A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar
A Stranger in Olondria Cover



I'm having a hard time deciding what I want to say about Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. I had been saving it as a treat. I wanted to read it when I could devote a lot of time to it and absorb myself in it. It sounded like my kind of book, an Eastern-inspired fantasy. However, I was not as enamored with the book as I hoped.

The book is very slow, and the writing is lush. Therefore, it is a book that requires patience. The slowness bothered me more than the lushness. The writing is beautiful, and Samatar does create the mood of the exotic East: "Before us rose the ancient ruin of Jajetanet the Desired, that city so old that none could remember who it was that had desired it, that city of ghosts inhabited by the ashes of the dead, where damp mists crept along the walls and a brooding presence lingered." And "I sat enchanted, far from my gods, adrift in the boat of spices, in the sigh of the South, in the net of wheeling starts, in the country of dolphins." I marked so many passages to use as examples of the books lushness, the most evocative of these passages are the ones that deal with books and reading. In fact, much of the first part of a book is a paean to reading: "'A book,' says Vandos of Ur-Amakir, 'is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.'" And the conclusion of the book demonstrates the power of writing and storytelling.

The reason for this bookishness in the plot. Jevick of Tyom is the son of a pepper merchant. In Tyom there are no books and the only writing seems to be numbers carved on blocks to keep accounts. Jevick's father, who routinely travels to Olondria to trade, returns with an Olondrian tutor for Jevick. The tutor brings with him books. Jevick, who takes to reading very quickly, grows up with a desire to visit Olondria and experience the marvels he's read about: "In their pages I entered, for the first time, the tree-lined streets of Bain, and walked in the Garden of Plums beside the city's green canal. I fought with the rebel Keliadhu against Thul the Heretic, and watched the sky fill with dragons, unfurling fires like cloth of gold.... My dreams were filled with battles, haunted woods, and heroic voyages, and the Drevedi, the Olondrian vampires whose wings are like indigo."

However, when Jevick arrives in Olondria, he finds that it is not the idyllic place he imagined. There is a division between governing and religious factions. Currently, an Apollonian system of politics and faith co-exist, but a formerly powerful orgiastic cult dedicated to a mother/death goddess still exists and challenges the very logical powers. Through a chance encounter with a dying girl who learns from him the power of books, Jevick becomes a pawn who both factions want to control because of his ability to see her ghost. His freedom, from the factions and from the ghost, must come through his own actions, not the "help" of either side. While the political machinations of the Olondrians become a bit tiresome to read, the second half of the book reads much faster. Furthermore, the "solution" to Jevick's ghost problem makes very compelling reading. I read the last part really quickly, and surprisingly was sorry when the book ended. This gave me hope for Samatar's next book.