Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia SamatarTitle: A Stranger in Olondria
Author: Sofia Samatar
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Jevick is the son of a pepper merchant on the island of Tyom, one of a remote group of islands to the southeast of Olondria, a vast and powerful empire. Unlike almost everyone else around him, Jevick is literate. He had a tutor, an Olondrian exile, brought in by his father. Enchanted by this knowledge – by the sound of Olondrian words, by the idea that they last long past the limits of human memory, by the images they conjure, by the idea that life is so much larger than the islands themselves – Jevick yearns to visit Olondria himself, and leaves as part of a trade run as soon as he can after his father’s death.

Life in Olondria is intoxicating, and Jevick soon gets caught up in the whirl and bustle of urban life. However, after taking part in the Feast of Birds, he is soon haunted by the ghost of Jissavet, an illiterate woman from his homeland. His quest to learn and record the story of this woman turns him into a pawn between two rival factions fighting for both power and control over the written word. In the end, Jevick has to face the results of that struggle – what should people value? The book, or the voice? Flesh, or parchment?

Up until very recently, I didn’t know about the concept of “orality.” I knew that there were cultures with oral traditions, but I didn’t really think about how they differed from ones with literal traditions. When you think about it, though, writing is a big deal – it makes things more tangible yet more remote, somehow. It makes things objective.

When I started reading A Stranger in Olondria, I was fully expecting the plot to champion those ideas without question. I’m a writer – it says so right there in at the top of this page – so I naturally place value on literacy and the benefits it conveys. Of course, that’s because I’m a product of my culture, and because I occupy a somewhat privileged position within it.

Samatar (and I really should have known this going in) approaches these questions from a far more nuanced perspective. In the end, the value of the written word is affirmed, and Jevick even becomes a tutor in his own right. But also in the end, the positions of the two cultures are flipped – it is Jevick’s homeland that becomes a haven for the written word, and Olondria that reverts back to a more oral culture.

The thing is, because the book is told entirely from Jevick’s point of view, we only experience that culture second-hand. We are as ignorant as he is about the workings of Olondria’s religious and political structures, and because the book contains no glossary (a meta move, perhaps?), finding direct analogues between these structures and those of the real world is difficult. Throughout the book, I was frustrated by a sense that Jevick, although an interesting character in his own right, was a small corner of a much larger tapestry. I kept on wanting the book to move from a close-up to a wide angle, so I could appreciate things in greater context.

Given Samatar’s aims in the book to interrogate how the advent of writing changes people and cultures, I think her choice to focus on Jevick alone also interrogates the contemporary fantasy reader’s idea of how a second-world book should behave. Fantasy books have been getting longer and longer, and their scopes have been getting wider and wider. They are now more likely to span continents and multiple cultures than they have been in the past – the fact that A Game of Thrones is a widely-acclaimed TV series when such a thing would have been unheard of perhaps even five years ago is a testament to this. In contrast, Jevick’s journey is blatantly small-scale. It’s like seeing the world through a telescope.

So in many ways, A Stranger in Olondria made me struggle with and reassess my expectations. In fact, for a long while, I was wondering how on earth the whole story would pull together. Because while the prose of the book is beautiful – it’s lush and sensuous, full of unusual imagery and vibrant colours and textures – Jevick himself is a pawn, pushed and shunted about. A great deal of the plot hinges upon his ignorance of Olondria’s religious struggles. It’s only in the final third of the book that it really starts cooking with gas, when Jevick finally has a chance to hear and record the story of Jissavet, the woman haunting him.

And oh, what a character Jissavet is. Where Jevick is a clay vessel, waiting to be filled by Olondrian words, Jissavet is the kiln, testing and hardening Jevick’s resolve. She challenges him, mocks him, helps him, probes him. Her story shows that she’s always done this to others, throughout her entire life. In fact, her vehemence that her story must be told is a natural extension of this, born of the exclusion she faced throughout her short life as a woman of low caste on her island – born without an external soul, according to the local hierarchy. Her quest to reach Jevick and make him her amanuensis is thus both a repudiation of her culture and physical proof that souls and words are the same thing.

I finished A Stranger in Olondria on a morning in May when the sun was shining and the breeze was gentle. I sat on the porch, then went out for a walk to the lakeshore and let the wind scour my face. All throughout, thoughts tumbled inside my head. What is a soul? What is the value of writing? What duty do we owe to others, especially those that we’re culturally taught to ignore? How do legacies start? I still don’t have the answers, but I think this book can help others get there.

Attending the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Ottawa

It appears that when I watch a movie three times in the theatre, it causes me to drop off the face of the earth for nearly a month. But don’t worry – I have been productive during my absence.

A week ago I attended the annual conference for the Editors’ Association of Canada. The last time I went was two years ago in 2010, when it was hosted in Montreal. This year, it was in Ottawa.

My reaction to it this year was similar to when I was in Montreal: the conference was exciting and informative, but also overwhelming. There were so many sessions to attend, people to talk to, and things to write down that I’m surprised my hand didn’t cramp up from all the note-taking and live-tweeting I did. These were the sessions I attended this year, in order:

Day 1 – June 2nd, 2012

Adult Literacy: Why it Should Mattter to You (presented by Mary Wiggin)
This seminar focused on what we mean when we talk about literacy, and the challenges that adults with literacy problems face. Much of the advice in the final portion of the seminar about editing text to address literacy problems – using short sentences, removing jargon, using the active voice, and so forth – was already familiar to me. More interesting was the discussion of the various types of literacy that exist, the various definitions of literacy, and the statistics regarding functional literacy in Canada.

Editing eBooks (presented by Greg Ioannou)
This seminar focused on the basics of eBooks – their history, the different types of formats they come in, and so forth – and how a publisher produces an eBook. I hoped it would guide us step-by-step through the process of creating an eBook. Instead, there were some general tips about how to properly format things like punctuation (open em-dashes!) and columns (don’t even try!). This was still useful, but I was really looking forward to a hands-on demonstration.

Creating a Professional Development Revenue Stream (presented by Emily Dockrill Jones)
This seminar attracted a very large audience. However, the title didn’t match up completely with the subject matter. I thought that it would talk about how to build a business through providing professional development services to others. Instead, it focused on how to be a good, engaging presenter when running a PD program. Despite the mismatch between title and content, the information within was useful and applicable to many fields.

Day 2 – June 3rd, 2012

The Great Text-Talk Debate (with Ian Capstick and James Harbeck)
Ian Capstick argued in favour of text-talk, and James Harbeck argued against it. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience took the “anti-text” side at the start of the debate, but Ian’s points were so persuasive that by the end, the room had almost completely flipped its stance on the topic.

What convinced me was Ian’s argument that text-talk is just the latest solution to limitations built into our methods of communication. For example, when printed books were introduced in Europe, the binding technology was so poor that most books had spines so thin that the only way to accommodate the text was to use an extremely small font. This made me think of all the time I spent in WoW raiding Kara with my guild, speed-running noobs through Zul-Farrak, and rezzing priests with my Goblin Jumper Cables.

In other words, I remembered the years I spent playing a game with slang (text-talk) designed to convey a lot of information (communication) quickly (limitation). Ian Capstick won me over because 3.5 years later, I still can’t stop thinking about World of Warcrack.

Technical Writing and Editing for Usability (presented by Kerry Surman)
“Usability” is a topic I’ve researched at my day job. Much of the information in this seminar was already familiar to me, like the importance of using white space, bullet lists, and bolding to make text easy to skim. However, the discussion of how perception affects usability was interesting. Also, this seminar introduced me to the term “Web 3.0” – I remember “Web 2.0” being bandied around a lot a few years ago and thought that the term had become outdated. It’s interesting to know that instead it’s evolved to mean web customization and personalization. A really good example of the applications – and pitfalls – of trying to personalize the Web and commerce can be found here.

How SEO and Editing Can Wreck Each Other (presented by Greg Ioannou)
SEO is something that I’ve been learning about a lot both inside and outside of work. Imagine my chagrin when Greg went into the “do’s” and “don’ts” of editing web copy to improve web traffic, and I found that I had been guilty of committing some SEO sins on this website! Once I returned from the conference I followed his advice and edited my landing pages to reduce the number of times certain keywords were repeated. In the seminar, Greg used humour to great effect in the case studies he showed the audience.

Freelance Editing: The Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known (presented by Elizabeth D’Anjou)
Elizabeth D’Anjou runs a very popular workshop about “taking the plunge” and becoming a freelance editor. This seminar was on a similar topic. I won’t go into all 10 lessons here, but I did find Number 9 – “A good read is not the same as a good editing project” – surprising. I’ve been trying to reposition my own editing services and work with fiction writers because they’re the kind of writers I find myself coming into contact with the most often; it was weird to see her advice so directly conflict with my own choices.