My father is a palm
and my mother is a jacaranda tree.
I go sailing from Ilavet to Prav
in my boat, in my little skin boat.
Jo Walton is an inveterate recommender of books. In 2014, she published What Makes This Book So Great, a collection of 130 essays about fantasy and science fiction books she loves. The protagonist of her Hugo and Nebula winning novel, Among Others, talks incessantly about the books she read. In like fashion, Ms Walton’s latest novel, Or What You Will, mentions Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria (among other works) and positions it in a place of emotional resonance within her plot in which a character’s husband reluctantly picked up the book and ended up loving it, but before he could talk about it with her, he died in a heart attack. And even thought Ms Samatar’s book was mentioned just the once in the narrative, its shadow on the story felt longer. Both A Stranger in Olondria and Or What You Will are fantasy novels partially set in a place of great sophistication and cultural significance. Both prominently feature the acts of reading and the process of writing books. Both contend with the intersection between mortality, posterity, and literature.
I mention this because if it wasn’t for Ms Walton talking it up, I might not have chosen to read this book.
The story follows Jevick, the younger son of a pepper merchant who grew up under the tutelage of an Olondrian teacher, and as a result, he cultivated a deep abiding longing for the distant land of Olondria—the source of all the books and poetry he loves. When an opportunity arose for him to join his household’s annual trip to Olondria, Jevick jumped at the chance and did what all of us would do: visit the sights that he had hitherto only read about, dive into random book shops, get robbed, get haunted by the ghost of an illiterate girl—y’know, tourist stuff. That’s just the beginning. Olondria then proceeded to change Jevick irrevocably and Jevick, in an extraordinary series of events, caused Olondria to change in turn.
For a book written about the wonders, seductions and fashionability of fictional Olondria, I found myself drawn more to Jevick’s home in the Tea Islands, where the story began. And if truth be told, the book only came truly to life for me in the final third when we return to the the Tea Islands again, through the eyes of the ghost girl. In contrast to the parts told from Jevick’s perspective, which are prettily written (and sometimes overwritten), this latter story-within-a-story, this novella within the novel, tells a more compelling and less pretentious tale—one which is stark, tragic, and devastating. And more importantly, it puts everything I read about Olondria before it into context, much in the same way reality provides dreams with context.
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.
A Stranger in Olondria is one of those works that brave the waters of genre fiction when it doesn’t have to and while it won plenty of genre acclaim, it gives some vindication to the reluctance of the Margaret Atwoods and Kazuo Ishiguros of the literary world in identifying their works as either sci-fi or fantasy. In fact, I suspect A Stranger in Olondria might have found more success if it was packaged with a more abstract cover art (or no cover art) with its author and title printed in giant block letters that screams “LITERARY FICTION” in all caps because it doesn’t seem like the sort of work that usually plays well with the fantasy crowd.
Still, as a fantasy, I admire the depth of its world-building. There is not a moment in the story when I wasn’t utterly convinced that the Tea Islands and Olondria are real places with real and diverse people, beliefs, histories, and traditions. Ms Samatar pulled a similar trick to the one Susanna Clarke pulled with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in suffusing A Stranger with fictional scholars and scholarship, fictional folklore, and fictional publications. And even though Ms Samatar (probably) did not invent entire functional languages and writing systems the way Mr Tolkien did, language remained a sturdy scaffold on which she built her world. We are constantly reminded of the differences between Jevick’s mother tongue and Olondrian, and we get even details like how Jevick’s name is often pronounced Shevick by Olondrians (perhaps a reference to Shevek of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, another famous stranger in a foreign land). Her text is seasoned generously with invented words from both languages which she usually decline to explain, trusting that the context in which they are used would convey their meaning. There is also an abundance of poetry that adorn and punctuate the story, and reading them, I felt a little nostalgic. Few modern fantasy authors use language and poems and songs to build their houses, and fewer still are able to build them well.
Read A Stranger in Olondria if you are in a mood for something slower, something that takes the time to drink up the sights. Read A Stranger in Olondria for a story that meditates on the meanings of books, and the reading and writing thereof. Read A Stranger in Olondria if you believe that the act of telling one’s story can change the world.