publisher’s part (blog tours, endless ads, book cover reveals and books generally showing up everywhere), and the other is when books are showered with awards and critical acclaim. I should have picked this book up way sooner because it has been nominated or won the kind of awards that are totally up my alley. It took me long enough but I now consider myself a Sofia Samatar fan.
A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA
Published by: Small Beer Press, 2012
Ebook: 320 pages
Standalone (sort of)
First sentence: As 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.
Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.
In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire’s two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting “her” free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.
There are books that want to be savored, to be taken in and drunk slowly like a fine wine (or whatever else you’re supposed to dring slowly). A Stranger in Olondria is one such book. Jevick of Tyom lives on an island and is meant to inherit his father’s pepper farm one day. This means he will have to go to Olondria to trade – and in order to prepare him, his father hires an Olondrian tutor, Master Lunre.
Master Lunre teaches Jevick Olondrian and, more importantly, how to read. These first chapters about Jevick discovering the magic of the written word were such a delight to read! There isn’t much action, the plot moves along slowly, carefully, but action wouldn’t have fit. Anyone who loves books (and I’m assuming many of you readers do) will understand Jevick’s delight at discovering how old some of the books are that he is reading. Words preserved over time, for hundreds and hundreds of years, one person’s thoughts kept safe, for new people to discover and love… it is a magic all its own.
But this isn’t just a book about books, it is also a ghost story. Jevick becomes haunted by a young girl’s ghost and a strange love story evolves. Nothing I could say here would be a spoiler because this isn’t the kind of story you read for a big reveal at the end or for puzzle pieces to fall into place. It’s a story whose every page is there on its own merits. It is about cultural differences, languages, the power of words and especially written words, it is about religion and belief, the educated versus the illiterate, and so much more, all contained in a fairly slim novel.
Sofia Samatar has created something wonderful here. Not only did I love Jevick as a protagonist but I also deeply cared for his brother Jom, his mother, Master Lunre, and Jissavet. The smallest side character gets enough to say or do to be fully fleshed-out, to feel like a real person. I also adored the language. Samatar’s words and names are just so beautiful, I kept sounding them out while reading: Jevick, Jessavit, Tinimavet, anadnedet, Tyom, Tialon, Kideti… doesn’t that sound beautiful? Yes, yes it does.
Whiel discovering new words himself, Jevick goes through some amazing character development. On his journeys in Olondria, he does discover certain things that could be considered plot twists, although definitely not of the cheap shock-value variety. But most of all, this is the story of how Jevick becomes an adult. Lost in books, in love with the spirited life in the Olondrian city of Bain, he has to learn a great many things about life and himself – and trust me, watching all of that was pure joy. His connection with the ghost girl starts as agony and ends as something quite different. This ghost has an attitude and ideas of her own. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t have hopes and dreams – and Jissavet’s story was surprisingly touching when I didn’t really expect it to be.
The ending, as bittersweet as it may be, was like the last line of a poem that hits every note right, closes the story completely and brings it back full circle. Without giving away any actual plot points (and don’t let more negative reviews mislead you, there is a plot!), Jevick’s life before and after his journey to Olondria is at the same time in stark contrast as well as strangely the same. There’s poetry not only to Samatar’s words but to the entire story as well.
A Stranger in Olondria is an excellent book that does so many things right and very little wrong. If Olondrian politics and religion seem a bit muddled, that might just as well have been my own fault for not reading carefully enough. But Sofia Samatar is a writer to be reckoned with. I am so excited for her new book coming out this year – The Winged Histories – which isn’t a direct sequel to A Stranger in Olondria but set in the same world after the events of Jevick’s tale.
MY RATING: 8,5/10
P.S.: I just realised how difficult it is to type “Olondria” without typos, so props to the author and copy editor(s).