Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick travels in his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, his life is as close to becoming perfect as he can imagine. But as he revels in the Feast of Birds, he becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl from his own country.
In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests, becoming a pawn in the struggle between the empire’s two most powerful political factions. As civil war looms, Jevick must face his ghost and learn her story: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.
Sofia Samatar’s 2013 novel is probably the key work behind her Campbell Award nomination in this year’s upcoming Hugo Awards. A Stranger In Olondria is a fascinating, unusual sort of a book, to the extent that it isn’t easy to talk about it…
Samatar’s debut is a strange, fascinating novel, something of a travelogue or memoir. A Stranger In Olondria is the story of Jevick, and his life; interspersed in it, like a less dull Tolkein, are fragments of other stories, and quotations from works Jevick has read, and references and allusions within the world. Perhaps the best way to view this novel is as a literary memoir; every experience Jevick has is mediated by the books he has read, an experience I suspect will be very familiar to many of Samatar’s readers. This is most obvious when Jevick describes a place to his reader; these descriptions are full of quotes, often starting with a series of them, before going onto more concrete descriptions.
A Stranger In Olondria is magnificently worldbuilt, both by the quotes and their implications, and more broadly. Samatar has really applied herself to this world, and it his history, economics, power relations, religion and religious change, and more. The different circumstances of different people within the same “group” are fascinating, as there’s no good or bad system, just different ones with different impacts. Samatar’s worldbuilding realises this political reality fascinatingly, alongside a vivid world that includes all manner of geographies and lives; every visual is beautifully presented to the reader, and A Stranger In Olondria leaps off the page.
Its characters are similarly well realised. Jevick, especially, comes off as the educated person who stands between two cultures; he is the titular Stranger In Olondria but also becomes a stranger in his own homeland due to his particularly Olondrian learning. It’s a brilliant character portrait as we see the bookish young man encounter so much, go through so many trials, and both change and remain essentially the same; it’s a wonderful thing to see someone like Jevick as the protagonist of a novel, someone so instantly recognisable and relatable to every geek out there.
That’s not to say he’s Samatar’s only excellent character; indeed, A Stranger In Olondria has a cast full of brilliant, diverse, well-realised characters. Each individual has a different personality, background, and most visibly, voice. That diversity of cast has a really powerful effect on the novel and brings it to life; it is unfortunate that it applies to race and (binary) gender, but neither outside the binary nor to sexuality, an unfortunate blot on Samatar’s novel.
A Stranger In Olondria is, then, a beautiful book, a fascinating book, a book about books, love, travel, experience; it is one of those fantasy novels that stick with you long after finishing it, and congratulations to Samatar for such a brilliant, satisfying debut work.