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Sep 01

Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Here’s a description of the novel from the Small Beer website:

Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

The website also states:

A Stranger in Olondria… is a rich and heady brew which pulls the reader in deeper and still deeper with twists and turns that hearken back to the Gormenghast novels while being as immersive as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

I’ve no idea how the novel compares against Martin or Peake because I haven’t read either series.  But given what Samatar says on the Coode Street podcast the comparison to Peake, at least, seems about right.  The book is definitely immersive, though.  Twisty and turny not so much.

Now, compare the Small Beer Press description with what’s on Goodreads:

A Stranger in Olondria is a skillful and immersive debut fantasy novel that pulls the reader in deeper and deeper with twists and turns reminiscent of George R. R. Martin and Joe Hill.

Joe Hill… I think that’s pulling a very long bow.

One of the key features of A Stranger in Olondria is its lyrical and evocative prose.  This isn’t a case of a writer using 10 words when they could use 3.  Rather each word feels like it’s been chosen with great care and purpose.  And for a novel that’s about language and storytelling this should come as no surprise.

But one thing that struck me about the writing is its clarity.  Take this small section as an example:

After the rains the city was tranquil and glittering, freshly washed, the high roofs shining, the trees iridescent with moisture, and all seemed calm and quiet because of the passing storm.  The clear air sparkled with the cold light of diamonds.  The wind coming off the sea were cool, and there was no dust in the city; it had all been washed away with the heat and the discomfort, and the sky had been washed as well and rose in pale, diaphanous layers of ether, streaked with gauzy clouds in blue and gold.  Slowly the cafes emptied and the waiters sat down to play londo.  Children came out to race painted boats in the gutters; they laughed and shouted down the wet streets in the opalescent air, while above them white-shawled grandmothers dragged chairs out onto the balconies.

Not only does this clearly establish a sense of place, but it reads so well.  The words just slide straight from the eye into the mind with a direct line to the imagination.  And it’s gorgeous clarity like this that gives the novel its immersive quality.

Not everyone agrees though.  Ana Grilo writing for Kirkus states:

Olondria’s prose is poetic, detailed and richly depictive. It is exactly the type of writing that I personally find most difficult to engage with because I often feel that the careful construction of the writing has trumped all else. The storytelling literally tells a lot and describes everything. On a positive note, this is good since it creates a great sense of place. But it doesn’t really serve the story very well, as the richness of description didn’t quite transfer into a richness of character development. Things happen to Jevick, and he describes them in-depth—yet I never got a real sense of who he was. This stranger in Olondria remains a complete stranger to me.

Obviously I disagree.  I think Jevick comes alive through both the writing but also his own research into language and literature.  It’s only later in the book – as I point out below – that Jevick and the novel as a whole fall flat.  But that wasn’t due to the poetry and richness of Samatar’s prose.  In fact I love how she scatters snippets from other authors through the book, including the retelling of a number of creation myths that only add vibrancy to this world and these characters that Samatar has crafted.

What hurt the novel for me is something Cheryl Morgan points out in her review of the book.  She says:

I have a small niggle with the book’s structure in that, when Jevick finally gets to make his peace with Jissavet and hear her life story, the book gets side-tracked somewhat. It is a very long section, told in a fairly disjointed manner. Had I been editing the book, I might have asked if some of Jissavet’s story could not have been revealed earlier so as to break that up.

I couldn’t agree more, but for me it was more than a niggle.  I appreciate that the story of Jissavet is a critical element of the novel, however I found that it weighed down the last third of the book.  It’s depressing and tragic and sad but also feels like it’s made its point about a third of the way through its telling.  For me this meant that when we finally return to Jevick and his plight I discovered I’d stopped caring, I just wanted the novel to end.  And it’s a shame because A Stranger in Olondria builds to an emotional conclusion as Jevick returns home and his story comes full circle.  The book did take 10 years to write and I wonder whether the placement of Jissavet’s story and its length was something that Samatar debated.

In the end, though, I think A Stranger in Olondria should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the fantasy genre.  The writing alone is a masterclass in imagery, clarity and sense of place and nearly overcomes any of the novels structural deficiencies.

5 comments

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  1. gregmce

    Thanks Ian! I’ve been dying to read this book ever since it was announced, and I bought a copy from Weightless that I’ve yet to start. Soon… soon… soon…

    1. Mondyboy

      Well if you ever do read it (no pressure) I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

  2. Sean the Bookonaut

    Bought it. 🙂

  3. Sean the Bookonaut

    So you know the pressure is on Ian – you said it was mandatory 🙂

    1. Mondyboy

      Yes I did. But only if you’re serious about fantasy genre? Are you serious Sean, are you?!

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