I was going to review Sofia Samatar’s book The Winged Histories, her companion novel to 2014’s A Stranger in Olondria, by simply saying, “This book is great, but don’t take my word for it; go read it.” Then I realized that not everyone will feel the way I feel about The Winged Histories. Instead of saying, “This book isn’t for everyone,” I’m going to aim this review at the people I do think it’s for.
Who are you? Well, here’s who you probably are:
If you liked A Stranger in Olondria for its vivid descriptions, its sense of a unique world, and its appealing characters, you will like The Winged Histories. You do not have to have read Stranger to understand The Winged Histories, which will sweep you up from the first few pages. The second book follows different characters (with some overlap) but takes place during the civil war that has started in the earlier book.
If you think Samatar has the ear and soul of a poet, you will love this book. Samatar knows how to pick a detail that is beautiful and precise, that reverberates with the character and the world. Whether it’s a pink peppercorn tree, an outdated almanac, or a broken statue of a goddess, I don’t think there is anyone writing right now who does this as well as she does. The world this story inhabits comes to life with each detail; each ride into the countryside, each aristocratic party, each battle, not by atlas-style descriptions but by those perfect details.
If One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, are favorites of yours, you will love how Samatar shows us a rebellion and a civil war through the lens of a central family. Each of the viewpoint characters (there are four main ones) brings not only a different perspective, but new information about a prince’s attempted coup and a warrior’s attempt to free her nation… or the rise of the Priest of the Stone.
If you like your magic and fantasy mysterious, hidden, peering out from the shadows and between the lines of the “official story,” you will love the Dreved.
If you are interested in works that explore and give a critique of colonialism and conquest, you will be intrigued by those themes in The Winged Histories. The main family, Tavis, Siski and their princely cousin Dasya, belong to one of the conquering families. How each one reacts to that heritage turns the story in unusual ways.
If you like stories that imagine how religions flourish, and how they function side-by-side with political power, or if you sometimes wonder how religious texts emerge, this is the book for you, because of the origins of The Stone, an artifact that takes on the aspect of a god, and the Priest of the Stone and his journey.
If you like stories where you see different facets of characters depending upon the narrator, this is the book for you, too. Tavis sees her sister Siski as glittering, social and brittle. She knows Siski is wounded somehow, but can’t imagine the depth of that wound; and neither can we until the last section of the book. And Tav, who was the younger and always saw herself as the tag-along, does not know that Siski sees her as strong and resolute.
If you love stories but distrust them, if you love language and can also see how it is used as a tool or a weapon in the maintenance of status quo, then read The Winged Histories. Seren is a poet of the nomadic people of Tav and Siski’s native nation Kestenya, and she shares her observations about writing:
… I don’t think writing is sorcery, something forbidden. I think it’s more like a comb, it separates your hair more easily than you could with your fingers. It’s like riding a horse instead of walking. You go to the same place but you can carry more. I think writing is a horse.
In the days of the sovoi, they used to stop us with paper. Look, you can’t go there, it’s written. No grazing here. No water. There was writing around the wells. They’d ask for our papers, their eyes innocent, their mouths holding cruel laughter.
“There was writing around the wells,” may be one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of how reading and writing become the weapons of “officialdom.”
If you like unreliable narrators, The Winged Histories may be the book for you. The priest’s daughter, a captive, occupies her time writing an account of her father’s rise to power. She is a scholar and her account is precise and detailed. As we read, though, we begin to doubt its accuracy. In another section, Samatar pulls off a clever switch, letting us think that what we are absorbing is part of an oral tradition when something very different is really happening. And the “From our Common History” sections are unabashedly propaganda (and well-written propaganda) designed to maintain the ruling faction.
Against this barrage of “official stories,” the tales of the Dreved, who have horns and, sometimes, wings, are lost scraps, disguised as campfire stories, songs and poems, but the questions of the Dreved are the most compelling in the book.
If you are interested in feminism and women’s societies; if you are interested in the transmission of political power, if you like political intrigue… well, I could go on, but I won’t. Instead, I will leave you with one more quote from the book:
Where are the Dreved books, and what is written in them? Dasya, I want to read the true Dreved histories.
So for some of you, and you who know who you are, I say, The Winged Histories is great, but don’t take my word for it. Go read it.