Jevick grows up the son of a prosperous pepper-merchant and his two wives on the island of Tinimavet, one of the Tea Islands, where people take much stock in the power of spirits and gods, good and bad luck. Far across the sea is the country of Olondria, famed for its beauty, culture, and its prolificity of books. Jevick, whose homeland does not possess a written version of their language, let alone books, drinks up the words written by famed Olondrian writers provided to him by his tutor, who also teaches him the language. Following his father’s death, Jevick is finally able to journey to the land he has studied and dreamed of, eager to immerse himself in all he has read about. All goes perfectly until the raucous celebration known as the Feast of Birds, for upon its end, Jevick wakes up to find the ghost of a young woman from his homeland has attached itself to him, a ghost that torments him with vivid, agonizing visions almost nightly. To rid himself of the ghost, Jevick seeks the help of a priestly cult dedicated to the goddess of Love and Death, and so becomes caught up in a political and religious struggle he neither knew about nor cared. The only way for Jevick to free himself of the ghost is to write her story. In doing so, Jevick will need to bridge the gap between Tinimavet and Olondria—their cultures, their words, and their stories.
A Stranger Olondria is an exceptionally literary fantasy, and by that I mean this is a book where the vast majority of its power and grace comes from the writing itself. It’s evident how much work went into choosing and arranging every single word and sentence. Samatar’s prose is elegant and melodious, and its smooth flow is consistent throughout the rise and fall of action. The section I’m about to quote is lengthy, but worth it:
“The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one had, so light in the other, thinning toward the end. Still, you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window; there were still a few pages under your thumb, still to be sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly?—No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining words! And there—the end of the book. The hard cover which, when you turn it, gives you only this leather stamped with old roses and shields.
Then the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world. You look up. It’s a room in an old house. Or perhaps it’s a seat in a garden, or even a square; perhaps you’ve been reading outside and you suddenly see the carriages going by. Life comes back, the shadows of leaves. Someone comes to ask what you will have for dinner, or two small boys run past you, wildly shouting; or else it’s merely a breeze blowing a curtain, the white unfurling into a room, brushing the papers on a desk. It is the sound of the world. But to you, the reader, it is only a silence, untenanted and desolate. This is the grief that comes when we are abandoned by the angels: silence, in every direction, irrevocable.
As is evident from the synopsis and quoted passage, A Stranger in Olondria is a story of reading, writing, language, and stories as cultural modes of existence. Jevick understands Tinamavet and Olondria as two different places not just through differences in history and religions, for example, but through Olondria’s status as a land of literacy and the written word and Tinamavet’s as an illiterate land whose history and belief system are codified through tales and rituals concerning luck, prosperity, and the loss thereof passed down through generations. As demonstrated in the story, language and the writing thereof has the power to inform and delineate cultural identity, and the form of its existence is also a reflection of that culture’s own lack of understanding. The Olondrian language has no word for “ghost,” and so Olondrians can only conceptualize of the spirit that haunts Jevick as an “angel,” which means he is a holy man to some and an enemy of the state to others. None of them are accurate to what Jevick knows she is in his first language Kideti—a ghost.
Similarly, A Stranger of Olondria calls into question the idea that you can understand a country solely through its writers. Jevick arrives at Olondria confident in his ability to exist as an Olondrian during his stay—he knows the language, and he’s read all the stories, so surely he’s set, right? Yet when interested factions in Olondria learn of his ghostly affliction, Jevick is tossed into a maelstrom of Olondrian religion and politics and beliefs he knew nothing about.
The story itself is part traditional quest story and part travelogue. Much of the book strongly reminded me of the travelogues I read for a European history class, written by Englishmen and includes a plethora of snippets about each town and city Jevick passes through and factoids about the different people who live there, their customs, etc. Also included are quotes from the Olondrian writers Jevick’s read describing these places in their own reverent words. While there is no magic per se in this universe beyond the ghost haunting Jevick, Olondria appears to be magical place because of the words its writers use to capture the magnificence they see, and so too Jevick sees Olondria as an inherently magical place.
I’ve spilled a lot of words about A Stranger in Olondria’s literary qualities and thematic elements, and that’s because those are the things that impressed and stood out to me. I found the first two chapters covering Jevick’s childhood in Tinamavet to be fascinating, but once Jevick got to Olondria I grew more detached from and his journey. A Stranger in Olondria’s power lies so strongly in its ideas and writing that the action of the story itself was comparably dull and overly protracted from Jevick’s first becoming haunted by the ghost to finally doing what needs to be done to set her free. The subtitle of the book is “Being the Complete Memoirs of the Mystic, Jevick of Tyom,” and that’s the problem—the story contained in this book reads like what should have been one story amongst hundreds lived and written by Jevick instead of just the one novel-length one I could easily see as being part of grander piece of writing.
In the end, I can’t say I fully enjoyed reading A Stranger in Olondria—it’s beautifully and lushly written, the world-building is an astounding feat in and of itself, and I am always a fan of stories about stories, but funnily enough didn’t contain enough story in and of itself in its 300 pages of text printed in a minuscule typeface. I am still intrigued by Sofia Samatar’s companion novel The Winged Histories which tells the interlinked stories of four Olondrian women fighting in the same conflict. Hopefully I will grok this new novel more than its predecessor.