Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
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.