This is so not a review of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which has won many fantasy awards. Here is an insightful (and probably too spoilery for some) review from Nic Clarke at Strange Horizons, which I’d claim to agree with if I had read carefully enough to have thought of these things. And here is a more negative perspective from Ana of the Booksmugglers at Kirkus (I agree the book is distancing and the narrator, Jevick remains a cipher, but I think this is deliberate; and though I don’t normally like “poetic” language, I did like this).
Here’s the basic plot: Jevick comes from Tyom, an island village that has no writing; his merchant father brings home a tutor from Olondria who teaches Jevick to read and write. At last, the young man gets to visit Olondria, where he becomes haunted by a ghost who wants him to write her story, and as a result is caught up in a politico-religious struggle his tutor never warned him about. One of the interesting things about the book is that there are epic fantasy events going on around the edges, but Jevick is never fully aware of them, though he helps set them in motion. What he is, more than anything, is a conduit for stories; not just Jissavet the ghost but all kinds of other people tell him stories he records as part of his own.
Here are a few things I wanted to say about reading this book:
1. I really liked the depiction of the ghost (in Olondria, she’s called an angel). Her appearance is terrifying and painful to Jevick, until he learns to talk to her. She’s flashing light and clanging noises and he screams and faints when she comes to him. This reminded me of the Bible, when angels who appear to people always have to say “Be not afraid,” because encountering a being from another realm, crossing between worlds, would be terrifying.
And because the ghost wants Jevick to write her story, I thought of the ghostly encounters as a metaphor for reading, that strange crossing into another world, intimate encounter with another mind, to which we surrender ourselves for a while. Why don’t we see reading as stranger, more terrifying?
2. Samatar made me think about the pure enchantment of reading, and how hard it is for me to find and hold on to it now. In part, I think of this in a Romantic (in the literary sense) way, as a fall from childhood innocence, the pure absorption I could find then, into adult experience and distraction: “nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,” blah blah blah (really, I love Wordsworth). Here’s how Samatar captures that enchantment:
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 hand, 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.
Reading as an image of mortality, of the journey through life. Reading as enchantment, bewitching you away into another world, then returning you changed to this one.
How hard it can be to feel this enchantment. I didn’t manage it entirely with A Stranger in Olondria, conscious always of a library deadline, sometimes wishing there were fewer pages under my thumb, Hurry, hurry, on to the next!
I thought about my time as a romance-reader, my enchantment and then, to a large extent, disenchantment. Why did that happen?
Some of it was my fall into experience of the genre, my increasing familiarity and changing expectations.
Some of it was Romanceland. Blogs and then Twitter nurtured my love of romance, no question. I had no real-life guide to the genre, so the internet became my aunt/grandmother/cousin with the proverbial grocery-bag full of Harlequins. Romanceland taught me not to think of the genre as a trashy guilty pleasure; the lively discussions and virtual friendships I found there have helped to keep me engaged with and interested in reading romance. This, too, was an enchanting delight to discover.
But in a way, I was more enchanted when I was secretly,wide-eyed, reading the trashy books I was ashamed to buy and hid in my bottom drawer. Romanceland (and the Bookternet more generally) provided a fall into experience, too. Because of it, I can seldom come to a book “innocent,” thinking just of the story between the covers. A book is now, for me, also a commodity, the product of an industry I know more about than I ever did before; it’s caught in the web of relationships and controversies and conversations about tropes and character types and fantasy and feminism and on and on that I’ve been part of over the years. There’s not so much silence beyond its covers as a faint buzz of voices I often can’t entirely shut off when I read.
I don’t know what to do about this. I think I’m romanticizing the pre-Romanceland days of my adulthood–even then, fully immersed reading was hardly a common experience for me. But I need a better balance between lively conversation and the quiet enchantment of “just me and a book.” (And, probably, I need fewer library holds with reading deadlines.) I want to be able to leave this world behind more often when I slip between the covers.
Thank you, Sofia Samatar, for reminding me of that.