Wednesday, September 4, 2013

WisCon Rapidfire Book Review #2: A Stranger on Olondria by Sofia Samatar

12814333

Another one of the books I discovered through WisCon--in fact, I discovered Stranger in Olondria through the little sampler pamphlets Small Beer Press handed out out at WisCon 2012. This was daring promotional tactic--because the first 50 pages of this story don't have much of the plot, though they gave a flavor for style. The style intrigued me enough that I was willing to wait for the plot, and wait I did: not only for a full year to see the book in the dealer's room, but then another month or so for my sister, who bought a copy, to finish reading it and bring it to DC when she visited this June.

And then I had the waiting period of rereading the first 50 pages.

Sofia Samatar's prose is lush. Very lush. As lush as the verdant forests of Jennat, where in the evenings spice-scented mists rose and are taken for ghosts by the taro farmers on the slopes above (not an actual quote, but my attempt to mirror the style). Some might say too lush.

I love rich description--I'm currently reading E.R. Eddison--but there comes a point where further detail is only detracting from the story rather than setting the scene. When Jevick is given a mystic book, it doesn't matter to me that the book comes wrapped in "old silks the color of a fallen tooth" (page 158). A small thing, and one that doesn't detract from the story as a whole, but still, let's just say that line exercised my eyebrows.

The lush description builds up a setting that is rather hodgepodge--at first, given the opening, I thought Olondria would be an alternative India or other South Asian setting, but in the end there's bits of everywhere, people wear monocles and skullcaps, sit in parlors and cafes bearing swaths of silk in un-Victorian profusion, eat pears poached in wine and drink chocolate (which to my mind either implies a Columbian Exchange in this alternate universe or just proves there is no North American analogue). This is actually the kind of creatively anachronistic, stylishly rich worldbuilding I love, and it excuses the level of description--when nothing can be taken for granted, a writer should tell the readers enough details to get by. One particular set of details I loved: Jevick frequently quotes other writers from the world of Olondria, which reminded me of more classic writers and their tradition of allusions. It's a great way to immediately add depth to the text, and I should note that Samatar takes a gamble by using actual excerpts from the fictional books, and successfully pulls them off (to show how hard this is generally recognized as being, in the words of Making Light on the Most Interesting Writer in the World: "18: (S)He once wrote a novel whose protagonist was a better writer than him./ 20: And included quotations proving it.")

As a ghost story, its mood is more melancholy than horrific. I want to compare it to The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, for the rich tour of the world with a quest at the heart of it (a quest that starts off personal and turns out to have stakes on a much greater scale). However, there is not a hint of H.P. Lovecraft's virulent racism (hopefully this is clear from both the cover and the fact that the book was at WisCon; it lands on the opposite end of the racefail-o-meter). And books are the emotional touchstone instead of cats. You can quote me on that.

Back to the opening: this is a story that begins with the narrator's childhood. Most of the characters introduced on the Spice Islands stay on the Spice Islands, and I don't feel this part ties in well to what happens when Jevick eventually reaches Olondria. They're called back to, but not as strongly integrated as I'd wished. Once you get past that, the story picks up pace and is in the end tightly told--individual descriptions may fail to add to the story (at least it could be argued so) but the actual events unroll with a subtle inevitability. There is little repetition--except for the part where we get a second narrative of a different character growing up in the Spice Islands. Perhaps Jevick's childhood is presented to parallel hers. I'll keep that theory in mind should I sit down to reread A Stranger in Olondria anytime soon. It is the sort of book--poetic, complex, soft-spoken--that benefits, I'm sure, for rereading.

And ultimately, it is a story about reading. Not in a pat moral sense--it's not The Reading Rainbow for grownups (not that anything is wrong with Reading Rainbow!). But with that theme in mind...well, as I said, I'm sure this story benefits from rereading. To do that, you need to read it the first time around. And you should.

Links:
Goodreads
Amazon
Alibris
Barnes and Noble
Buy a used copy, protect trees & fund literacy programs through Better World Books