For a long time now I have been afraid of Sofia Samatar's fiction. Knowing the effect her poetry has had on me—in Goblin Fruit, in Stone Telling, in Strange Horizons—I have trembled at the thought of allowing her words any deeper purchase on my psyche. Given her ability to incapacitate me with a few well-turned stanzas, what havoc might she wreak with a whole novel?
Through some terrible and wonderful magic, A Stranger in Olondria has anticipated these fears and commented on them. With characteristic wit, poise, and eloquence, Samatar delivers a story about our vulnerability to language and literature, and the simultaneous experience of power and surrender inherent in the acts of writing and reading.
Our narrator is Jevick of Tyom, second son of a wealthy pepper merchant. Born in the Tea Islands, Jevick is fascinated by stories of far away Olondria, where his father sells his wares. When one day his father returns from Olondria with a tutor for Jevick, his fascination becomes obsession: in absorbing the Olondrian language and literature he burns with longing for the lands from which they come. When finally he has the opportunity to take his father's place in the spice trade and journey there, he finds a country both familiar and utterly foreign, in the grip of a deeply rooted religious conflict over the existence or non-existence of ghosts—and when Jevick finds himself tormented by a haunting, Olondria swallows him into its deepest intrigues, mysteries, and betrayals.
Samatar's writing is painfully beautiful. There were pages in this that I wanted to commit to memory in the manner of my favourite poems, so elegant and perfectly crafted were they. I highly recommend checking out the excerpt we ran a little while ago for a taste of what you'll be in for.
This is a book that rewards lovers of prose style and evocative description, because it is less the story of Olondria than of Jevick's experience of Olondria, and as such it is a meditation on multiple inflected identities to which every sense is necessary: the food Jevick eats, the sounds he hears, the books he reads, are as crucial to the story as the movement of plot and the development of character. It is, therefore, a slow read that demands savouring; it is less a linear movement from beginning to end than it is a steeping of oneself in Samatar's words and world.
There is a tension throughout between Jevick-who-reads and Jevick-who-writes; the Jevick who falls in love with Olondria through its books, and the Jevick writing the story of the Jevick who fell in love with Olondria. There are tensions, too, between urban and rural, the written and the oral, as well as commentary on class as subtle as it is incisive. In examining the ways in which identities are informed and inflected by literature and language, Samatar also investigates the voices that are marginalized and lost within literate culture. Managing the ways in which Jevick gives us his story while directing our gazes to the margins of his narrative is no easy feat, and Samatar works in the challenges to Jevick's assumptions and perspectives with marvellous dexterity.
While reading A Stranger in Olondria I was powerfully reminded of my first visit to Damascus, back in 2008. I fell into such profound love with the city, its sights and smells and sounds, its people and its architecture, that the struggle to capture and communicate it became painful; the deeper my love, the less adequate became any means of documentation. I once spent half an hour photographing the shadow an empty birdcage made against the wall behind it, because every few minutes the change in light was such that everything about that shadow was new and crucial and impossible.
That, ultimately, was my experience of reading Samatar's novel: of being spellbound by the shifting of a shadow on a wall, because to look away is to concede the loss of something we never possessed in the first place, the longing for which will forever define us to ourselves.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. She has recently contributed more ramblings on Doctor Who to the Hugo-nominated Chicks Unravel Time and the forthcoming Queers Dig Time Lords (Mad Norwegian Press), and also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter, where most evenings she posts a link to a single poem and invites people to discuss it under the hashtag #eveningpoems.