A not-too-perfect Stranger
On a brisk December evening, a hardy band of Beamers gathered for a brisk discussion of A Stranger in Olondria, the debut novel by Sofia Samatar. A coming-of-age story and a ghost story and a love letter to the printed word all in one, the various flavors intrigued but somehow did not move the Beamers to like it.
Bright Lights, Big City, Books!
A relatively short (299 pages) work, A Stranger in Olondria scored a number of fantasy awards when it was published in 2013. Ms. Samatar, who teaches African languages and literature at California State University, details a world where the idea of literacy is still being promulgated. Our protagonist, Jevick of Tyom, is educated enough to know his numbers, but when his merchant father brings a mainland teacher back to their island home, Jevick is amazed to discover that language can be written down, just like numbers. The novel tosses out quite a few moments of praise to the printed word, as Jevick (like most of his readers, no doubt) is in love with books. Cathy, who found only a few moments in the book that resonated, was enthused by Jevick’s first encounter with a bookstore in the major city of Bain, an experience that she connected to her own visit to Charles Dickens’s grave in Westminster Abbey. Still, the use of literature in the book, invented for the sake of the story, did not seem to carry the same emotional weight for her.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
The detailing of the world of Olondria (itself a major continent, it seems) was a strong point for most Beamers, though sometimes too much for one, not enough for another. Ms. Samatar builds in a lot of folklore and folk tales and folk songs, which help ground some of the cultural patterns and taboos, but also left some of us wondering about more specific beliefs and practices that were not discussed. The issue of burial versus cremation, around which hinges the main plot point of the book, Jevick being haunted by the restless ghost of a young woman whom he barely knew, had us argue over whether we understood the force of the religious obligation and how it could be enforced. Gods are invoked, and their parables recited, but do they exist? Ghosts (“angels” in one euphemistic belief system) do seem to have the power to communicate, and the mediums who can (or at least say that they can) develop cult followings, much to the displeasure of the authorities. But, is it only beliefs at stake, or is it a clash of realities?
Love will Conquer All of Our Books
The nature of the relationship between Jevick and Jissavet, the woman with a terminal disease who is socially shunned, had us discuss the nature of attraction and the various levels of commitment that Jevick’s culture allowed. While most of us felt that Jevick had fallen in love with the rather obstreperous Jissa, we had a harder time deciding if she loved him, a love that could occur only after her death. Why, then, did she choose to haunt him? Assuming, of course, that ghost/angels have a choice. We could not quite pin it down.
The various relationships in the book that get any attention, too, almost to a one seem to be, if not tragic, at least unhappy. Arranged marriages and illicit affairs between lovers abound, both in “real life” and in the illustrative stories that are recited for Jevick’s enlightenment. Jevick’s relationship with his domineering father struck most of us as one of child abuse, if not neglect, for reasons that never seemed to be put into clear terms. Jevick was a dutiful son, with a good intellect, but he never appeared to be trained as his father’s apprentice, much less his eventual successor. And only one marriage in the book struck me as being a positive relationship, that between Jissa’s father and mother, one which the father explained was a “sorrow” that he preferred to the one he left at his parents’ estate. Ms. Samatar is romantic about literature, but not about life.
A Tragedy for Those who Feel, a Comedy for Those who Think
One point that brought out a lot of our puzzlement with the moral underpinnings of the novel involved the tragic love between Jevick’s teacher and the woman he left behind, the high priest’s daughter, Tialon. At the conclusion, after coming home, Jevick delivers a packet of her love letters to her exiled paramour. He had subsequently married and settled in the islands, so the reminder of his past comes as a painful shock. Was Jevick being cruel in making the delivery? Kathy thought so, but several of us rallied to say that Jevick, feeling a debt of honor to Tialon, who treated him kindly and honestly, had to honor his word to her. Liz also pointed out that it can be presumptuous to refuse the delivery on the grounds that Jevick should “know better” about how his teacher would feel than to allow the man to face his own emotions and decide on his own.
And it plays a parallel role to Jevick himself not being able to forget Jissavet, despite enacting the ritual to free her spirit to the Great Beyond. It lends the book a very bittersweet flavor, one that I enjoyed, but not one that everyone necessarily likes. Well, to be fair, Kathy did like the final metaphor that Jevick uses to explain his sorrow at knowing that he will lose Jissavet, comparing it to the insatiable reader coming, inexorably, to the end of a favorite book, unable to stop but also knowing that moment of disorientation when the book releases its hold on the imagination and the world rushes back in. Sigh.
The Cost of Paper Rises
The issue of paper versus flesh also came under discussion in regard to the religious war that is abetted by Jevick’s quest to free Jissavet. Jevick’s patron, the high priest of a banned religion, is happy to manipulate Jevick and sacrifice his own followers to provoke ever greater outrages by the king’s soldiers, all in the interest of triggering a rebellion to re-establish his sect’s freedom to practice. Libraries will be burned, Jevick protests. Prices must be paid, the high priest agrees. I found the high priest to be a curiously sympathetic character, one who was as willing to offer himself to risks as to offer his followers and one who was a man of his word. Not everyone agreed, though we did agree that the character was not a one-dimensional villain. Ms. Samatar could offer very well-rounded characters, even if few Beamers found them interesting enough to be protagonists of an epic fantasy.
The Emperor of Everything is Naked
I liked the smaller scale of the characters, though, and found Jevick, in particular, to be one who escaped the frequent trap of fantasy novels where the main character is all-important (“You are the Chosen One”, is the cliched quip). Jevick is important to the story, but he is not the be-all and end-all of every other character’s decisions and actions. (Looking at you, Harry P.!) But that off-center perspective did not appeal, in general.
Liz was left unsatisfied by the lack of clarity, partly stemming from Jevick as an outsider learning about Olondrian society and partly from his being a tool in the hands of others instead of actively shaping his own destiny. Donna was interested until Jevick became involved in the riotous Festival of Birds, which was the point at which Nick did find the narrative to become involving. Fran bounced off Jevick, finding his musings and his adventures to be less than engaging and getting a bit frustrated by the welter of details that seem to pile up without point or purpose. Much was carefully foreshadowed in the work, but to what end?
In the end, we gave A Stranger in Olondria a bare passing mark, mainly from its own literary qualities of graceful prose and careful attention to detail, a good exercise in world-building. But, all exercise and no play makes for a dull read, one that few Beamers would find worth recommending to fellow fantasy fans.