A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
In A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar takes us on a journey that is as familiar and foreign as a land in a dream. It’s a study of two traditions, written and oral, and how they intersect. Samatar uses exquisite language and precise details to craft a believable world filled with sight, sound and scent.
The book follows Jevick, who journeys from Bain, the Harbor City of the land of Olondria to a distant valley, on a quest to settle the ghost that haunts him. Along the way, he becomes a pawn between two warring political factions, and learns much about this strange land he is visiting.
Jevick is the second son of a wealthy pepper grower in the Tea Islands. His father brings back a tutor from Olondria, who teaches Jevick to read and write. This opens the world of books for Jevick, whose culture relies mostly on poems and stories that are sung or spoken.
Jevick’s home is beautifully described. You can almost feel the air freshen after a rain, smell the scent of the flowers or fish. Jevick’s mother, his father’s second wife, is well-realized in just a few paragraphs, as is the childless, bitter first wife. Jom, Jevick’s older brother, should be the heir, but Jom is a simple soul, unable to take on the family business.
Jevick’s father is puzzling and dynamic, a subject of love and fear for Jevick.
I do not know if he was cruel. I know that he was powerful; I know that he loved power and could not endure defiance. I do not know why he brought me a tutor out of a foreign country only to sneer at me, at my tutor, at my loves. I do not know what it was that slept inside his cunning mind, that seldom woke to give his eyes, for a moment, a shade of sorrow; I do not know what it was that sprang at his heart and killed him, that struck him down in the paradise of the fields, in the wealth of pepper.
It is Jevick who must bring the harvest to market in Bain. On the ship he meets a young island woman dying of a wasting disease. Her mother is taking her to a place called Aleilen, where the priests might have a cure. Despite the traditional fear of the disease, Jevick, who is fearless and bursting with curiosity, talks to the young woman, and they exchange names. Hers is Jissavet of Kiem.
Jevick is seduced by the beauty and strangeness of the city of Bain, but before long he is captivated, not in a good way, by something else. He is being haunted by Jissavet’s ghost. The priests in the valley did not have a cure, and they put her body into the earth to molder instead of burning it cleanly, as her tradition requires. The haunting is like a sickness or a madness. In Bain, to be haunted is an act of rebellion against the Priests of the Stone, the religious faction supported by the country’s king. Jevick is brought before the Priest, who determines he is mad and has him put in an asylum.
The followers of the goddess Alavei find him and help him escape. He becomes a figurehead in their revolution, because they think that talking to a ghost, or an angel, as they call Jissavet, is a sign that Jevick is sacred.
Samatar deals with themes of atonement and redemption, reading and storytelling, and politics, all without becoming preachy or stepping onto a soapbox. Jevick is often an innocent narrator; telling us what he is seeing without understanding it, particularly some of the political discussions. All Jevick wants to do is give Jissavet peace, but he can’t disentangle himself from the people who want to manipulate him.
My favorite parts of A Stranger in Olondria were the moments when Jevick just describes, in innocent wonder, the beauty of his surroundings, still managing to include a layer of foreboding or irony.
Bain, the Gilded House, the Incomparable City, splits the southern beaches with the glinting of her domes. On either side the sands stretch out, pale, immaculate, marked with graceful palms whose slender figures give no shade. Those sands, lashed by rain in winter, sun-glazed in the summer, give the coast the look of a girl in white, the Olondrian color of mourning. Yet as one approaches the harbor this illusion is stripped away: the city asserts itself, Bain the exuberant, the exultant.
Descriptions of alien, beautiful and frightening events like the Festival of Birds completely create the sense of foreignness, of being an outsider and participating in something you do not, and cannot, fully understand.
Jissa, the ghost or angel, is a less likeable character than Jevick, but she is completely believable. She is trapped in a place between death and life, just as in life she was someone trapped between two castes. As she tells her story to Jevick, she becomes more sympathetic to us.
Samatar charts the shift of storytelling from an oral tradition to a written one. The two factions in Olondria both see the country’s vast libraries as strategic targets to be controlled or destroyed, unlike Jevick, who sees them as wonders. In the end, whatever happens in Olondria, storytelling, both oral and written are preserved, and Jevick has become a mystic, a saint.
The book explores lots of themes, and there is plenty to chew over and think about. Ultimately, though, for me the beauty of Samatar’s exquisite prose captivated me.
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