For those of us who discovered Sofia Samatar with her debut fantasy novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013), March 15 couldn’t come soon enough. I didn’t know what I wanted next, just that I wanted more, and in my most detailed daydreams I don’t think I could have conjured up The Winged Histories.
Told by four different women, it is a story of war; not epic battles of good and evil, but the attempt to make things right and the realities of violence wielded by one human against another, by one group against another. It’s about the aftermath of war, in which some things are better but others are worse. Above all, it’s a story about love—the terrible love that tears lives apart. Doomed love; impossible love; love that requires a rewriting of the rules, be it for a country, a person, or a story.
Before we follow these women’s stories let’s briefly remember our history, the beginning of it all: A Stranger in Olondria. Told by a young man newly established as the head of his family’s business, it starts off far from the places of power: a pepper farm on a remote island. Jevick has had the good fortune of a learned tutor from Olondria, the purported seat of civilization, and his father has recently died. What was supposed to be a routine merchant’s trip to Olondria—his first, true, but otherwise nothing special—turns into much more when he is sucked into the wild, exuberant Festival of Birds. New comrades lead him to new drugs and new experiences (as is their wont), and he awakens as a haunted man. The ghost haunting him, a young illiterate woman he had met on the boat to Olondria, wants only one thing: for her story to be told. But the haunted are anathema to the country’s new religious leader, and Jevick finds himself at the center of the struggle between two opposing cults.
To put it simply, A Stranger in Olondria is about the power of words. “Words are sublime, and in books we may commune with the dead. Beyond this there is nothing true, no voices we can hear,” it tells us. What does a young woman’s life come to if no one hears her story? What truths and voices are lost because no one listened long enough to record them? In today’s hyper-literate era, it should be hard to imagine, but Samatar makes this truth immediately present and deeply felt.
We don’t ever find out what happens to those cults, that struggle, in A Stranger in Olondria—only what happens to Jevick and his ghost. The Winged Histories brings us that story, but from unexpected sources. Rather than plunge us directly into the mind of the dictatorial Priest of the Stone, we meet his daughter, Tialon. Rather than shadow the young prince at the heart of the rebellion, we meet his cousins, Tavis and Siski. And rather than stay within the cities and houses of the court, we meet Seren, a young woman of the nomadic desert-dwelling feredhai.
Tavis: “I became a swordmaiden in the Brogyar war, among the mountains.”
Raised by a branch of the royal family in close proximity to the throne, Tavis should have had a life of politics, if not ease and wealth. Instead, she ran away at 15 to join the Olondrian military, in a country with a tradition where swordmaidens are few and far between. But she doesn’t write about being a woman among men—she writes of being a soldier among other soldiers, first in a war she could not avoid and then in one she chose. After the first war, fought to defend Olondria from invading forces, she returns to Kestenya (her home region) wounded and unable to serve, only to find her home very different from the one she left. Her sister Siski (yes, that Siski) seems bright but brittle, caught up in games and petty intrigue. Her father has sold off their lands to pay for his addiction. And she now understands the system that allowed for a childhood spent roaming the family lands; war has opened her eyes and darkened her vision both. When she heals, she leaves to live with the feredhai, who have suffered under Olondrian rule. And when her cousin—the prince Dasya—calls, she leaves to fight a war against Olondria, for his vision of a free Kestenya.
It’s hard not to love Tavis. She’s bitter, but she’s the more clear-sighted for it. It’s hard not to love what she loves: the land she grew up on, the soldiers she fought with, the family who doesn’t understand her, the nomads who accept her, the desert that works to heal her. It’s hard not to hurt for her when the love she finds with Seren (yes, that Seren) is ceded to her love of Kestenya and her cousin Dasya. Through Tavis, we experience the struggle between the love for our home and the love that makes us a home.
Tialon: “My name is Tialon of Velvalinhu. I am the daughter of Ivrom the Priest of the Stone.”
Tialon, on the other hand, is hard to love. She is prickly and proud, desperate and lost in equal measure. We’ve met her before, in Stranger; she was kind to Jevick when she didn’t have to be, and did what she could to help him. Those were among her best moments, but here she tells us her worst. Her childhood, cut short and twisted by the loss of her mother, the obsessiveness of her father. Her adolescence and young adulthood, spent in service to the Stone and its Priest. Dress this way, behave this way, believe this way: these are the boundaries of her life.
Tialon knows only too well the power of words, as she watches her father work to decipher the markings on the enigmatic Stone and bend the ruler of Olondria to his will. He has a vision, a terrible one, one that demands that his truth be the only one spoken, read, written. In pursuit of his own faith he razes anything that contradicts it, be it teachings, people, villages.
There are a few bright spots: her friendship with Lunre, a scholar who we also met in Stranger, before it is cut short. The book she hides from her father and memorizes, that tells of an Olondria before the teachings of the Stone. Occasional moments of peace in an otherwise stormy life. Tialon’s great love for her father is also her destruction, as it binds her to a life too small to truly live in. When war comes for her, it is both a curse and a gift, and then it is all too easy to care what becomes of her.
Seren: “I who sing am Seren the daughter of Larya of the seventh ausk of the Blue Feredhai of Tosk. I am a singer.”
Like the ghost of Stranger, Seren is illiterate and tells her story through Tavis. Unlike the ghost, she is bright and charming, and her story is the one I find both the saddest and the most fun to read. Her voice burbles as she looks around her, at her world and her people. One moment she is telling a story about her day, another moment remembering a song, another moment teasing Tavis.
But her life is far from carefree. She lost her brother to war. She is losing Tavis to war. She is losing her tribesman to war. She is funny and angry and passionate, full of anecdotes and energy, and it’s her love for Tavis that grounds the book. Seren’s story is about life, which love and war both are supposed to be in service to, but which they so often take from instead. She makes love feel personal, mundane, essential. She sees the loss and devastation around her, and cares deeply, and holds tight to hope and love regardless.
Siski: “Who am I?” … “You’re the Queen of the White Desert.”
Siski’s story is the only one told in third person, perhaps because after the war she is not herself. She is Dai Fanlei, a refugee, mending mattresses and pillows, living in an abandoned temple in the hills with, caring for a secret she cannot share. She remembers her childhood with Tavis, the love she thought she had, and the moment her life changed. It wasn’t war that changed Siski, not at first; it changed everything around her, everyone around her, everyone she loved.
Tavis learns to fight, and Dasya joins her; Siski is expected to learn to uphold the family name. Dance, be pretty, be biddable, don’t ask questions, don’t defy expectations. She buries her heart beneath these expectations; it is broken already, before either of the wars. What does it matter? But there is always more room to break, as Siski learns. She is in the capital when war finds her and brings Tavis and Dasya back to her; but neither are the people they once were and neither is she. If her love is to survive, it must encompass what they have become and Siski is not sure she will survive the process.
It all sounds very heavy and serious, doesn’t it? And it is, it is, but it’s also beautiful. Samatar has created her world with such care, and breathed such life into her characters, that turning the pages is a joy. As she contemplates the power of words, Samatar also wields it, and to excellent effect. This story is not an easy one, but it’s a compelling and rewarding one. You can read The Winged Histories without having read A Stranger in Olondria, and you can read Stranger on its own, but I guarantee that once you’ve stepped foot into Olondria you will want to stay for as long as you can.
Jenn Northington is still waiting for her magical powers to manifest, is the Director of Events and Programming for Riot New Media, and comes from a long line of nerds.