Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

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.

 

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10 Responses to Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

  1. Ros says:

    “Oh, was it possible to read more slowly? –No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace.”

    I love that – it so perfectly captures the experience of reading a book that you’ve become fully immersed in. You don’t want it ever to end but you can’t stop yourself reading on.

  2. Wow that sounds like a fascinating premise!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It is, and I understand why the book won so many awards. I also really liked the fact that Olondria can’t be mapped onto our world in any simple way–it’s not “alternate medieval Europe” at all. There are echoes/fragments of our global South and East in the world she creates, certainly, but no precise analogues.

  3. Clarissa says:

    I love this line: “Why don’t we see reading as stranger, more terrifying?” Sometimes I wonder if I read TOO much, if that’s why the enchantment and sense of danger has been lost.

    I also find that the experience of being fully immersed in a book is rare these days, and it’s not a fault of the books I’m reading but of my English Lit training. Critical thinking is great, but sometimes I just don’t want to take apart a book or analyze it. This is why I often don’t teach my favourite books!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, this is an experience I share. The critical tools I’ve learned have enriched my reading in so many ways, but I’ve lost something, too. I wonder if part of enjoyment when initially reading romance was that I thought of it as “not very good,” as BENEATH my critical notice, and so it was easier to turn off that part of my brain? I’m glad I got past that judgment, but it had its uses. I had some of that same enjoyment when I first started reading children’s literature–beyond rereading my own childhood favorites–as an adult (I read the first Harry Potter in a new-mother fog). Then I started teaching it. . . .

      I think it’s partly because Jevick comes from a non-literate society that the book evokes the strangeness of reading so well. They have a number system, because they’re merchants and traders, but when he first sees a written alphabet he mistakes his name for the numbers 1-5 in Olondrian characters. The idea that WORDS could be written down is utterly alien to him. It made me want to go re-read Derrida on presence (only not really).

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    Somewhere in the universe, we’re forever linked. I’m convinced of it.

    I adore Wordsworth. To those who think his poetic imagination is infantile, fie on them. I can quote entire poems, which I treasure.

    ” sometimes wishing there were fewer pages under my thumb, Hurry, hurry, on to the next!”

    Yes, this. I feel like that a lot this year. Part of it is real life being crazy, part of it is reading non-romance, thus “harder” books. Part of it is just that my reading speed has, for some reason, dropped. I am simply not able to get those pages read at the speed I was used to. And the holds are piling up on my bedside table all clamoring to be read. I’m feeling hurried and oppressed. How’s that for dramatics?

    “Blogs and then Twitter nurtured my love of romance, no question.”

    Without a doubt. Also the message boards of yore. I’ve read far better romance novels since joining Romancelandia than the hit-n-miss of previous years.

    “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.) “

    Amen! I put holds on thinking it’ll be a while before my turn will come up and I wait and I wait and add more books to queues, and then suddenly they’re all on the hold shelf within a week of each other. Aiee!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My goal for Lent was to read from my TBR, with the exception of library books I *already* had on hold. So many have come in in the last few weeks that I read a grand total of 1? (no, I think 2) from the TBR in the last 5 weeks. I actually returned a couple of holds unread. I need to pace myself better!

      This is why I am resisting signing up for a book subscription service, at least for now. I’m sure there’s great stuff there, but when would I read it?

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