A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar
A Stranger in Olondria Cover

Sofia Samatar - A Stranger In Olondria (2013)


"But preserve your mistrust of the page, for a book is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears."

'A Stranger In Olondria' is a gorgeously written first novel by Somali American author Sofia Samatar, which has deservedly just won the World Fantasy Award. Written in prose that is ornate but never overripe, the book tells a story that is primarily about how important the act of storytelling is in how we make sense of our world, whilst managing to explore themes of privilege, conflict and the use of religion as a tool for social control. It is an engaging read, and pleasingly ambitious. The power, passion and depth with which Samatar explores her ideas reminded me of Ursula Le Guin in 'The Dispossessed' or 'The Left Hand Of Darkness', but ultimately 'A Stranger In Olondria' is very much its own beast; pleasingly unique.

'A Stranger In Olondria' tells the story of Jevick, a rich pepper merchant's son who grows up on the Tea Islands, fascinated by stories of Olondria, the land in the north on which his father's trade is based. Jevick's people have no written language, only an oral tradition of story telling, but Jevick's father hires him an Olondrian tutor to teach him to speak and read Olondrian to help him when he inherits his father's business. When his father dies, Jevick can't wait to finally go to Olondria with the next shipment of peppers, but once he is there he becomes haunted by Jissavet, the ghost of a girl from the Tea Islands who died of an illness and wants Jevick to write the story of her life so that she can continue to live on in story. As news of Jevick's ability to speak to a ghost spreads, he finds himself embroiled in the political struggle between rival religious sects, the Priests of the Stone, who currently hold power, and the Priests of Avalei, a goddess of love and chaos, whose worship has now been outlawed.

The worldbuilding in 'A Stranger In Olondria' is simply incredible. Starting with the physical locations, the depth and range, from Jevick's pepper farm in the Tea Islands to the bustling Olondrian capital of Bain, the temples of the Blessed Isle and the sparse bleak plateaus of the east, all rendered in exquisite detail, is impressive in and of itself. Beyond that, Samatar also invents numerous legends, stories, philosophies and tales to flesh out the different peoples and cultures that inhabit the book. Over the course of the book we are shown poems, folk songs, legends, folk tales, and quotes from academic writings. The sheer amount of skill and dedication required to write each of these, and have them convincingly portray a different voice from a different physical, social and cultural background, is staggering, yet Samatar proves herself a dab hand at this.

A frequent criticism of worldbuilding is that it isn't necessary to the story telling, it simply provides window-dressing. 'A Stranger In Olondria' proves how profoundly worldbuilding can actually contribute to the story and characters. 'A Stranger In Olondria' is about how universal the desire to tell and hear stories is, and this is shown through how the thread of storytelling is constant throughout all the different settings, from the rich merchants in the city of Bain and the decadence of the priests in the Holy City through to those living in poverty in the countryside. However it is also a book about how story telling is a political act, and this is reflected in the different stories that different characters tell, and the reasons they tell these stories. Jissavet's story tells of her growing up in poverty in a small village in the Tea Islands, and her ostracisation both as a person with a disease and as a child of rape. She needs to tell her story because she is a person without a voice, disenfranchised, beautifully symbolised by her nature as a ghost who can only be heard by Jevick. Jevick's decision to write her story, which involves him devising a written form of his own native language, and translating it into Olondrian, are intensely political actions, giving this disenfranchised young girl a voice that more privileged individuals might finally hear and pay attention to. Auram, the High Priest of Avalei who manipulates Jevick's status as a mystic to gain power and traction for his sect, also constantly tells stories, from myths and legends, which he uses to reframe and justify his own manipulative actions, and to clarify how he sees other characters' roles. This reminds us how stories can be used to reaffirm political narratives, to maintain power over others. A main theme of the book is how subversive and dangerous the act of reading and writing can be, as shown by how it can be used to prop up or to subvert existing patterns of power, depending on who uses it.

In addition to all this, 'A Stranger In Olondria' also has fantastic character work. At its most basic, it is Jevick's coming of age tale, as he goes from a state of innocence to one of experience, and to work the book relies on him being well developed. The book also contains Jissavet's story, which Samatar manages to make tragic and deeply moving without falling into the trap of idealising her; particularly important as we are experiencing her through Jevick's eyes, and he falls in love with her. Jissavet is a fully developed character with flaws and foibles, and her own distinctive voice that we can hear clearly underneath Jevick's writing of her. Auram, for all his manipulative nature, is also well developed and sympathetic. While his actions may have plunged Olondria into a vicious religious war from which its written culture may not survive, we understand that his actions are motivated by the state sanctioned violence meted out against his people. The relationship between Miros, Auram's son who helps to free Jevick from the Priests of the Stone, is another compelling aspect of the book. The two characters' desperate journey through the frozen wastes of the east recalls very much Ai Genly and Estraven's similar journey in Ursula Le Guin's 'The Left Hand Of Darkness', as two friends from very different cultural backgrounds come to better understand and respect each other, and is similarly moving. However what really makes Samatar's character work noteworthy is the extent to which she develops every character who appears, no matter how minor. Samatar goes to great length to ensure that everyone who appears in the book, such as the poor families who shelter Jevick and Miros on their journey east, all have interior lives and motivations for their actions. This deep understanding and empathy for all her characters is part of what gives the book its extraordinary depth.